Offseason Cheatsheet: Linebackers

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Looking for some catch-up as Purdue looms just around the corner? Check out the Offseason Cheatsheets, your Du Lac approved crib-sheets that’ll get you ready for the 2010 season. For more, check out the quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends, wide receivers, and defensive backs.


As a group, there might not have been a position that underachieved like the linebackers. To a man, the roster was stacked with impressive recruits, yet the production didn’t come anywhere near the potential of the collective unit. While Manti Te’o found the field as a freshman, touted recruits like Steve Filer, Kerry Neal, and Darius Fleming disappeared for long stretches, stuck in neutral from either relegation to undersized defensive end or a back-up role in Jon Tenuta’s 4-3 system. Brian Smith took a step backwards, struggling with the transition to middle linebacker.  In retrospect, the underwhelming performance was understandable, nearly all the players on the roster were playing out of position, recruited for a 3-4 scheme long abandoned. But with Brian Kelly and Bob Diaco reimplementing the system each returning player was hand-picked for, there’s reason to believe one of the defensive’s biggest liabilities can become one of it’s biggest strengths.


Short a program? Here’s every linebacker listed on the roster:

     No.   Name                    Yr.    Ht./Wt.      Hometown/High School
      5      Manti Te’o             So.   6-2/245     Laie, HI (Punahou)
      8      Kendall Moore       Fr.   6-1/239     Cary, NC (Southeast Region)
     13     Danny Spond        Fr.   6-2/225      Littleton, CO (Columbine)
     30     Steve Paskorz      Sr.    6-1/246     Allison Park, PA (Hampton)
     36     David Posluszny   Jr.    6-0/235     Aliquippa, PA (Hopewell)
     44     Carlo Calabrese   So.   6-1/240     Verona, NJ (Verona)
     45     Darius Fleming     Jr.    6-2/247     Chicago, IL (St. Rita)
     46     Steve Filer            Jr.    6-3/235     Chicago, IL (Mount Carmel)
     48     Dan Fox                So.  6-3/230     Rocky River, OH (St. Ignatius)
     49     Derek Roback       Fr.   6-3/233     Waverly, OH (Waverly)
     50     Sean Oxley           Jr.    6-2/227     Avon Lake, OH (Avon Lake)
     53    Justin Utupo           Fr.   6-3/251     Lakewood, CA (Lakewood)
     54    Anthony McDonald Jr.   6-2/238     Burbank, CA (Notre Dame High School)
     55    Prince Shembo       Fr.  6-2/243     Charlotte, NC (Ardrey Kell)
     56    Kerry Neal               Sr.  6-2/246     Bunn, NC (Bunn)
     58    Brian Smith             Sr.  6-3/234     Overland Park, KS (St. Thomas Aquinas)
     63    Steve Bosford         Sr.  6-2/220     Arlington Heights, IL (St. Viator)


On Te’o: “There are guys that people gravitate towards. There are guys that set a
standard for the way they play. And right now it’s Te’o on

On McDonald and Calabrese: “We’d like Mac to play more physical, we’d like Calabrese to play with more finesse… Carlo, he’s a strong, physical kid. He wants to knock that guard out
every time. The problem is the tight end runs down the middle of the
field, he’s got to be covered by you once in a while. Mac on the other hand can cover that tight end down the middle of the
field all day long. Once in a while, that guard knocks him back five
yards. So, you know, it’s a combination of both of those.

On Neal: “He plays very physical. Very enthusiastic. Can run extremely well. Plays with an energy level, a high energy, at that position.”

On Smith: “I like to see Brian Smith out on the edge, he does a nice job of re-routing, he’s a natural out there.”

On Fleming:  I think just by describing what that person has to do tells you that
person has to be a unique athlete… Darius has that
athletic ability to do those two things. There are not a lot of those
guys out there.”

On Filer: “Steve was more interested in what kind of skateboard he had when I got
here,” Kelly said after practice. “He’s not that interested in skateboards anymore. He’s interested
in playing football, and that athletic ability is starting to show
itself on the football field.”

On Spond: “Danny Spond has been really, really dynamic. I don’t know that we have many guys
that play with their hands and can really shock you. He’s going to be
on all of our special teams as well.”

On Shembo: “We have run a lot of reps at him and we need to continue to rep him because he’s a good football player. Where do we like him? We like him on the field. He’s got some flexibility to play.”


With a philosophy switch, the Irish have gone from looking for linebackers that can play effectively to trying to find a way to get all their playmakers onto the field. With Darius Fleming entrenched at the “Cat” linebacker, the battle for the other outside position — the Dog — is a three-way battle between Brian Smith, Steve Filer, and Kerry Neal. I look for all three to get on the field in different ways, with Smith working mostly on passing downs .The battle for the inside spot next to Manti Te’o has been muddled with injuries to Anthony McDonald and Steve Paskorz, but I expect McDonald to end up seeing most of the playing time, with Carlo Calabrese pushing him every step of the way. Looking for a prediction? How about double-digit sacks for Darius Fleming, someone that’ll likely thrive as a hybrid pass-rusher like others have under Diaco. The Irish coaching staff is really high on freshmen Prince Shembo and Danny Spond, and I wouldn’t doubt if Spond’s athleticism helps him find a way into the “Dog-fight” as well. 


B. With Manti Te’o ready to take his game to the next level and Darius Fleming ready to dominate, the linebacking corp has taken a huge step in the right direction. If someone can stake claim to the Will inside ‘backer spot, the Irish will have their best linebacking unit in recent memory.  

Bye Week Mailbag: Now Open

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 15: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs the ball during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Notre Dame Stadium on October 15, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Stanford defeated Notre Dame 17-10. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

It’s been too long. Or maybe it hasn’t.

Against my better judgment, I’m opening up the mailbag. Drop your questions below or at Twitter @KeithArnold.

How we got here: The Defense

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

The first of a multi-part series as we look at the 2-5 Irish at the bye week. 


Notre Dame’s season was sunk by Brian VanGorder’s defense. That sentence is much easier to write after seeing the unit without its former coordinator. But it was just as clear after watching the Irish play their first four games of 2016 that Brian Kelly needed to make a change. The Irish gave up a combined 124 points in their three September defeats, a season-high for either yards or points (against FBS competition) for Texas, Michigan State and Duke.

For many VanGorder detractors, the move came four games too late. The Irish were plagued by big plays and schematic breakdowns throughout 2015 (and before), a fatal flaw of a defense filled with talented personnel that too often underperformed.

How did the Irish get here? Any why did Kelly make the decision to hire VanGorder—a decision that has already impacted his legacy in South Bend?

Let’s look back.



When Brian Kelly tapped VanGorder to replace Bob Diaco, he was hiring a coach who seemed like an evolutionary next step. While Diaco’s 3-4 base and point prevention philosophies were the perfect tonic for improving a team that was wrecked by the Tenuta era, Alabama undressed the Irish at the end of the 2012 season, a simplicity in Notre Dame’s scheme that received a few comments from Alabama players in the postgame glow that likely had Kelly wondering if they’d hit their ceiling.

That’s an important factor to remember when Kelly was hiring Diaco’s replacement. Because the foundation of the defense was well established. Kelly needed someone to build on top of it.

That likely made VanGorder’s pitch music to Kelly’s ears. Because while Diaco relied heavily on his base set, VanGorder’s DNA included sub-packages, complementary parts, Rex Ryan-inspired blitzes, and a philosophy that no throw would be conceded— underneath or otherwise.

Add to that Kelly’s personal relationship with VanGorder. Kelly had watched his former Grand Valley State colleague from the beginning of his career. He had seen him work with young players and believed in him as a teacher (something he referenced multiple times when he introduced VanGorder to the local media) before blazing his own trail, earning a head coaching opportunity at Wayne State, a high-profile coordinator position at Georgia and eventually making his way to the NFL—for a long time, farther up the food chain than Kelly.

Perhaps that was enough to dismiss his chaotic year at Auburn, when the Tigers season—and defense—went up in smoke as Gene Chizik was fired and VanGorder’s defense gave up 63 to No. 20 Texas A&M, 38 to No. 5 Georgia, and were blown out 49-0 to Alabama—after after mid-October.

But for a variety of reasons, likely his success turning to coaches with a personal connection, Kelly once again did so, hiring an NFL position coach who was a few years removed from being an elite-level coaching target for a vacancy that was a high-profile national opening.



The challenge with VanGorder’s struggles always seemed to be the caveats. Injuries decimated his first defense, a group that shutout Michigan and stymied Stanford, but crumbled by the end of the season, with USC naming a number and the Irish tumbling after giving up big, ugly scores to Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC.

The 2015 defense had strong moments—dominating Texas, holding Clemson to 24 points and nice wins over option opponents Georgia Tech and Navy—but obviously imploded late against Stanford and never stood a chance against Ohio State, with injuries once again leveling the depth chart.

But there were improvements. Between 2014 and 2015 VanGorder’s unit got a better handle on up-tempo attacks. An offseason committed to stopping the option saw those goals achieved with successful defensive performances against Georgia Tech and Navy. And even if VanGorder’s veteran-heavy 2015 unit was mostly moving on (the talent exodus is staggering now that you look at it), most had talked themselves into believing that Year Three would have better institutional knowledge for all, a depth chart ready to step in and perform.

[A necessary footnote: Luck certainly wasn’t on VanGorder’s side. Injuries, transfers and suspensions certainly didn’t do him any favors, either. Whether it was the disappearance of edge rushers—Kolin Hill, Jhonny Williams, Bo Wallace—or the loss of KeiVarae Russell and Max Redfield, injuries to Jarron Jones, Shaun Crawford, Nick Watkins and Drue Tranquill, there was always the defense VanGorder hoped to put on the field… and then the one that he actually did.]



Austin, Texas. Opening night, 2016.

The Irish defense was exposed against the Longhorns, shredded by both the power running attack and freshman Shane Buechele’s passing. It was an all-systems failure: Scheme, blown assignments, questionable personnel decisions—all pointing back to a game plan that required a bunch of assumptions (new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert was difficult to scout), but nonetheless was a disastrous start.



Even if Kelly gave the staff’s performance a passing grade, by noon after the loss to Duke, the decision was made to relieve VanGorder of his duties.

“This is a difficult decision,” Kelly said in a statement. “I have the utmost respect for Brian as both a person and football coach, but our defense simply isn’t it where it should be and I believe this change is necessary for the best interest of our program and our student-athletes.”



While Kelly won’t likely go any deeper into the decision to make the change than he’s done in a few media sessions, it’s telling just how different the defense is organized with VanGorder out the door.

Full-unit meetings have been turned into position group teaching sessions. Depth chart’s have been reshuffled, resulting in major personnel changes. A base three-man front has taken over as the status quo. And the defense has stopped giving up points and big plays, especially after they found their footing against Syracuse.

Where Kelly goes from here is anyone’s guess—especially considering he’s still trying his best to get this season under control. But after tapping into his personal coaching network to fill a premium vacancy, don’t expect Kelly to settle on the familiar—or for Swarbrick to allow it—when his roster is loaded with young talent and in need of a fundamentally sound plan.

CB Elijah Hicks commits to Notre Dame

Irish 247

Just hours after one member of Notre Dame’s 2017 class stepped away, another took his place. Southern California defensive back Elijah Hicks committed to the Irish. The four-star prospect, an all-purpose defender who can play safety, cornerback and contribute in special teams, pulled the trigger just days after taking his official visit to South Bend.

He made the news official via Twitter and recorded a commitment video with Irish 247’s Tom Loy. And even as Notre Dame’s season continues in the wrong direction, Hicks bought in to the message being sold by the Irish coaching staff, picking Notre Dame over programs like UCLA, USC, Michigan and Washington.

A year after stocking up the secondary—Hicks gives the Irish a nice piece to pair with Paulson Adebo and all-purpose athlete Isaiah Robertson. And as we watch Troy Pride, Julian Love, Donte Vaughn and Devin Studstill might a quick impact on the back end, Hicks compares favorably to that quartet, another prospect with elite offers who will come into South Bend ready to fight for a spot in the two-deep.

Hicks told why he pulled the trigger now:

“I chose Notre Dame because on my official visit I felt comfortable and it felt like home,” said Hicks. “One of my favorite quotes about Notre Dame is, ‘Other teams play college football, Notre Dame is college football.’ Coach Lyght, I feel like he could give me the tools that’s necessary to make it to the NFL and have a long career. Also, they have a rich tradition and great academic support.”

Hicks plays for La Mirada High School, the same program that produced reserve Irish tight end Tyler Luatua. He returns Notre Dame’s 2017 class to 18, a Top 10 group by any evaluation.


Irish suffer first recruiting defection with Donovan Jeter


After five losses, Notre Dame suffered their first consequence of a poor season in recruiting. Donovan Jeter, a four-star defensive lineman, has stepped away from his verbal commitment.

Jeter made the news public on Tuesday, taking to Twitter to send Irish fans into a tailspin.

The sky isn’t quite falling. Jeter called the Irish his top school, likely just getting ahead of the news that he’ll start taking official visits to other schools, something Notre Dame’s recruiting staff has worked well to slow down the past few cycles. Also helping the Irish’s cause is his proximity and connection to fellow Western Pennsylvania prospects David Adams, Kurt Hinish and Josh Lugg.

Still, after making it through last recruiting cycle without a defection, finding a way to win back Jeter is priority No. 1, a versatile defensive lineman who had an elite offer list and picked Notre Dame after basically dismissing them over the summer. The Irish have done it before, getting Stephon Tuitt back in the fold after Georgia Tech sold him on staying home. They won a battle with current defensive coordinator Greg Hudson when he was at Florida State for Aaron Lynch, though Lynch only lasted a season in South Bend.

Usually a decommitment—especially this time of year—isn’t ground for a news story. But as all eyes focus on Brian Kelly and his grasp on the Irish program, this serves as ammo for those looking for cracks in the foundation.


Jeter posted a Tweet that essentially confirmed my speculation. And also should serve as a reminder—DO. NOT. TWEET. AT. RECRUITS.