Fleming’s improvement helps key defensive resurgence

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When the Irish opened the season, most pundits predicted that Darius Fleming, an undersized defensive end moving to the ‘Cat’ linebacker position, would be one of the players who’d benefit most from the change to Bob Diaco’s 3-4 defensive system. A quick look at the final regular season statistics shows that prediction to be correct, with Fleming leading the Irish in both sacks and tackles for loss. But while the numbers may show Fleming at the top of the statistical heap, this season was anything but smooth sailing for the junior from Chicago.

“It was a tough fit for him early on,” head coach Brian Kelly said about Fleming’s position switch. “Playing in space position at the Cat was a diificult adjustment for him. He became tentative as a player because he was so concerned as to whether he was getting under the hitch or the curl, whether he was spot dropping the right way.”

It’s a credit to Fleming’s athleticism and work ethic that he’s the team-leader with 10 tackles-for-loss and six sacks, even though he was playing through a pretty difficult transition. But a quick look at the numbers, and a rewatching of the first few games on the Irish schedule, show just how difficult it was for Darius to adjust to playing in space after playing much of his first two seasons as a one-dimensional pass rushing defensive end.

Outside of the overtime loss to Michigan State, Fleming was held sackless for the first five games of the season, registering only one tackle in both the Purdue and Boston College victories and kept in relative check through the Navy loss. Ironically, the Irish’s loss of nose tackle Ian Williams was one of the things that jump-started Fleming, with the Irish playing more four-man fronts and allowing Fleming to get back to rushing the passer with guys like Prince Shembo coming on at linebacker.

“Once he felt more comfortable in space he started to come on,” Kelly said. “It was, more than anything else, a bigger transition for that young man than maybe a Kerry Neal or even a Brian Smith. He made a lot of that work when we moved our front down and played a lot more four-down (defensive fronts). “I think that the transition and getting into some nickel situations where he could line up on a tackle and use his speed and quickness.”

Fleming saved his most productive game for the season finale, where his seven tackles and one tackle-for-loss didn’t tell the complete story of a game where Fleming was constantly causing problems for the Trojans offensive front. It was the culmination of a great run of football for Darius, who other than sitting out most of the Utah game after suffering a minor concussion, played great football down the stretch for a defense that needed him.

There’s no position on the roster put in more positions to make plays behind the line of scrimmage than the ‘Cat’ linebacker position where Fleming plays. And while he led the team in sacks and tackles-for-loss, there’s no question that Fleming hasn’t even scratched the surface of the potential he has. And it was his defensive coordinator, who has told him as much after the loss to Navy.

“I knew that I didn’t perform at a good level,” Fleming said. “I talked to Coach D about it, and he told me exactly how he felt. He said, ”It’s getting toward the end of the season, and you really need to start picking it up because you need to become a leader on and off the field,'” Fleming said. “From that point on, I just did a lot more work. I didn’t really change too much, but I knew I had to step my game up, and I think that was the point that I changed.”

The light switch that turned on for Fleming also flipped for the entire defense, a unit that’s turned into one of the best in the country the last four weeks of the season. Thanks to those efforts, they get one more chance to do it against the Hurricanes.

Even amidst chaos, Kelly expecting USC’s best

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Rocky Hayes, Blaise Taylor

USC head coach Steve Sarkisian was fired on Monday, with interim head coach Clay Helton taking the reins of the Trojan program during tumultuous times. Helton will be the fourth different USC head coach to face Notre Dame in as many years, illustrative of the chaos that’s shaken up Heritage Hall in the years since Pete Carroll left for the NFL.

All eyes are on the SC program, with heat on athletic director Pat Haden and the ensuing media circus that only Los Angeles can provide. But Brian Kelly doesn’t expect anything but their best when USC boards a plane to take on the Irish in South Bend.

While the majority of Notre Dame’s focus will be inward this week, Kelly did take the time on Sunday and Monday to talk with his team about the changes atop the Trojan program, and how they’ll likely impact the battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh.

“We talked about there would be an interim coach, and what that means,” Kelly said. “Teams come together under those circumstances and they’re going to play their very best. And I just reminded them of that.”

While nobody on this Notre Dame roster has experienced a coaching change, they’ve seen their share of scrutiny. The Irish managed to spring an upset not many saw coming against LSU last year in the Music City Bowl after a humiliating defeat against the Trojans and amidst the chaos of a quarterbacking controversy. And just last week, we saw Charlie Strong’s team spring an upset against arch rival Oklahoma when just about everybody left the Longhorns for dead.

“I think you look at the way Texas responded this past weekend with a lot of media scrutiny,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I expect USC to respond the same way, so we’re going to have to play extremely well.”

Outside of the head coaching departure, it’s difficult to know if there’ll be any significant difference between a team lead by Sarkisian or the one that Helton will lead into battle. The offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach has been at USC for six years, and has already held the title of interim head coach when he led the Trojans to a 2013 Las Vegas Bowl title after Lane Kiffin was fired and Ed Orgeron left the program after he wasn’t given the full time position.

Helton will likely call plays, a role he partially handled even when Sarkisian was on the sideline. The defense will still be run by Justin Wilcox. And more importantly, the game plan will be executed by a group of players that are among the most talented in the country.

“They have some of the finest athletes in the country. I’ve recruited a lot of them, and they have an immense amount of pride for their program and personal pride,” Kelly said. “So they will come out with that here at Notre Dame, there is no question about that.”

Irish add commitment from CB Donte Vaughn

Donte Vaughn

Notre Dame’s recruiting class grew on Monday. And in adding 6-foot-3 Memphis cornerback Donte Vaughn, it grew considerably.

The Irish added another jumbo-sized skill player in Vaughn, beating out a slew of SEC offers for the intriguing cover man. Vaughn picked Notre Dame over offers from Auburn, LSU, Miami, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Texas A&M among others.

He made the announcement on Monday, his 18th birthday:

It remains to be seen if Vaughn can run like a true cornerback. But his length certainly gives him a skill-set that doesn’t currently exist on the Notre Dame roster.

Interestingly enough, Vaughn’s commitment comes a cycle after Brian VanGorder made news by going after out-of-profile coverman Shaun Crawford, immediately offering the 5-foot-9 cornerback after taking over for Bob Diaco, who passed because of Crawford’s size. An ACL injury cut short Crawford’s freshman season before it got started, but not before Crawford already proved he’ll be a valuable piece of the Irish secondary for years to come.

Vaughn is another freaky athlete in a class that already features British Columbia’s Chase Claypool. With a safety depth chart that’s likely turning over quite a bit in the next two seasons, Vaughn can clearly shift over if that’s needed, though Notre Dame adding length like Vaughn clearly points to some of the shifting trends after Richard Sherman went from an average wide receiver to one of the best cornerbacks in football, and Vaughn will be asked to play on the outside.

Vaughn is the 15th member of Notre Dame’s 2016 signing class. He is the fifth defensive back, joining safeties D.J. Morgan, Jalen Elliott and Spencer Perry along with cornerback Julian Love. The Irish project to take one more.

With Notre Dame expecting another huge recruiting weekend with USC coming to town, it’ll be very interesting to see how the Irish staff close out this recruiting class.