With Darius Fleming’s job locked up, the Irish coaching staff will spend spring practice looking at their options for the position opposite him. With the depth chart filled by a cast of characters with a diverse skillset, the field-side linebacker job won’t lack worthy candidates.
Let’s take a look at the four players in the running for the job.
Right now, this looks like Shembo’s job to lose. He’s taking most of the reps with the No. 1 defense, and has shown enough in his freshman season that Bob Diaco and Brian Kelly know he’s one of the best 11 players on defense. The question will be whether or not Shembo can pick up the nuances of the ‘Dog’ position, and play well enough in space and in coverage to make this position change work. It wasn’t much of a secret that Shembo’s athletic ability and pass-rushing instincts were what got him on the field last year, and while those skills will help make this defense more diverse, they aren’t mandatory for someone playing on the field side of the defense.
It’s safe to say that just about everybody wants to see Steve Filer get a lot of playing time, if only to finally see what he can do when given a chance. At 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, he doesn’t have ideal size for the position, but he’s got the speed to cover and his achievement on special teams certainly supports the thesis that he shouldn’t struggle chasing down ball carriers. It’s hard to know if Filer can play well at the point of attack because there hasn’t been much of a chance for us to see him do it. Entering his senior season and in a depth chart filled with worthy candidates, the decision on a fifth year for Filer is likely based on his ability to see the field on first through third down.
Fox played in all 13 games last season, but struggled to break into the rotation at outside linebacker. With size similar to Filer’s, Fox will need to rely on his instincts and ability to play in space to win the job, and the coaching staff is still high on the Ohio native’s potential. There’s really no body of work for us to judge Fox on, but it sounds as if he’ll have every opportunity this spring to get into the mix as an every down player.
If there’s an outlier in the group, it’s Spond. He’s basically a jumbo-sized safety that weighs 242 pounds, the heaviest of the candidates behind Shembo. (A starling fact when you consider he came into Notre Dame as a potential skill player.) Last year, Kelly raved about Spond’s ability to use his hands — a very good thing for a linebacker, and Spond had worked his way into the mix at linebacker until injuries kept him from contributing during the last half of the season. There’s a real chance that Spond could be a great player at the line of scrimmage, but you’ve got to believe that he could end up being a third down player for the Irish this season, working in the nickel package.
If you’re looking for a wild card in the battle, wait for Ben Councell to arrive on campus. If he’s got enough bulk on him, he could be an immediate contributor on the field side, as he’s the prototype of what Kelly and Diaco are looking for. There’s no way of knowing whether or not he’ll be ready until he shows up this summer and gets into Paul Longo’s program, but he’s definitely a guy worth watching.