The expectations were high for Darius Fleming entering the 2010 season. The best pass-rusher on the Irish roster, he was set to enter a system that had a habit of turning good pass rushers into great pass rushers.
(See Barwin, Connor for example.)
While it’s hard to call a season where you lead your defense in tackles-for-loss and sacks a disappointment, Fleming didn’t put up the numbers many expected, and struggled with the transition to the ‘Cat’ linebacker position after spending his first two seasons with his hand on the ground at defensive end.
Entering his senior season, Fleming spoke candidly about the challenges he faced last year and his hopes for his final season in an Irish uniform.
“I would have to say we played on defense with ten guys at times,” Fleming said about his struggles. “I wasn’t contributing like I should have been. It was disappointing, but at the same time I learned from that.
“Now, it’s like I’m being a football player instead of just doing an assignment. When you have an assignment there are multiple things you must do. If I’m dropping, I drop. If it’s a run, I’m still dropping and I’m not supposed to be doing that. Now, I’m able to not think about that, read and just get to think about plays.
“It allows me to play fast. It allows you to make the plays that you couldn’t make when you were sitting there thinking about what you have to do. Me, knowing what I have to do, I can help somebody adjacent to me and that’s helped the defense as a whole.”
That Fleming racked up the statistics that he did is a credit to the athleticism the Chicago-product possesses. And as head coach Brian Kelly has noticed during spring practice, Fleming’s made strides that show he’s ready to elevate a pass-rushing defense that finished 55th in sacks last year, an impressive number considering the stout Irish pass defense.
“He’s been very impressive,” Kelly said of Fleming. “He’s not thinking out there. As you know, he kind of disappeared for two or three games last year and it was just his confidence in his ability to do things. In particular, we challenged him this spring to really do some things that he hadn’t done and he has picked up everything for us in pass coverage and doing things he really struggled with last year.
“Physically, as we all know, he is extremely gifted, but now he is doing things at the Cat position that we need him to do and that’s the mental aspect.”
With a depth chart filled with intriguing niche players like Steven Filer, newcomer Ishaq Williams, and a guy like Prince Shembo who naturally profiles as a Cat linebacker, getting Fleming to be a versatile defender will be key for Bob Diaco and the Irish defense.
It’s hard to think of a roster in recent Irish history that’s had better size, speed and edge players than this season’s Irish defense and will a group of physically imposing players stocking the front seven, this Irish football team has the ability to dominate the trenches on defense, something you can’t say has happened in the years since Lou Holtz.