Feb 27, 2012, 4:22 PM EDT
It’ll be interesting to follow Darius Fleming‘s career after leaving South Bend. The graduating Irish linebacker, who came to Notre Dame with sky-high expectations, heads to Indianapolis with far less fanfare. After being one of the top recruits in the country, Fleming will need a solid evaluation season to even end up drafted.
Many assumed Fleming’s career would take a welcome boost from Brian Kelly’s tenure as the Irish head coach. After bouncing between linebacker and undersized defensive end, Fleming seemed the perfect fit at the Cat linebacker position, where his ability to rush the passer and athleticism to play in space would be perfectly utilized. Comparisons to Cincinnati’s Connor Barwin, a combo DE/OLB that excelled when Kelly came to the Bearcats had Irish fans thinking the light-switch would simply flip when Fleming was put into Bob Diaco’s system.
Taking a quick look at Barwin’s combine numbers, Fleming held his own with the former second-round draft pick. Barwin has a size advantage on Fleming, notching in at 6-foot-4, 256 pounds compared to Fleming’s 6-foot-2, 245, and held his own with speed, nudged by less than one-tenth of a second with an official 4.72 sprint in the 40. (Though Barwin did clock an incredible 4.47 forty at his pro day.) Fleming easily bested Barwin in the strength department, but wasn’t near as explosive in the jumping drills.
Of course, Barwin also put together staggering stats in his collegiate career, something Fleming wasn’t able to do. In many ways, Fleming is the personification of arrested player development, flip-flopping early in his career and then struggling to learn on the fly a third defense when Kelly and company came to town. There were dominant flashes were Fleming played like an All-American, but there were also games were No. 45 might as well have been anonymous.
Success at Notre Dame hasn’t necessarily been a good predictor for NFL stability. A professional career like the one David Givens forged after a good, but not great Irish career might be considered a long shot, but watching players like David Bruton and Sergio Brown succeed should have Fleming feeling confident that if he receives a shot, he’ll be able to make the most of it. Like Bruton and Brown, Fleming has the athleticism to play at the next level. He’ll need to show that in drill work and pro days, something both Fleming and his team understand.
‘‘It’s up to Darius to wow ’em in the interview, wow ’em in the film work and chalkboard, shoot for top 10s in all the categories for the combine, and then at the Pro Day kill his skill work,” Fleming’s trainer Elias Karras told the Chicago Sun Times. “That’s where we really see movement, the skill work.’’
Interestingly enough, the lack of continuity that likely plagued his collegiate development might actually become an asset moving forward. Fleming cutting his weight to 245 pounds should have him prepared to gain some positional flexibility at linebacker, potentially allowing him to work from the middle, while his athleticism and speed should make him a valuable special teams contributor.
Either way, after entering Notre Dame will sky-high expectations, perhaps flying under the radar might do Fleming some good.