Prince Shembo, Sean Cwynar, Hafis Williams

Filling holes: Outside linebacker


As spring practice approaches, the Irish coaching staff will be tasked with replacing some valuable senior contributors. All in, the Irish lost ten starters from their opening day lineup against South Florida. While youthful depth developed throughout last season will undoubtedly help ease that blow, there’s no doubt that this spring will be used to take stock of what personnel the Irish have, and find out what rising player will get first shot at a starting job.

Let’s take a look at the battles at outside linebacker.

2011 Starters
Darius Fleming, Sr.
Prince Shembo, Soph.

Quick Positional Recap

From a statistical perspective, the Irish outside linebackers were some of the least efficient defenders on the roster. Fleming, who took almost 90 percent of the defensive snaps, made tackles on only 7.5% of his snaps. Shembo, who was a tough match for his role at drop linebacker, but was clearly the best option for playing time, made tackles on only 6.2% of his snaps. Of all the linebackers that got significant minutes, those two percentages were among the least efficient. (Manti Te’o led the team with tackles on over 16% of his plays.)

Still, Fleming was one of the work horses on the Irish defense, coming off the field only in games where the outcome was well at hand. While undersized, he possessed the ability to both shift down to the defensive line in four-man fronts and play on the short-side of the field at linebacker, spending more time at defensive end in a four-man front than any other player on the roster, while also logging more time than anybody at outside linebacker. While Fleming’s productivity never seemed to live up to his potential, the Irish will need to replace a physical player in the run game and a good enough athlete to keep opposing offenses honest in passing downs.

The Candidates

Prince Shembo, 6-2, 250, Jr. — The most logical choice to replace Fleming at the Cat linebacker is Shembo, who started the season across from him in the huddle. Shembo possesses a similar skill-set and may be an even better pass rusher. Of the opening day starters last season, only Dan Fox took less snaps than Shembo, who saw his playing time decrease against spread teams with the use of Jamoris Slaughter at the star linebacker position — a role that took Shembo off the field as a linebacker and forced him to defensive end. At six-foot-two, 250-pounds, Shembo doesn’t have the ideal size to play the position, but he’ll likely get the first shot at taking over the job.

Ishaq Williams, 6-5, 255, Soph. — There was a lot of learning on the job last year for Williams, who contributed on special teams and saw significant time on the field in blowout victories against Purdue, Air Force, Navy, and Maryland. The former five-star recruit, who enrolled at Notre Dame early and participated in spring practice, didn’t make the impact that some other freshmen did, but clearly possesses the size and speed that could make him an ideal fit at the position. A great spring of practices could easily put Williams in position to take the position.

Troy Niklas, Soph. 6-6.5, 250 — There are rumors that Niklas might not even be on the defensive side of the ball come spring practice, but he could be the best Cat linebacker on the roster. With freakish size and athleticism, Niklas was one of the early surprises of the freshman class, and his versatility could be a great weapon for defensive coordinator Bob Diaco as the Irish look to retool the outside linebacker depth chart.

Ben Councell, Soph. 6-4.5, 230— If Shembo slides to the short-side of the field, expect Councell to compete immediately for the position across from him. While the freshman didn’t see the field last season, he’s highly regarded, and might be the most natural fit at the drop linebacker position. Spring practice will be our first chance to see Councell in action, giving us our first clue how soon the North Carolina product will contribute.

Danny Spond, 6-2, 242, Jr. — From the day Spond hit campus, he’s seemed to have a fan in head coach Brian Kelly. But injuries and the depth chart have made his contributors negligible so far. A four-star quarterback and safety in high school, Spond has grown his way into an outside linebacker, and might be the best option in pass coverage on the roster. He lacks the size of the other candidates, but if Niklas is considering a switch to offense, the staff must trust Spond’s ability to contribute immediately.


Kelly confident Robinson will rebound

Notre Dame v Florida State

Corey Robinson‘s season was already off to a slow start. And that was before a difficult night at Clemson. The junior receiver came into last weekend with only four catches, held out against UMass after a pregame tweak of his knee put a scare into the Irish.

Robinson’s knee checked out fine. But mentally, it appears that the sure-handed junior is struggling.

Just before halftime against the Tigers, Robinson failed to reel in a long catch that would’ve given the Irish a much-needed touchdown heading into half. Early in the fourth quarter, a high throw from DeShone Kizer on the Irish’s first failed two-point conversion play slid through Robinson’s hands. Made worse was a mental mistake by Robinson, the Irish needing to use one of their second half timeouts when the junior wasn’t on the field.

Coached hard on the sideline by Brian Kelly and coached up by his position coach Mike Denbrock (as we saw on both Showtime and Fighting Irish Media’s ICON), the staff is doing it’s best to get Robinson’s confidence back.

With some wondering if Robinson’s struggles should open the door for talented freshman Equanimeous St. Brown, Kelly talked about their belief that the junior will return to form.

“Corey Robinson is going to get the job done. I had a very lengthy conversation with him yesterday,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I believe in Corey. Corey’s got to believe in himself, and he will. He’s got to go attack the football. He’s letting the football come to him. He’s letting it eat him up a little bit, but I believe in Corey.”

There’s no better place to showcase that belief than against Navy. The Midshipmen don’t have a defender physically capable of matching up with the 6-foot-5 Robinson, who will likely face his share of single coverage with Will Fuller likely demanding safety help.

Then it’s just a matter of Robinson showing the hands and confidence that made him one of last year’s most consistent performers.

“Once he starts attacking the football, I think we’re going to see somebody that can make the plays that we expect him to make,” Kelly said. “So I’m optimistic that we’re going to see the guy that we need to see on Saturday.”

And in that corner… The Navy Midshipmen

Keenan Reynolds, Jamar Summers

The theme of this week’s game might very well be mutual respect. But if Notre Dame is going to get their season back on track, they’ll need to very quickly get past any sort of reverence they have for Ken Niumatalolo and the Navy Midshipmen and look for any way to beat them.

Sandwiched between showdowns against Clemson and USC, Navy comes to town, one of the below-the-radar unbeaten teams in the country. With option superstar Keenan Reynolds in the final year of a career that is already one of the most prolific in college football history, the Irish defense goes into triple-option mode for the second time in this young season, asked to once again find an answer for an attack that not many people have solved.

Helping us to prepare for the Midshipmen is the play-by-play voice of Navy athletics, Pete Medhurst. Covering Navy football since 1997, Pete was kind enough to get us ready for the 89th meeting between Notre Dame and the Naval Academy.

Hope you enjoy.


Lost in the misery Notre Dame fans feel after the Irish’s undefeated hopes washed away in Clemson last weekend, is that the Navy team coming to South Bend is really, really good. I know it’s early, but you’ve been covering the Midshipmen for a long time. Can you rank where this team stacks up compared to some of the others you’ve seen?

I think its the best overall Navy team, considering the play of both units right now and special teams as well. The defense is giving up  just 15 points a game, and based on the prowess of the offense, that’s going to lead to a lot of victories if you play at that level.


Is Keenan Reynolds the best triple-option QB in Navy history? As someone who has watched his career evolve, can you speak to his improvements as a quarterback and a player? How important has he been to the evolution of this program?

I believe production speaks for itself. Good health could make him the leading touchdown scorer of all-time in the sport. He’s a coach on the field. Speaks like a coach, has a want to get better. Each day is a mission for him and the unit to get better and they hold themselves to a high standard to meet each day, he’s the leader of that group.



Joining the American Conference was a huge decision, but one that looks to be paying dividends. Have you noticed a difference in the program now that they’re chasing a conference title?

Coaches say it is. They have been met with quality response on the road recruiting. We get to states that are important footprints for us and just adds another goal where our players can be rewarded for their hard work. The conference has been very, very, good so far this year.


Defensively, this game should stress Navy. Notre Dame’s big-play potential is the best of the Brian Kelly era. (The Irish already have more 50-plus yard touchdowns than they’ve had in any other season under Kelly.)

Takeaways and preventing big plays seem to be a tenet of a Buddy Green defense. Are those the big keys for the Midshipmen defensively?

No question this is by far the fastest team Notre Dame has ever had. I go all the way back to the great Lindsay Nelson days when I used to watch the Notre Dame football report every Sunday morning. They can attack you anywhere at anytime with several people. Double cover one, they have three others in the formation who can beat you any play. Brian has put together a great plan and his coaches have delivered great recruits to the program. Many teams can’t survive an injury to the QB, but they have.

Mids have turned teams over this year and that’s a huge key for any defense. With Dale Pehrson taking over the defense (note: Green is taking a sabbatical to recover from major neck surgery this season) those goals have not changed. Eleven guys getting to the football, ball comes out, you have a great chance to get it!


Notre Dame had success earlier this season against Georgia Tech, and Brian Kelly spent a gigantic portion of his offseason preparing for the triple-option, going as far as recruiting a walk-on option quarterback who runs an option-specific scout team.

Do you think the success the Irish defense had against Paul Johnson’s triple-option will help this weekend? Or do you see subtle, but important differences between what Ken Niumatalolo does than his predecessor?

Coach Kelly is a good football coach. After we beat them at the Meadowlands, 35-17, you sensed, he was going to work hard to find a solution because for them to achieve their goals, they have to beat us.

Im not sure how many huge differences their are in our two offenses, one though is the QB. His ability to get Navy into the right play is huge no matter how a team lines up. Defensive personnel has improved in a huge way for Notre Dame too. They have quality people who can run and get to the ball. Last couple have been barn burners. Hopefully Saturday can be the same.