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Filling holes: Outside linebacker

Mar 12, 2012, 10:38 AM EDT

Prince Shembo, Sean Cwynar, Hafis Williams

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.


  1. nudeman - Mar 12, 2012 at 12:00 PM

    Geez, they all sound great, on paper, don’t they?
    “…freakish athletic ability…”
    “…highly regarded, and might be the most natural fit…”
    “…might be the best option in pass coverage on the roster…”

    Why then do I get the feeling that this is one of the more mediocre parts of the team?

    Absolutely no one stands out, with the possible exception of Niklas, and as Keith points out he might be playing TE in ’12.

    Ishaq has them concerned I think. A 5 star guy coming out of HS, so he must be talented. But when coaches say things like “We need him to play harder” … well … wow. That ain’t good.

    I suppose that can change as he grows up, but it might not. I’d rather have a guy with 85% of the ability who throws his body all over the field.

    • idratherbeinsouthbend - Mar 12, 2012 at 11:19 PM

      This is a perfect example of why i enjoy nudeman’s comments (SOMETIMES). He brings perspective. While i don’t always agree with you nudey, i always appreciate the “roses aren’t always red” perspective.

      FWIW, among the less than 21 yr old crowd, there is often a sense of not working hard until there is a glimmer of hope that the hard work will pay off and I think Ishaq kinda fits that mold. If you dangle the carrot in front of him and tell him it’s his carrot if he wants it, i think he’ll step up his game.

      There’s a big difference in your approach when you have to “compete for a starting job” and “it’s your job, but i’ll give it to the other kid if you don’t prove you can handle it”

      • nudeman - Mar 13, 2012 at 11:30 AM

        Well with the new, cleaner board we have going, here’s what nudeman 2.0 is all about:
        1) ND fan to the nth extent. No change from nudeman 1.0
        2) Honesty, not cheerleading. No change. No rose colored glasses here.
        3) F Bombs suspended. Notice “suspended”; F Bomb stockpile has not been “eliminated” or stored in Syria.
        4) Emotional but kinder and gentler. Minor tweak I suppose; I reserve the right to say (in my best Vince Lombardi accent) “What in the HELL is goin’ ON out thah?”; but will no longer put up 23 straight posts ripping one player, even if he deserves it. And even if that player is … wait … never mind.

    • gman3410 - Mar 13, 2012 at 1:27 AM

      Niklas works out with the TEs and everyone speculates that he’s moving to TE. He’s too good of a fit as a drop LB to not play it anymore. He started and shut down MSU. Maybe he plays both, but I don’t think TE only. I can’t believe no one has brought up Connor Barwin who played under Kelly at Cincinnati. I think that’s what Kelly is doing with Niklas.

  2. canadianndfan - Mar 12, 2012 at 2:04 PM

    IMO this is where the coaches really show their true value or get exposed, depending on how you look at it. Sure some kids through the years have dominated in high school earning a 4 or 5 star ranking but have never seen that potential translate to the next level for whatever reason. It happens!

    However if the kid has any REAL star potential then a good assistant coach will help the player take his game to the next level. What I see on the ND roster right now is potential and plenty of it. Let’s see if the coaching staff can get these guys in the right spots, whether its the CAT or DOG position, and get them playing at the level they need to be at

  3. mattnef - Mar 12, 2012 at 3:13 PM

    I’m torn about Niklas. I’ve always been a huge fan of the idea of incorporating more TEs into the offense. Esepcially with Eifert’s position flexibility. A lineup with Niklas and Koyak with their hands down, Eifert and Daniels split wide and Golson and Wood in the backfield sounds like a lot of fun.
    However, there is a lot to be said about having your best athletes on defense and manufacturing points on offense, where their are already 3 great/good TEs.
    Like most things with the 2012 season … I can’t wait to see what happens!

    • nudeman - Mar 12, 2012 at 3:24 PM

      I’d rather see Niklas stay on D. There’s just not enough talent there to let him go to O. Beyond that, there might be no one more important to ND’s success on D this year than Ishaq.

      The line, with Tuitt, Nix, Lynch, and Day is pretty damn solid.
      The DBs are an area of known weakness.

      But if Ishaq steps forward and plays like his hair is on fire, as one would expect from a 5 star kid, then he could make a huge difference.

    • idratherbeinsouthbend - Mar 12, 2012 at 11:26 PM


      i agree 1000% with putting your best athletes on defense. It’s a proven method of winning at every level. As much as i hate to admit it, all you have to do is look at the majority of the past national champions. Which side of the ball had better athletes for Bama or LSU or even Florida. They’ve all got ridiculously athletic defenses and a handful also had a freakishly atheltic QB, see also, Golson :)

  4. irishdodger - Mar 12, 2012 at 6:33 PM

    I prefer the best athletes play on the defensive side of the ball. Kelly proved what he can do w/ mediocre athletes in his offense, but Cincy was exposed in their last BCS bowl (albeit w/o BK) vs a team w/ a more athletic D.

  5. jerseyshorendfan1 - Mar 12, 2012 at 9:18 PM

    I have been hearing a lot of hype about Niklas and Spond and I’m anxious to see if they can deliver. I’m very intrigued by the TE position this year as I believe it will be Golson starting at QB and that fact alone is going to keep many of our opponents’ linebackers busy trying to contain him, thus opening the middle up for some short to medium length passes to our TE’s. I was happy when Eifert elected to return as I think he will have a banner year if used effectively. We have the ingredients for a potent offensive attack and I’m dying to see it play out on the field. I want to see an up tempo spread attack the way it was meant and designed to execute. To me, it seems that if you’re going to stand around for 15-20 seconds waiting to get the play in and then line up for the snap, you might as well just huddle up and make sure everybody’s got the play and snap count right before going to the line. I’m hoping these guys who have another year in this system start to finally get it and play with some up tempo rhythm. That can really get a defense back on it’s heels pretty quickly if done right, not to mention being very exciting to watch.

  6. idratherbeinsouthbend - Mar 12, 2012 at 11:12 PM

    I’m loving the “moneyball” perspective on the efficiency of our ’11 linebackers, but one could argue that Fleming and Shembo played their positions to par. Not better than they should have, but certainly not lower than what would normally be expected.

    Here’s my rationale…

    Only one player be credited with a solo tackle on any given play. So, each position, given their equal share, should account for roughly 9% of the tackles. Now account for the fact that most offensive schemes have a plan to account for blocking the D-Line and the linebackers and you can normalize that statistic to a percentage decidedly lower than 9%.

    Given that criteria, 7.5% and 6.2% are just about average numbers. More impressively, Te’o’s numbers are just FREAKISH!

    For the record, i DO hold a degree in Mathematics and I DO have way to much time on my hands.

    As for the immediate future of our outside linebacking corp, i have ZERO concern about anybody filling those positions. I feel that our D-Line will insulate our Linebackers well, allowing them to execute their run/pass assignments with little interuption. And, with my favorite coach of all time, Bob Diaco, I KNOW they will play a physical game at the point of attack.

    Outside of my grandma (1 bad hip, 1 bad knee) and my 9 year old daughter (a 61 pound gymnast), I feel like almost anyone can play an effective OLB in Bobby D’s scheme with the animals around them (D-Line and Te’o)

    I’m a stat geek Keith, so keep bringing it!

    • nudeman - Mar 13, 2012 at 11:16 AM


      “I feel that our D-Line will insulate our Linebackers well, allowing them to execute their run/pass assignments with little interuption”


      That might work against Purdue and Army. But you know damn well schools like USC, UM, OK and MSU will find a way to exploit the weaknesses, wherever they are.

      The new, kinder, gentler nudeman 2.0 will not mention names, but they had a real lack of athletic ability at LB last year, excluding T’eo of course.

      One more reason why Niklas needs to stay on D.

  7. degosavage23 - Mar 13, 2012 at 3:54 AM

    personally, I would like to see ND run more of a 4-3 with the depth they have in the trenches and the lack of depth/talent at linebacker. Aside from T’eo, Williams and Niklas appear to be the most talented/athletic linebackers we have. That being said could you imagine the havoc the front-seven could wreak if we had Lewis-Moore and Lynch at end, Tuitt and Nix clogging up the middle, and Williams, T’eo and Niklas lining up at linebacker? Scary thought for opposing offenses. I just don’t see the point in moving Niklas to tight end when OLB is clearly a question mark, and his body of work there has been better than average to say the least.

  8. 1historian - Mar 13, 2012 at 2:33 PM

    I have no wisdom to contribute here, but I have some compliments to spread around.

    1) Nudie – you da MAN!!! I love your stuff even when I hate it!

    Keith – for the umpteenth time – thanks for this, and congrats on taking the steps you took to make sure everyone brings his a-game when coming here.

    G-man 3410 – not to pick on you but there is one thing that drives me nuts. Your 1:27 a.m. about Niklas – “he’s too good of a fit as a drop LB not to play it anymore.” Bad english – drop “of”. It should read – “He’s too good a fit as a drop LB ….”
    (I know it’s nit-picking but somebody’s gotta do it.)

    BTW – I agree with you

    171 days until kickoff!!

  9. bbdaines - Mar 13, 2012 at 2:47 PM

    I just really believe there is plenty of talent to get the job done on D. My question is coaching.. and the whole deal boils down to.. the staff from the first half of the FSU game and we will be great, or the staff from the second half that made a bunch of freshman O-lineman look like pros????

  10. akirish - Mar 13, 2012 at 3:53 PM

    I agree that our linebackers seemed short on athleticism last year outside of Te’o. In fairness, I believe Shembo is an elite athlete, but his discomfort in his role made him hesitant. Let’s not forget him running down Ray Graham from behind! One advantage of depth is the likelihood of fitting players to the position for which they are best suited. Playing out of position can make any player appear less athletic.

    With his size, skill set, reported football IQ, isn’t Niklas the best option at “drop” linebacker? It seems to me Shembo and Ishaq would benefit from being in the “cat” position.

    Like everyone here, I’m eager to see how this all shakes out. I’m hoping this all means options for a dynamic, aggressive defense.

    • nudeman - Mar 13, 2012 at 4:33 PM

      No real strong opinion on Fox, however my mind isn’t filled with a bunch of memories of his highlight reel plays.

      Calabrese I think is just not a starting OLB on an elite team, which we want/expect to be, right? He’s not quick, doesn’t cover well.
      Only “highlight” I remember was his taunting penalty that was ridiculously costly against USC.

      Both are mediocre at best.

      If Niklas is as good/athletic/versatile as we keep hearing (we “hear” a lot of accolades that eventually prove overblown) then I don’t see how he can be moved to O, given the needs at OLB. Leave him there. He, Spond, and Shembo seem like upgrades.

      • akirish - Mar 14, 2012 at 4:13 AM

        I agree about Fox and Calabrese. They seem like solid back-ups, not starters on an elite defense.

        I have assumed Kendall Moore has been kept behind Te’o as his eventual replacement. However, given many of the points brought up in this thread, and after seeing him in his limited appearances, I would like to see him paired w/ Te’o. He seems much faster and more explosive than either Fox or Calabrese; even when he only sees a few snaps he seems to deliver at least one eye popping hit. He just seems to have the aggressive, all-out attitude needed on defense. I know we haven’t covered ILB’s yet, but since Nudie brought up Fox and Mulder, i figured I would bring Moore in to the conversation. Does anyone have any “scoop” on Moore, or why the staff seemed content to let him sit behind Te’o last year?

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