Apr 1, 2013, 12:18 PM EDT
There was always going to be a very large hole in the middle of the Irish defense. That’s what the departure of any four-year starter does for you, let alone one of the most highly decorated defenders in college football history.
While most of the recent talk of Manti Te’o is focused on his draft stock, his forty time, or a well-trodden punchline, it’s almost been forgotten that he put together one of the more statistically impressive seasons we’ve ever seen. Te’o’s seven interceptions were among the best in college football. His 100+ tackles led the Irish. He was the truest of three-down linebackers for the Irish, playing exemplary football in the pass game in his final season.
The linebackers meeting room will look remarkably similar to last season, though the missing face will be a big one. Yet Bob Diaco’s prized unit should still be impressive, as the talent returning should all be willing and able to pick up the slack.
Let’s take a look at the depth chart at linebacker and run through some of the remaining objectives for spring.
LINEBACKER DEPTH CHART
Dan Fox, 5th Yr.
Carlo Calabrese, 5th Yr.
Kendall Moore, Sr.
Jarrett Grace, Jr.
Prince Shembo, Sr.
Danny Spond, Sr.
Ishaq Williams, Jr.
Ben Councell, Jr.
Anthony Rabasa, Jr.
Romeo Okwara, Soph.
Dan Fox: The main objective for Fox is to get healthy after shoulder surgery. Yet on the field, the Irish are still trying to get a handle on how to use the versatile fifth-year defender, who should take a big leap forward in his final season of eligibility.
Fox’s work at the Will linebacker position should let Jarrett Grace hold down the Mike spot. While Brian Kelly feels very confident about Grace’s ability to step seamlessly into Manti Te’o’s shoes, he’s got some comfort coming from a guy like Fox, who is athletic enough to play either spot.
Carlo Calabrese: Some wondered if the fifth-year senior would be back this season, though Kelly put that to rest rather quickly. In Calabrese, the Irish know what they have — a heavy hitting run stopper that’s going to struggle occasionally in the passing game. For Calabrese, a final season on the field should yield some better results in the mental aspects of his job. He’s played a lot of football. Now it’s time to translate that experience into knowledge, which should help limit any deficiencies in his game.
After listening to Kelly last week, it appears that the head coach is comfortable with another platoon this season, with Fox and Calabrese sharing snaps.
Kendall Moore: There’s still reason to believe that Kendall Moore has some good football in front of him. But this spring he’s going to have to show that his mental game matches up with the considerable physical tools that he possesses. Last week, Kelly probably gave the most truthful assessment of the rising senior (he’s got a fifth year of eligibility available) and his game.
“Kendall has really high-end athletic ability,” Kelly said. “High end. Runs. He hits. We’ve just got to get him to run and hit the right people on a consistent basis. He’s got great energy, great enthusiasm.”
That quote is pretty similar to something Kelly said about center Braxston Cave earlier in his career, so there’s ample reason not to give up on Moore just yet. He looks slated to back-up Grace at the Mike, and could find himself in the starting lineup next season when Fox and Calabrese depart.
Jarrett Grace: We’ve always known that this coaching staff held Grace in high regard, and nothing that Grace has done this spring has changed Kelly or Diaco’s opinion of the talented inside linebacker that has waited his turn behind Te’o.
“Jarrett Grace has obviously done an incredibly job,” Kelly said. “He’s a really, really good football player. He’s going to be all over the field.”
Grace has everything this staff looks for in an inside linebacker, possessing size and speed that even Te’o doesn’t have. There’s a presence that Grace carries as well that shows you a leader that’ll be quick to step up and take charge. Speaking with him for five minutes in Miami, there’s no shortage of quiet confidence in Grace, who had the feeling that his time was coming.
Quite a bit is being thrown on the Cincinnati native’s shoulders. And from the looks of it, he’ll wear it well.
Prince Shembo: Last year was the breakout season Shembo needed. He became the pass rusher many hoped to see, and found a home at the Cat linebacker position, where he excelled both standing up and with a hand on the ground.
Shembo can’t do anything about his height — at 6-2, he’s below profile in Bob Diaco’s system. But he can do a better job working on his leverage, which wasn’t at its best against Alabama, where Shembo gave up the edge too often.
Still, this is an All-American caliber football player. Shembo’s 7.5 sacks and 10.5 TFLs will likely be surpassed in his final season, as Shembo understands just how dangerous he can be in this system.
Danny Spond: After a courageous season like Spond had last season, there’s little that could shake the senior linebacker in 2013. Entering his final season, Spond can spend this spring becoming a tactician, focusing on the ins and outs of playing the Dog linebacker, no longer concerning himself with playing cornerback in a nickel formation.
Just like Shembo, Spond doesn’t have ideal size. Yet he’s a true athlete, and someone Brian Kelly has singled out from his first day on campus, for an unusual skillset that lets him make plays at linebacker. Spond will lead a position that’s headed for some interesting battles, with Ben Councell gaining and Jaylon Smith set to join this summer.
Ishaq Williams: While many are still waiting to see the elite player the Irish recruited, Williams saw his productivity and playing time increase throughout last season. With Chase Hounshell’s unfortunate injury this spring, Williams will now spend more time with his hand on the ground, a development that might be beneficial for him.
At 6-foot-6, 261-pounds, Williams has all the size and strength needed to succeed at either defensive end or outside linebacker. And with Prince Shembo still a key cog of this defense, Williams was going to need to show some versatility. Hounshell’s injury might actually work to Williams’ benefit, though it’ll be up to Ishaq to determine just how good he can be.
Ben Councell: The starting Dog linebacker last year almost by default, Councell spent a year learning behind Danny Spond, and entered spring a bigger, stronger and more confident player. In an ideal world, Councell is the prototype OLB for this system, and has all the skills needed to succeed. After learning on the fly last season, another season in the program will give him the confidence to seize any opportunity that comes his way.
Anthony Rabasa: In years past, Rabasa was the type of outside linebacker that Irish defenses would kill for. But the 6-foot-3, 245-pounder is a bit of a tweener in this system. He’ll cross-train this spring between inside and outside linebacker, with the depth in the middle the shortest line to the field. With a shoulder injury behind him, Rabasa has a fifth-year of eligibility available to him, though he’ll need to find his role in this defense soon, as reinforcements will continue to fill the depth chart.
Romeo Okwara: With the depth chart thin, there was no chance to protect a year of eligibility for Okwara, who played last season as a 17-year-old freshman. And after a year in the program and another 12 months of weight training, the challenge will be keeping Okwara off the field, as he looks like a potential monster in this defense.
Still not 18 years old, Okwara weighed in a shade under 260 pounds, giving you reason to believe that a 280-pound defensive end isn’t all that far away. If that’s the case, the Irish have some positional flexibility with the North Carolina native, though they might be forced by the youngster to find a place on the field sooner than later.
Apr 23, 2014, 8:14 PM EDT
Notre Dame closed out their offensive line recruiting on Wednesday, accepting the verbal commitment of Illinois offensive lineman Trevor Ruhland. The 6-foot-4, 270-pounder chose the Irish over offers from Cal, Duke, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern and Vanderbilt.
Apr 23, 2014, 1:46 PM EDT
Florida transfer Cody Riggs has one season to make an impact at Notre Dame. And he has a great opportunity to do it.
Apr 21, 2014, 10:59 AM EDT
Suspended wide receiver DaVaris Daniels has spent the semester away from the university and football program, after falling behind academically. Daniels found out the news on his way to the Pinstripe Bowl, a fitting ending to a challenging season that saw Daniels improve statistically, but battle injuries and inefficiency.
Apr 18, 2014, 12:36 PM EDT
Brian VanGorder’s new defense turned spring practice into a reboot of the defense. Replacing key members of the front seven and changing schemes made for an important 15 practices. Let’s take a look at the post-spring practice depth chart.
Apr 17, 2014, 1:08 PM EDT
The Blue-Gold game is done and spring’s 15 practices are complete. With Easter break around the corner and summer workouts still a few months away, let’s take a look at the moves and shakes on the Irish offensive depth chart.
Apr 15, 2014, 1:40 PM EDT
Making an impact during a spring game is always a good thing. But sometimes, the not making one is a good thing, too. The core of the Irish defense didn’t play a lot in the Blue-Gold game.
Apr 14, 2014, 2:59 PM EDT
Spring football is done, with the Blue-Gold game already in the rearview mirror. Let’s recap Saturday’s festivities with a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from the offense’s 63-58 win.
Apr 13, 2014, 7:15 PM EDT
During the first half of the Blue-Gold game, athletic director Jack Swarbrick joined Alex Flanagan on television to break the game’s biggest news. After years of struggling to maintain the natural grass surface inside Notre Dame Stadium, the university will be installing a synthetic surface inside the stadium.
Apr 12, 2014, 3:41 PM EDT
A new quarterback depth chart. A new surface coming to Notre Dame Stadium. Unseen weapons making their presence felt all afternoon. There are plenty of takeaways from the 85th annual Blue-Gold game.
Apr 12, 2014, 12:07 PM EDT
It feels like forever since we gathered in late December to watch the Irish finish the season in rather painful fashion against Rutgers in the House that Steinbrenner built. But we’re back for the 85th annual Blue-Gold game, and another live blog of the festivities.
Apr 12, 2014, 12:59 AM EDT
It’s the final practice for the Irish until they return to the field for fall camp in August. With kickoff scheduled for 12:30 p.m. EDT, you can watch the game on NBCSN or via the steaming link below.
Apr 11, 2014, 1:07 PM EDT
Spring is here. Football is in Notre Dame Stadium. As the Irish get ready to do battle in the 85th annual Blue-Gold game, here’s a pregame six pack to get your ready for the action.
Apr 10, 2014, 4:57 PM EDT
As Notre Dame tries to replace long-time starters Zack Martin and Chris Watt, Brian Kelly and Harry Hiestand are still tinkering with finding their five best offensive linemen.
Apr 9, 2014, 2:31 AM EDT
With Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold game scheduled for this Saturday, we’re taking a closer look at 10 players you need to watch.
Apr 8, 2014, 1:53 PM EDT
After finalizing an ACC scheduling pact that begins in 2014, a CBS Sports report has Notre Dame and Georgia on the verge of agreeing to a home-and-home series that begins in 2018.
Apr 7, 2014, 4:10 PM EDT
Nobody will confuse Saturday’s Blue-Gold game with a real football game. But for the first time since that fateful January night against Alabama, Everett Golson will be taking snaps that count.
Apr 5, 2014, 10:15 PM EDT
Notre Dame received their sixth recruiting commitment of the 2015 class on Saturday, with Las Vegas safety Nicco Fertitta pledging to the Irish. He’s the third recruit to pick Notre Dame in the last week.
Apr 4, 2014, 8:32 PM EDT
After two practices outside, the Irish head back inside Loftus, for another practice in their friendly indoor facility. Here’s your overly in-depth look at the latest (and final) UND.com practice video from April 4.
Apr 4, 2014, 12:04 PM EDT
Brian Kelly announced Friday that rising sophomore cornerback Rashad Kinlaw has been dismissed from the Irish football program.
Apr 3, 2014, 1:44 PM EDT
Tasked with installing a new system and replacing potential first round draft picks Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, Mike Elston has a lot on his plate this spring. Made available to the media on Wednesday, Elston gave us a progress report.