Apr 1, 2013, 12:18 PM EST
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.
Jan 30, 2015, 12:21 PM EST
Notre Dame welcomes safety prospect Arrington Farrar to campus this weekend. The Irish coaching staff finishes up a chaotic cross-country week visiting prospects both committed and interested (and some somewhere in between).
Jan 29, 2015, 1:37 PM EST
The ACC announced their 2015 conference football schedule. And the six dates with Notre Dame seem to take center stage.
Jan 28, 2015, 2:55 PM EST
Kendall Moore’s football career did not end as planned. The fifth-year senior never saw the playing field after being pulled from the team in August as part of an academic dishonesty probe that kept DaVaris Daniels, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams out for the 2014 season — and school year — as well. (Eilar Hardy returned to the team in late October.)
Jan 28, 2015, 2:24 PM EST
Brian Kelly took a trip to Atlanta and made his in-home visit to see safety Arrington Farrar. Things went so well that Farrar decided to take his final official visit before Signing Day to South Bend.
Jan 27, 2015, 4:55 PM EST
Notre Dame strength coach Paul Longo has a new lieutenant. And he’s crossed enemy lines to join the Irish staff.
Jan 26, 2015, 11:26 AM EST
Notre Dame has a final need in their recruiting class. And over the weekend, they sold Louisiana safety Justin Reid that he could fill it.
Jan 25, 2015, 2:28 PM EST
A special Sunday delivery of the Mailbag. Let’s get to some questions.
Jan 25, 2015, 11:16 AM EST
Safety Eilar Hardy will finish his college football career elsewhere. After four seasons in South Bend, Hardy will earn his Notre Dame degree and be free to play out his eligibility in another program.
Jan 23, 2015, 1:04 PM EST
With less than two weeks to go before Signing Day, recruiting is the focus for the Irish coaching staff. But as we crack open the mailbag, we cover a bit more ground than the usual will-he or won’t-he that comes along with the first Wednesday in February.
Jan 22, 2015, 11:32 AM EST
One of Notre Dame’s long-time verbal commitments is no longer planning on joining the Irish’s 2015 recruiting class. Texas safety Prentice McKinney took an official visit to North Carolina last weekend and flipped his commitment to Larry Fedora’s Tar Heels on Wednesday, dropping Notre Dame’s recruiting class down to 22 players and just two safeties.
Jan 21, 2015, 9:51 PM EST
Can we follow up last week’s excellence with another solid week of questions? Drop them below or @KeithArnold.
Jan 21, 2015, 1:43 PM EST
While the Irish coaching staff traverses the country taking in-home visits, Notre Dame’s staff is close to putting the finishing touches on a stellar recruiting class. The additional of Aliz’e Jones pushes the Irish into a consensus Top 10 class — quite an accomplishment considering this was supposed to be a smaller group.
Jan 20, 2015, 12:29 AM EST
Star-crossed Notre Dame wide receiver DaVaris Daniels’ career with the Irish is over. After two seasons and two significant suspensions, Daniels decided to forgo any additional eligibility he has at the college level and turn professional.
Jan 19, 2015, 3:00 PM EST
Say this for Brian Kelly. He learns from his mistakes.
And after losing Stephon Tuitt and Troy Niklas after just three seasons in South Bend, Notre Dame’s head coach made sure he had a final say before Ronnie Stanley and Sheldon Day made their stay-or-go decision.
Jan 19, 2015, 1:44 PM EST
KeiVarae Russell gives a promising update on his future in South Bend via (where else?) social media.
Jan 16, 2015, 1:04 PM EST
Lots to discuss in our Friday mailbag. Position changes, 85 scholarships, Reggie Ho and more.
(Collective thumbs up to all of you.)
Jan 15, 2015, 2:51 PM EST
After being committed to UCLA for months, Las Vegas tight end Alize Jones has flipped his pledge to Notre Dame. The bluechip recruit is widely acknowledged to be the best tight end in the country and plays high school football with current Irish commit Nicco Fertitta at Bishop Gorman.
Jan 15, 2015, 2:19 PM EST
The first College Football Playoff is over. And with less than three weeks to go before National Signing Day, the dead period has ended and the home stretch in recruiting has begun.
Jan 14, 2015, 10:45 AM EST
There’s plenty to talk about. Have a question? Drop it below or on Twitter @KeithArnold.
Jan 13, 2015, 7:00 PM EST
Notre Dame junior Ronnie Stanley announced Tuesday that he will return for his senior season, giving the Irish one of the best left tackles in college football for another season. After being projected by some as a first round pick, Stanley made the decision to return for 2015.