Skip to content

Spring solutions: Linebackers

Apr 1, 2013, 12:18 PM EDT

Prince Shembo, Sean Cwynar, Hafis Williams

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.

SPRING OBJECTIVES

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.

 

Latest Posts
  1. Irish A-to-Z: Elijah Shumate

    Aug 22, 2014, 9:30 AM EDT

    Notre Dame v Michigan Notre Dame v Michigan

    A blue-chip recruit who immediately contributed on the 2012 defense, junior Elijah Shumate is still looking to find his fit in the Irish defense. Irish A-to-Z takes a closer look at the New Jersey native.

  2. Irish A-to-Z: Joe Schmidt

    Aug 21, 2014, 3:48 PM EDT

    ncf_i_schmidt_600x400

    Senior linebacker Joe Schmidt might still carry with him the tag of walk-on. But he’s also one of the key leaders on an Irish defense that’s counting on the senior to play key minutes as the man in the middle of Notre Dame’s defense. Irish A-to-Z continues with a look at Notre Dame’s starting middle linebacker.

  3. Preseason Camp: Final video breakdown

    Aug 21, 2014, 1:29 PM EDT

    Cam McDaniel Cam McDaniel

    It’s been a hectic last week inside the Notre Dame football program. Between suspensions, media day and the home-stretch of our A-to-Z series, it’s time to get to some football.

  4. Tune In: Another Strong & True airs Monday on NBCSN

    Aug 21, 2014, 12:20 PM EDT

    Brian Kelly Brian Kelly

    With training camp over and Notre Dame transitioning to game prep, football is almost here. But for one more look back at the Irish’s time at Culver Academy and another behind-the-scenes look at the program, our friends at Fighting Irish Digital Media present a new edition of the always excellent Strong & True series.

  5. Irish A-to-Z: KeiVarae Russell

    Aug 20, 2014, 8:26 PM EDT

    Notre Dame at USC AP

    Inked to help fill a running back depth chart in need of reinforcements, KeiVarae Russell became a cornerback by accident. Irish A-to-Z continues with a look at an All-American candidate with his season up for grabs, an academic investigation determining Russell’s role on the 2014 team.

  6. Riggs ready to lead

    Aug 20, 2014, 1:03 PM EDT

    Matt Cashore / Irish Illustrated Matt Cashore / Irish Illustrated

    Of the players made available to the media yesterday, grad student Cody Riggs wasn’t among them. But the cornerback stopped by UND.com’s Media Day coverage, and after watching his interview with Jack Nolan it’s hard not to be impressed.

  7. Quick thoughts from Media Day

    Aug 19, 2014, 9:57 PM EDT

    Brian Kelly, Brian VanGorder Brian Kelly, Brian VanGorder

    With access to Brian Kelly, his assistants and a handful of veteran players, today’s Media Day felt a little different than most. That’s understandable, with the aftermath of unexpected academic suspensions still lingering over the program. With the investigation still on media lockdown, speculation has varied widely, but it’s clear that Kelly is moving forward, the only thing a head coach can do.

  8. Phillip Daniels feels confident son DaVaris will be cleared

    Aug 18, 2014, 7:28 PM EDT

    Notre Dame v Stanford Getty Images

    The Irish practiced today without four suspended veterans, as an academic investigation continues at Notre Dame about potential Honor Code violations committed by DaVaris Daniels, Kendall Moore, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams. And with rumors swirling and little actual info coming out of anyone inside the program, Phillip Daniels was a guest on NBC 5’s Sports Sunday, and spoke candidly about his son’s situation.

  9. Irish A-to-Z: Isaac Rochell

    Aug 18, 2014, 6:07 PM EDT

    Oklahoma v Notre Dame Getty Images

    Providing depth in 2013, sophomore Isaac Rochell just became a very large part of Notre Dame’s plans this season. Irish A-to-Z continues with a lock at Notre Dame’s accidental starter at defensive end.

  10. Back to football: Video breakdown

    Aug 18, 2014, 9:00 AM EDT

    New York Post New York Post

    Notre Dame plays Rice in less than two weeks. While that might take a backseat to the interest following the academic investigation that’s underway, the Irish are preparing for a football game, and 15 practices into camp, things are starting to come together.

  11. Irish A-to-Z: Corey Robinson

    Aug 17, 2014, 1:02 PM EDT

    Steffon Batts, Corey Robinson AP

    Among the fleet of celebrity sons playing on Notre Dame’s football team, sophomore Corey Robinson looks poised to make his own name in 2014. Irish A-to-Z continues with a look at the young receiver.

  12. Kelly addresses academic investigation

    Aug 16, 2014, 2:53 PM EDT

    Brian Kelly Brian Kelly

    Life goes on for Notre Dame’s football team, as the Irish practiced inside Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday morning. After practice, Brian Kelly addressed the assembled media, talking for over 20 minutes, primarily about the suspensions of DaVaris Daniels, Kendall Moore, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams and the internal investigation taking place.

  13. With all eyes watching, a dig for truth begins at Notre Dame

    Aug 15, 2014, 9:29 PM EDT

    Rev. John Jenkins,Jack Swarbrick Rev. John Jenkins,Jack Swarbrick

    The college football world stared at Notre Dame on Friday. Some snickered as they hoped to see smoke and fire emerge from the Golden Dome. Irish fans braced for impact, with even the most level-headed dreading impending doom, with things getting worse by the minute as Notre Dame brass stayed silent.

  14. Academic misconduct investigation underway at Notre Dame

    Aug 15, 2014, 5:10 PM EDT

    DaVaris Daniels, Ricardo Allen AP

    An investigation is taking place at Notre Dame, the university announced Friday. With a news conference scheduled for 6 p.m., four Notre Dame football players have been taken off the field and held out of practice and competition until the investigation is complete.

  15. Multiple Reports: Notre Dame set to suspend four players for season

    Aug 15, 2014, 2:08 PM EDT

    ND finished field

    As rumors swirl out of control, multiple reports have Notre Dame suspending four players for the season as the result of an academic probe.

  16. Ready or Not: Young Irish defenders making moves

    Aug 14, 2014, 12:46 PM EDT

    Oklahoma v Notre Dame Getty Images

    Heading into fall camp, surprises were expected on the defensive side of the ball. But while everybody is talking about Brian Kelly naming Everett Golson his starting quarterback, the Irish head coach’s comments about his evolving defense were probably the most illuminating we’ve heard from Kelly in years.

  17. Kyle McCarthy takes leave of absence from Irish

    Aug 14, 2014, 11:20 AM EDT

    Washington v Notre Dame Getty Images

    Notre Dame announced this morning that graduate assistant Kyle McCarthy is taking a leave of absence from the football team to battle cancer. The former Irish captain is in his first season working with the Irish under Brian Kelly after retiring from the NFL.

  18. Irish A-to-Z: Cody Riggs

    Aug 13, 2014, 7:48 PM EDT

    Todd Gurley, Neiron Ball, Cody Riggs Todd Gurley, Neiron Ball, Cody Riggs

    After using the graduate transfer rule to fill niche roles like situational punter, Notre Dame landed a potential difference maker in Florida graduate Cody Riggs. Irish A-to-Z takes a closer look at the diminutive cornerback.

  19. Kelly names Golson starting quarterback

    Aug 13, 2014, 1:47 PM EDT

    Brian Kelly Brian Kelly

    While it may have taken longer than many expected, Brian Kelly named Everett Golson his starting quarterback after practice on Wednesday. The senior beat out sophomore Malik Zaire, who put up a valiant effort.

  20. Irish A-to-Z: Max Redfield

    Aug 12, 2014, 11:27 AM EDT

    Oklahoma v Notre Dame Oklahoma v Notre Dame

    A year after struggling to get on the field, Max Redfield has emerged as one of the key pieces of Notre Dame’s defense. Irish A-to-Z continues with a look at the former five-star safety.