Everybody knew the loss of Manti Te’o would hurt. But after six months of treating the most decorated defensive player in modern college football history as a punching bag, even the staunchest of Irish fans might have forgotten just how much Te’o did for the Notre Dame defense.
The Irish were set to return every linebacker in their two-deep minus Te’o, with the expectation that the trio of Dan Fox, Carlo Calabrese, and Jarrett Grace would capably man the inside while Prince Shembo and Danny Spond would be excellent on the outside. Young talent like Ishaq Williams, Ben Councell and Jaylon Smith would push the group and allow the Irish linebacking unit to be the heart of a stout defense.
That plan was derailed early when Spond was forced to walk away from football because of debilitating migraine headaches. And the growing pains the inside linebackers felt learning about life without Te’o will be all the more painful now that Grace is lost for the season with a broken leg. Behind Fox and Calabrese there’s little to no experience, with former walk-on Joe Schmidt taking snaps against ASU and Kendall Moore now back in the mix as well.
Let’s walk through the three keys for the Irish linebackers, a group that’s now playing with little margin for error.
Carlo Calabrese: 40 tackles, 4 TFLs, 1 BU, 1 PD, 1 FR
Jarrett Grace: 40 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 BU, 1 PD
Dan Fox: 36 tackles, 3 TFLs, 1 INT, 1 PD, 1 FR, 1 TD
Jaylon Smith: 27 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 2 BU, 2 PD, 1 FF
Prince Shembo: 20 tackles, 3 TFLs, 3 sacks, 8 QBH,
Ishaq Williams: 11 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack
Joe Schmidt: 8 tackles
Ben Councell: 6 tackles
Kendall Moore: 2 tackles
Romeo Okwara: 2 tackles
Do your job. If there’s a coaching point that the Irish staff engrains in its players, it’s as simple as this. Every player needs to do their job, and be excellent at being 1/11th of the defense. Throughout the early part of the season, it was clear that this was problematic for the linebacking unit, with Jaylon Smith and Jarrett Grace learning on the job.
There’s no question that the inside linebacker jobs are now Calabrese and Fox’s to hold onto, with any substituting likely for rest as opposed to scheme. Fox played his best game of the season against Arizona State. Calabrese has played with the urgency of a fifth year senior. Prince Shembo was let loose and Smith led the team in tackles. After an ugly start, this group is coming together. But they can’t do that if they’re freelancing.
Hold up against the pass. If there’s been one deficiency early in the linebacker play its been the struggles in pass drops and zone coverage. Seven interceptions by a middle linebacker tends to elevate your passing defense stats, and Te’o basically played a shallow centerfield for the Irish last season.
Dan Fox has the athleticism to play against the pass and Calabrese has improved. There’s no better athlete than Jaylon Smith and Prince Shembo can shut down a dropback pass game by terrorizing quarterbacks. But if you aren’t dropping into coverage in the right place it doesn’t do much good.
Stay Healthy. There’s not much margin for error for the Irish. Behind Fox and Calabrese there’s little experience, even though Kendall Moore and Joe Schmidt have played a lot on special teams. Does Bob Diaco experiment with sliding Ishaq Williams both inside and out? There’s six games left, including two against service academies that necessitate assignment correct football, and it’s going to be all hands on deck.
On paper, Grace and Spond were two of the most important building blocks of the defense. But it’s next man in for the Irish, and opportunities are coming for some guys that might not have thought that possible heading into the season.
For more talk during the Irish bye week, you can check out the Irish Illustrated podcast both here or on iTunes.