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How we got here: Linebackers

Oct 11, 2013, 11:45 AM EDT

Prince Shembo AP

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 WilliamsBen 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.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING

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

THREE KEYS

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. 

October 10: Trend spotting

  1. chadwalters425 - Oct 11, 2013 at 12:38 PM

    Hey KA -

    No linkage to the Irish Illustrated podcast as per your last line. Have a nice weekend away from football, if you so choose.

  2. 4horsemenrideagain - Oct 11, 2013 at 12:39 PM

    in the event that more bodies are needed at MLB, what is more likely; that Jaylon Smith/Ishaq Williams get snaps inside, or that Michael Deeb burns his redshirt?

    for my part, i was hoping Deeb would save the year, but on the other hand if he wasn’t able to, i’d be really excited to see him in action.

  3. wisner74 - Oct 11, 2013 at 12:51 PM

    I was thinking that Kendall Moore would have gotten more playing time by now, even without the injuries, but maybe I’ve been overrating him. Either that or the younger talent is simply much better than he is.

  4. bigjdeezy - Oct 11, 2013 at 1:08 PM

    I think the coaches try moving Ben Councell to MLB……the only question is if can hold up in the run game an take on guards

  5. nudeman - Oct 11, 2013 at 2:25 PM

    Saw a suggestion the other day somewhere else that they consider moving someone to LB from offense. That’s obviously a 2014 solution

    Will Mahone was mentioned, as he’s so.buried on the depth chart.
    I imagine he’d have to play inside as he’s only 5’11″ or so. Someone suggested Ishaq inside. But for God sake the last thing he needs is a new position to learn.

    • 4horsemenrideagain - Oct 11, 2013 at 3:03 PM

      the idea of switching an offensive player to inside is interesting and on a slightly different note, makes me think of what kind of DT Troy Niklas was/could have been. don’t get me wrong, i love him in-line blocking and catching balls, but the way get gets off the ball, i bet he was a beast trying to block.

    • onward2victory - Oct 11, 2013 at 4:02 PM

      I tried asking Keith this in a mailbag, but I have been really impressed with James Onwualu on special teams coverage. The kid is really well built and plays with an aggressiveness that this team generally seems to lack. With the WR position deep and more top talent on the way, I would love to see JO moved to defense. I’m guessing he’d have to put on 15-20 lbs to play MLB, but I think that’s possible by next august. And I think he’s about 6’3″ with good speed.

      You guys think this could work??

      • 4horsemenrideagain - Oct 11, 2013 at 4:59 PM

        this kid loves contact. that much is clear. he has a big frame, good wheels and good football speed. i don’t think he’s quite 6′ 3″ but that’s not to say he couldn’t do it. with the way he hits, it would almost be a shame to waste that mean streak on catching passes. i was thinking of safety, but that’s a log jam.

      • ndnapa - Oct 12, 2013 at 12:33 PM

        I really like this idea. I think he’d have to get to 240 at 6-2, but I think it’s possible by next season. Considering that he hasn’t done much lifting, he should have the potential to put on bulk fairly quickly. Actually, I think he’d love the move.

    • rdw71 - Oct 11, 2013 at 4:12 PM

      I think Will Mahone is too small. Frank Stams moved from running back to defense for the 1988 team, but he was 6′ 4″. I think Deeb is a much better option – would cost him a redshirt year but they have time to recruit for that spot. Look how safety went from a position of need to overstocked in two years – hopefully linebacker will look the same three years from now and Deeb will be sold with lots of experience at that point. We are not facing killer offenses for the next few weeks so it is a good time to learn, given that both Fox and Calabrese are gone after this year. Which brings up the point – remember how many people thought keeping Calabrese for his fifth year was a mistake? Looks like a good move now.

      • rdw71 - Oct 11, 2013 at 4:16 PM

        sorry – make that “Deeb will be *solid*, not *sold*. I think college football is still amateur, at least officially.

  6. dudeacow - Oct 11, 2013 at 3:26 PM

    Well, maybe Ishaq will have a breakout year next year…

    *sigh*

  7. getsome99 - Oct 11, 2013 at 4:28 PM

    @ onward2victory,

    Onawalu is a beast of a blocker. Next Michael Floyd. We need to continue recruiting WR’s from that high school.

    • nudeman - Oct 11, 2013 at 4:46 PM

      Interesting data point: Keith Arnold is from that HS

      • 4horsemenrideagain - Oct 11, 2013 at 5:00 PM

        you saying keith is also a “beast of a blocker?” or did you mean “beast of a blogger”

      • jerseyshorendfan1 - Oct 11, 2013 at 5:21 PM

        Been a long time since I had Intro to Logic but I think there’s a fallacy in that syllogism

      • jerseyshorendfan1 - Oct 11, 2013 at 5:25 PM

        Hey, dickasman, look, I said jism.

      • North of Denver - Oct 11, 2013 at 11:32 PM

        4horse & Jersey:
        Hilarious.

      • dickasman - Oct 12, 2013 at 2:13 AM

        Jersey, HOTT!!!

    • onward2victory - Oct 11, 2013 at 5:58 PM

      That’s not fair at all to call him the next Michael Floyd (best ND receiver EVER) just because they went to the same HS and are good at blocking. If he was even close that level of talent, he would already be playing as the #3 WR.

      The truth is that next year Onwualu will be looking up the depth chart at a bunch of WR’s who are more talented than him (Daniels, Brown, Fuller, Robinson, Hunter Jr, Corey Holmes, and hopefully Lazzard and McKenzie). I think JO would be more needed on defense if he can make the transition.

  8. getsome99 - Oct 11, 2013 at 4:53 PM

    Lol. How did I know you’d be the first one to catch that?

  9. viktory2013 - Oct 11, 2013 at 5:23 PM

    Jaylon Smith is a remarkably talented kid, as is Prince Shembo. Romeo Okawara shows a lot of potential and Ben Councell might develop into something soon. Ishaq Williams seems to have ample ability, but just seems a step off for some reason. Calabrese and Fox are slow and clumsy. Trade em for pigs and chickens.

  10. bearcatirishfan - Oct 11, 2013 at 6:57 PM

    What about Okwara (sp?). He plays behind she no I think and I hear he’s a beast why not try him inside.

  11. getsome99 - Oct 11, 2013 at 7:34 PM

    Only meant that in terms of the way he blocks for a WR. Takes pride in it like Floyd. The high school comment was a tongue in cheek reference to something that Nudeman predictably picked up on. Have no clue what the kid can or can’t do as a pass catcher.

    • dickasman - Oct 12, 2013 at 2:15 AM

      I like his attitude. I just see him on special teams but I love the kids heart and effort. Looks for contact. I’d love to see him get couple catches and couple end around or something.

      • 4horsemenrideagain - Oct 12, 2013 at 7:22 AM

        Rare cogent thought from dick? Is this the Thorazine talking?

      • charlie617 - Oct 12, 2013 at 10:08 AM

        Onwualu to this point looks like a guy who’s got great instincts for the game of football but maybe hasn’t picked up all the nuances of the receiver position and doesn’t have great speed like a Chris Brown or Will Fuller. I think that after a year (or two) in the system, he’ll get his route-running down and become a short-to-mid-range threat who becomes truly dangerous and hard to bring down once he gets the ball in his hands.

  12. loadofwash - Oct 12, 2013 at 9:31 AM

    Defense ranks 50, good job mr Kelly

  13. loadofwash - Oct 13, 2013 at 7:34 PM

    Maybe it would make more sense to get some talent and a little coaching would go a long way, just saying. They did have awesome linebacker play in the BCS game…#NOT.

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