While the linebacking corps might be best known for the player that departed, the Irish should be very strong both inside and out even without All-American Manti Te’o roaming the field. Head coach Brian Kelly has talked quite a bit about the type of teammate and leader the Irish need to replace in Te’o, but there’s confidence in the team meeting room that the defense should be just fine without the defensive player of the year.
While Danny Spond’s retirement during fall camp took away another starter, there’s depth at all four positions under Bob Diaco’s watch. With talented newcomers blending with a strong group of seniors, this is likely the best linebacking corps the Irish have fielded since the Holtz era.
It’s crazy to think that this position could’ve actually gotten stronger while losing Te’o, but there’s a very good argument to be made. With fifth-year seniors Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese starting, it’s hard to think of a more experienced duo in the middle of the field. While Calabrese has some deficiencies in pass coverage, he’s had a strong summer and fall camp, holding off Jarrett Grace, who looked like a guy that would plug into Te’o’s role while Fox and Calabrese would continue their platoon.
Senior Kendall Moore provides an exciting backup, a guy that’s immensely productive in the run game but still needs to advance his skills against the pass. Former walk-on Joe Schmidt is also in the mix, with freshman Michael Deeb looking like a guy physically ready to contribute.
The strength of this group might be on the edges. Prince Shembo could be one of college football’s most underrated players, and he could very well end up with double-digit sacks from his Cat linebacker position. Shembo put on nearly ten pounds since last season and somehow looked slimmer during fall camp. Spond’s departure also opened the door for Jaylon Smith, and it’ll be interesting to see how quickly Smith becomes a difference maker for this unit. With the cover skills of a cornerback at 230 pounds, Smith should also be very productive against the outside run game.
With talented depth across the board, we’ll likely see a lot of Ishaq Williams, a guy some people still project to be a front-line All-American caliber player. Kelly talked about Williams quite a bit this camp, saying the junior is ready to take the next step. The same could be said for Ben Councell, who adds some bulk at the Dog linebacker position, capable of playing physical in the box.
Here’s a look at the positional breakdown of both inside and outside linebackers.
Dan Fox, Sr. #48
Carlo Calabrese, Sr. #44
Jarrett Grace, Jr. #59
Kendall Moore, Sr. #8
Joe Schmidt, Jr. #38
Michael Deeb, Fr. #42
Prince Shembo, Sr. #55
Ishaq Williams, Jr. #11
Jaylon Smith, Fr. #9
Ben Councell, Jr. #30
Romeo Okwara, Soph. #45
Danny Spond, Sr. #13
Anthony Rabasa, Jr. #56
Doug Randolph, Fr. #19
Connor Little, Jr. #93
Austin Larkin, Fr. #52
Expect to see a lot of the top three inside linebackers, with Fox and Calabrese sharing snaps with Grace. Fox might be more of the every down player, but all three are close to interchangeable parts, while Moore could help out situationally.
On the outside, it’ll be interesting to see how Bob Diaco finds snaps for Shembo and Williams, as both are in the team’s top eleven defenders and should find a way to be on the field. For a freshman, Smith has a bunch of qualities that make it very difficult to take him off the field, but that’s an awful lot of pressure on a first year player.
A player to watch: Romeo Okwara. Will the coaching staff try and protect a year of eligibility for the just tuned 18-year-old, or is he too good to keep off the field, even at the deepest position on the roster.