Tag: Darius Fleming

Robert Blanton

Robert Blanton and Darius Fleming selected in fifth round of NFL Draft


Two more former Irish players had their names called in the NFL Draft today, with Robert Blanton and Darius Fleming getting selected in the fifth round of the draft. That makes four players selected from the 2011 squad, joining first-round picks Michael Floyd (#13) and Harrison Smith (#29).

Blanton went with the 139th overall pick to the Minnesota Vikings, joining Smith in the Twin Cities as the Vikings revamp their secondary. Fleming was the 165th pick in the draft, joining Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco squad and a 49ers defense that was already a dominant unit. He’ll join former teammate Ian Williams in the Bay Area.

Blanton’s selection by Minnesota continues a wave of Notre Dame players on the Vikings roster, joining John Sullivan, Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson and Smith. After playing cornerback for the Irish, Blanton’s projected as a safety at the next level, but will likely be given a chance to play corner in the Vikings Cover 2 defense under head coach Leslie Frazier.

Fleming opened some eyes with an impressive Pro Day showing. He’s the first Irish linebacker selected in the draft since Courtney Watson went in the second round of the 2004 draft. Playing with both his hand on the ground as a defensive end and as a ‘Cat’ linebacker in Brian Kelly’s 3-4 system, Fleming has also cross-trained as a inside linebacker in his draft prep, where the 6-foot-2, 245-pound Chicago native profiles. He’ll also have the chance to be an immediate contributor on special teams.

Jonas Gray, who suffered a major knee injury late in the season, still expects to hear his name called in the draft’s seventh round.

Filling holes: Outside linebacker

Prince Shembo, Sean Cwynar, Hafis Williams

As spring practice approaches, the Irish coaching staff will be tasked with replacing some valuable senior contributors. All in, the Irish lost ten starters from their opening day lineup against South Florida. While youthful depth developed throughout last season will undoubtedly help ease that blow, there’s no doubt that this spring will be used to take stock of what personnel the Irish have, and find out what rising player will get first shot at a starting job.

Let’s take a look at the battles at outside linebacker.

2011 Starters
Darius Fleming, Sr.
Prince Shembo, Soph.

Quick Positional Recap

From a statistical perspective, the Irish outside linebackers were some of the least efficient defenders on the roster. Fleming, who took almost 90 percent of the defensive snaps, made tackles on only 7.5% of his snaps. Shembo, who was a tough match for his role at drop linebacker, but was clearly the best option for playing time, made tackles on only 6.2% of his snaps. Of all the linebackers that got significant minutes, those two percentages were among the least efficient. (Manti Te’o led the team with tackles on over 16% of his plays.)

Still, Fleming was one of the work horses on the Irish defense, coming off the field only in games where the outcome was well at hand. While undersized, he possessed the ability to both shift down to the defensive line in four-man fronts and play on the short-side of the field at linebacker, spending more time at defensive end in a four-man front than any other player on the roster, while also logging more time than anybody at outside linebacker. While Fleming’s productivity never seemed to live up to his potential, the Irish will need to replace a physical player in the run game and a good enough athlete to keep opposing offenses honest in passing downs.

The Candidates

Prince Shembo, 6-2, 250, Jr. — The most logical choice to replace Fleming at the Cat linebacker is Shembo, who started the season across from him in the huddle. Shembo possesses a similar skill-set and may be an even better pass rusher. Of the opening day starters last season, only Dan Fox took less snaps than Shembo, who saw his playing time decrease against spread teams with the use of Jamoris Slaughter at the star linebacker position — a role that took Shembo off the field as a linebacker and forced him to defensive end. At six-foot-two, 250-pounds, Shembo doesn’t have the ideal size to play the position, but he’ll likely get the first shot at taking over the job.

Ishaq Williams, 6-5, 255, Soph. — There was a lot of learning on the job last year for Williams, who contributed on special teams and saw significant time on the field in blowout victories against Purdue, Air Force, Navy, and Maryland. The former five-star recruit, who enrolled at Notre Dame early and participated in spring practice, didn’t make the impact that some other freshmen did, but clearly possesses the size and speed that could make him an ideal fit at the position. A great spring of practices could easily put Williams in position to take the position.

Troy Niklas, Soph. 6-6.5, 250 — There are rumors that Niklas might not even be on the defensive side of the ball come spring practice, but he could be the best Cat linebacker on the roster. With freakish size and athleticism, Niklas was one of the early surprises of the freshman class, and his versatility could be a great weapon for defensive coordinator Bob Diaco as the Irish look to retool the outside linebacker depth chart.

Ben Councell, Soph. 6-4.5, 230— If Shembo slides to the short-side of the field, expect Councell to compete immediately for the position across from him. While the freshman didn’t see the field last season, he’s highly regarded, and might be the most natural fit at the drop linebacker position. Spring practice will be our first chance to see Councell in action, giving us our first clue how soon the North Carolina product will contribute.

Danny Spond, 6-2, 242, Jr. — From the day Spond hit campus, he’s seemed to have a fan in head coach Brian Kelly. But injuries and the depth chart have made his contributors negligible so far. A four-star quarterback and safety in high school, Spond has grown his way into an outside linebacker, and might be the best option in pass coverage on the roster. He lacks the size of the other candidates, but if Niklas is considering a switch to offense, the staff must trust Spond’s ability to contribute immediately.


After blue-chip recruitment, Fleming flying under NFL radar

South Florida v Notre Dame

It’ll be interesting to follow Darius Fleming‘s career after leaving South Bend. The graduating Irish linebacker, who came to Notre Dame with sky-high expectations, heads to Indianapolis with far less fanfare. After being one of the top recruits in the country, Fleming will need a solid evaluation season to even end up drafted.

Many assumed Fleming’s career would take a welcome boost from Brian Kelly’s tenure as the Irish head coach. After bouncing between linebacker and undersized defensive end, Fleming seemed the perfect fit at the Cat linebacker position, where his ability to rush the passer and athleticism to play in space would be perfectly utilized. Comparisons to Cincinnati’s Connor Barwin, a combo DE/OLB that excelled when Kelly came to the Bearcats had Irish fans thinking the light-switch would simply flip when Fleming was put into Bob Diaco’s system.

Taking a quick look at Barwin’s combine numbers, Fleming held his own with the former second-round draft pick. Barwin has a size advantage on Fleming, notching in at 6-foot-4, 256 pounds compared to Fleming’s 6-foot-2, 245, and held his own with speed, nudged by less than one-tenth of a second with an official 4.72 sprint in the 40. (Though Barwin did clock an incredible 4.47 forty at his pro day.) Fleming easily bested Barwin in the strength department, but wasn’t near as explosive in the jumping drills.

Of course, Barwin also put together staggering stats in his collegiate career, something Fleming wasn’t able to do. In many ways, Fleming is the personification of arrested player development, flip-flopping early in his career and then struggling to learn on the fly a third defense when Kelly and company came to town. There were dominant flashes were Fleming played like an All-American, but there were also games were No. 45 might as well have been anonymous.

Success at Notre Dame hasn’t necessarily been a good predictor for NFL stability. A professional career like the one David Givens forged after a good, but not great Irish career might be considered a long shot, but watching players like David Bruton and Sergio Brown succeed should have Fleming feeling confident that if he receives a shot, he’ll be able to make the most of it. Like Bruton and Brown, Fleming has the athleticism to play at the next level. He’ll need to show that in drill work and pro days, something both Fleming and his team understand.

‘‘It’s up to Darius to wow ’em in the interview, wow ’em in the film work and chalkboard, shoot for top 10s in all the categories for the combine, and then at the Pro Day kill his skill work,” Fleming’s trainer Elias Karras told the Chicago Sun Times. “That’s where we really see movement, the skill work.’’

Interestingly enough, the lack of continuity that likely plagued his collegiate development might actually become an asset moving forward. Fleming cutting his weight to 245 pounds should have him prepared to gain some positional flexibility at linebacker, potentially allowing him to work from the middle, while his athleticism and speed should make him a valuable special teams contributor.

Either way, after entering Notre Dame will sky-high expectations, perhaps flying under the radar might do Fleming some good.