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.

Tuesdays with BK: Jefferson Nightmare edition

Air Force Notre Dame

Goodbye Purdue. Hello Air Force.

Brian Kelly met with the assembled media today and talked about wrapping up Purdue, prepping for Air Force, and getting ready for head coach Troy Calhoun and his very dangerous quarterback Tim Jefferson.

If you’re curious what Kelly thinks about Jefferson and what he does to a defense, this quote should do it:

“It’s just a nightmare,” Kelly said. “He throws the ball so well that, again, you’re put in so many conflicts dealing with this offensive structure, and it starts with Jefferson’s ability to throw the football.”

Here’s some video highlights from this afternoon’s press conference. As usual, I’ll fill in some thoughts after:


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If you’re looking for a main storyline this week, it’s how well can Bob Diaco and the Irish defensive staff put together a gameplan that’ll shutdown Air Force’s option-based offense. After having their scheme rightfully cross-examined after the bludgeoning it took against Navy, Kelly talked about how the experiences playing against Navy and Army helped as they prepare for Air Force’s offensive attack.

“We have to play the way we play,” Kelly said. “We cannot become so out of character in stopping the option that we forget about the things that we teach every day. That is playing physical, flying to the football, great tackling. I think you’ve got to be careful because sometimes option, you get this sense of, Hey, it’s option. But we have to do what we do. That is, we’ve got to play physical at the line of scrimmage and we’ve got to tackle well as understanding the option being the most important principle.”

Kelly hits on, to me, what is one of the more interesting developments of the Brian Kelly era. While Kelly was known as an offensive mastermind before coming to South Bend, what we’ve actually seen is a guy that doesn’t really plan to out-scheme you, but simply beat you by finding a core competency and have his team excel doing just that.

If you’re looking for a reason to be confident against Air Force, it’s that Kelly believes that the strength and physicality of this defense is good enough that it simply needs to do what it does. Sure they’ll gameplan and make tweaks because of the option, but they’ll do that inside the framework of the defense’s principles — a unit that’s developed pretty impressively in a short time under Kelly and Diaco.


After spraining an ankle early against Purdue, Kelly is still unable to figure out where Ethan Johnson is in his progress toward seeing the field this weekend.

“He is still in that walking boot. He will be until about Thursday. We’ll take it off. We’ll have to see how he moves around on Thursday,” Kelly said. “When you immobilize for 48, you’re hoping for great results. We’ve been very aggressive in the treatment, but we’ll have to really see on Thursday. He’ll be involved in all of our drills, our walk-throughs. He’s going to be an inside guy for us, so he’s just got to be physical at the point of attack. It’s not like he’s going to have a lot of different things going on. We hope he’ll be able to answer the bell.”

I don’t expect to see Johnson this weekend, only because I think the coaching staff thinks that they can get by without using him on Saturday and give him two full weeks to get ready for USC. That said, Kelly pointed to an interesting personnel decision, choosing to use Johnson as an inside guy — likely in the mix with Louis Nix and Sean Cwynar, not necessarily at defensive end.

Kelly made it clear that both freshman, Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt, will play this weekend against Air Force, giving the youngsters a chance to team with Kapron Lewis-Moore, who has had some productive Saturdays against option teams in the past. I’d also expect to see Darius Fleming with his hand on the ground, giving way to Steve Filer or Ishaq Williams outside at linebacker.


Kelly had one of the better lines of the press conference when talking about the continued development of sophomore quarterback Tommy Rees.

“He’s been in some big games and some very difficult environments. He’s developing that scar tissue that you need to play quarterback with me as well, and that is he’s constantly being challenged to be better. He’s taken very well to that. I think all of our players have a great trust in him.”

The term “scar tissue” really resonates with me and is a great way to describe the evolution of a quarterback. Thinking back to the past few quarterbacks at Notre Dame, there were certainly cuts and scrapes along the way that aided in the development of these players.

Brady Quinn isn’t who he is without a few very tough football game in his freshman and sophomore seasons. Same for Jimmy Clausen. You’re seeing that Kelly believes that Rees is a guy that understands the offense and will only continue to get better, helping to refute the growing narrative that Rees has a low ceiling.

Kelly then talked about the decision to stick with Tommy against Pitt, even when it seemed like Dayne Crist might have been a better option.

“Even though he probably didn’t have his best game against Pittsburgh, there were many people asking why we didn’t go back to Dayne,” Kelly said. “I think Dayne is extremely capable of running our offense, being successful, but we wanted consistency and continuity, and we felt Tommy was going to give us that.”

I’m starting to think it might make sense to put together a up-tempo scheme for Crist, something that allows him to use his under-appreciated running ability and also get him on the field against Air Force. Sure, sophomore Andrew Hendrix or freshman Everett Golson might be better in a true dual-threat capacity, but neither have the command of the offense that Crist has.

Crist hasn’t shown the ability to stay healthy, but he has shown himself to be a pretty decent runner, something Tommy just doesn’t have in his arsenal.





The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Pitt

Jonas Gray Pitt

A second viewing of Notre Dame’s 15-12 victory doesn’t add new perspective to Saturday’s win. The maddening inconsistencies that have plagued this football team still exist, rearing their ugly heads when you’d least expect it. Two turnovers, a missed field goal, and too many penalties all combine to give you a squad that has understandably driven Irish fans nuts.

At one moment, Notre Dame looks like a BCS-level team, capable of moving the ball by air or ground in big chunks, shut down quarterbacks and running backs with an impressive group of defensive players. At others, the offense is a turnover machine, the special teams are horrendous, and the secondary needs a trip back to Football 101, where covering receivers and looking for the football aren’t mutually exclusive exercises.

But that’s life at 2-2. And after two head-scratching losses, the Irish’s two least impressive offensive outputs are wins that Notre Dame absolutely had to have. Like it or not, that’s progress. And while it certainly hasn’t been pretty, Brian Kelly‘s job isn’t to win games with style points, it’s to win games. With a proven track record of getting his teams to improve throughout the year  — seen last year with the Irish’s November to remember — there’s every reason to believe that this team will work through the troubles that ail them.

A winning streak is a winning streak, and the Irish’s win in Pittsburgh was a must have. Let’s take a look at the good, bad and ugly of Notre Dame’s 15-12 victory.


After struggling in short yardage situations, the Irish offensive line came up huge. In a game where the Irish needed to dominate the line of scrimmage, Ed Warinner‘s guys up front did some serious work in the trenches, winning every short-yardage battle they were presented with.

The Irish were 8 for 8 in third or fourth and short (three yards or less):

1st Quarter

3rd and 2 — Cierre Wood runs for 2 yards.
3rd and 2 — Cierre Wood runs for 2 yards.
3rd and 3 — Rees hits Michael Floyd for 5 yards (Defensive holding call accepted).

2nd Quarter

3rd and 3 — Rees hits Tyler Eifert for 6 yards.

3rd Quarter

3rd and 3 — Jonas Gray runs for 4 yards.
4th and 1 — Tommy Rees runs for 1 yard.

4th Quarter

3rd and 2 — Cierre Wood runs for 3 yards
4th and 1 — Tommy Rees sneaks for 1 yard.

While Irish fans watching on TV weren’t as confident, Kelly paid his offensive lineman the ultimate compliment when he trusted them to end the game on Tommy Rees‘ sneak. Interior linemen Braxston CaveChris Watt and Trevor Robinson came through, even if they only made it by half a football.

A few other things to file under the good category:

*Jonas Gray‘s burst around the corner, and confidence in the open field. I can’t say enough about the 79-yard touchdown, and after a tough first carry where Gray made a poor read on a well set-up run play, Gray turned the game on its head with his game-breaking touchdown.

* Punter Ben Turk also had his best ballgame of the season, putting three punts inside the Pitt 20 and launching another ball 47 yards. It’s hard to get too excited about a 37.2 yard punting average, but Turk did his job, and for the first time didn’t mis-kick any of his punts.

* While he didn’t break it for a touchdown, George Atkinson had another nice day returning kickoffs. His 36-yard return helped the Irish start with good field position in the second quarter.

* Repeating yesterday’s thoughts, Darius Fleming played a dominant football game at the line of scrimmage.


If you’re wondering what life looks like after Michael Floyd, it might not be all that pretty. With Pitt putting two men on Floyd, the Irish couldn’t take advantage of a defense that came into the game ranked 119th against the pass. Credit the defensive game plan put together by Todd Graham and his coaching staff, but if the Irish are going to keep winning football games, they’re going to need to get more out of Theo Riddick and TJ Jones.

Riddick had a quiet six catches yesterday and Jones was held to three catches for 31 yards. Whether it means giving Robby Toma more snaps or forcing the ball into Riddick earlier to get him involved, the Irish need to get production from somebody other than Floyd and tight end Tyler Eifert. It was a disheartening step back for the Irish offense, especially against a group that had shown serious coverage lapses when they were tested.

More importantly, the Irish have to decide what kind of offense they want to be. With Rees at the helm, they aren’t able to run zone read plays where the quarterback is a running option. But that doesn’t mean they need to be a read and react offense that assesses what the defense gives and counter-punches. The Irish have already shown that while that works in spurts, it also puts way too much pressure on a young quarterback, and taking what the defense gives you only works when you don’t have a penchant for throwing interceptions.

The Irish have one of their most potent rushing attacks in nearly a decade. They also have a wide receiving corps that goes as many as five or six deep. That sets up perfectly for a push-the-pace offense that dictates terms to the defense, not the other way around. The Irish aren’t going to be an explosive offense if they play horizontal football, dinking and dunking their way down the field. And while Rees can’t beat you with a QB keeper, he throws a great ball up the seam, showing more than enough arm strength and timing to eat up chunks of field vertically.


This football team still makes too many head-scratching mistakes. This week’s culprits were on special teams, where the Irish nearly cost themselves a football game with a roughing the punter penalty on sophomore Austin Collinsworth, giving Pitt a much needed first down on the Panthers’ only touchdown drive of the afternoon.

Kicking from their own end zone, Collinsworth tried to make a big play with a punt block up the middle, but dove straight into the legs of punter Matt Yoklic, who sold the refs on a 15-yard personal foul call. Whether you disagree with the refs call or not (Collinsworth barely touched the punter), the Irish haven’t shown themselves capable of making game-changing plays that require sound execution, and Mike Elston‘s unit would’ve been better served setting up for an easy return, especially considering Pitt’s mediocre kickers. Collinsworth is one of the Irish’s best special teamers, but coming right up the middle he made the cardinal sin of diving straight at the kicker and instead of the Irish starting with the ball at midfield, Tino Sunseri drove his team for their only score.

While the punt return game continues to be mediocre with John Goodman handling returns, the Irish field goal unit missed its second kick in three attempts, this one pushed wide right by David Ruffer after long-snapper Jordan Cowart‘s snap came back as a knuckleball. Cowart’s only job is to snap, and he’s been erratic this season on both punts and kicks, a real area of concern for the Irish, who need more certainty from all their special teams units.


Possibly the best part of this column is that the Irish come up with a win in the ugly category. The Irish were able to win a football game without playing anywhere near their best. It’s certainly not the kind of thing people were expecting four games into the season, but after starting 0-2, the Irish simply need to keep picking up Ws, regardless of how maddening it can be.