If it feels like beating a dead horse to say that the Irish defense played below expectations last year, I apologize. But trying to put the linebacker play into context is difficult, because each position grouping in a defense depends on the other. Without a great pass rush, the secondary looks bad. Without tight coverage, the defensive line won’t get that much needed pressure on the quarterback. Blitzing linebackers help cover up deficiencies in the pass rush, but also exploit weaknesses in coverage. The problems with the Irish defense were numerous, and without knowing the schematic choices, its tough to say what exactly went wrong.
Regardless of where the defense gave way, the linebacking unit didn’t have a great season. Too often, the middle of the defense struggled to stop the run, was a step late getting to the quarterback on a blitz, or failed to make tackles in space. While freshman Manti Te’o dazzled many with his potential, he was still a freshman learning on the job. The linebacking crew was high on Smiths — Brian, Harrison, Toryan, and Scott — but low on production.
This offseason, the Irish will install a new defensive system which puts another linebacker on the field. Brian Kelly already mentioned that one Smith, Harrison, is moving back to the secondary, and two Smiths, Toryan and Scott, and graduating. Let’s take a look at who’s going, who’s staying, and who needs to step up.
According to BGS, the Irish return 88-percent of the minutes at linebacker, so the losses aren’t plentiful. Still, if there was ever a system suited for Toryan Smith, it was in the inside of a 3-4 defense. The Irish also lose special teams captain Scott Smith, a good role player who also made a lot of appearances on special teams.
While most people don’t generally worry about a sophomore linebacker returning, Manti Te’o’s decision to delay his church mission was a huge victory for Brian Kelly’s defense. Te’o’s role is still to be determined under coordinator Bob Diaco, but he’ll likely be a focal point, and I expect him to make the leap from great freshman to elite linebacker this season. Brian Smith also returns for his senior campaign. Smith bounced inside and out at linebacker to make way for Te’o, but seemed outside his comfort zone playing on the interior. Harrison Smith technically returns as a starter, but likely won’t see the field as a linebacker.
Projecting what linebackers make the leap this season is a crap shoot. The Irish roster isn’t shy on highly-projected linebacker recruits. Now it’s time for a group of them to step up and take the extra playing time available and the extra place in the defensive alignment. From a depth chart perspective, the Irish are as deep as they’ve been at linebacker in recent memory. Unfortunately, a lot of that depth is unproven. Here are three picks to make a run at some serious playing time.
Steve Filer: Filer is one of the few athletes on the Irish roster that physically fit the profile of an outside backer in the new 3-4 system. The Chicago native played in all 12 games for the Irish, but spent most of his time on special teams. There’s no doubting his athleticism, and for the Irish to get some production out of an outside linebacker, Filer is the obvious candidate to make a difference.
Anthony McDonald: Kelly and Diaco likely will spend this Spring deciding who plays in the middle of the Irish defense. McDonald, who redshirted during his freshman season, seems a likely candidate to get a chance at earning one of the two spots. McDonald is a big kid that runs well, but we’ve got no real idea how he’ll react to getting thrown into the inside linebacker competition. He spent a lot of time on the field last season on special teams and made 10 tackles.
Carlo Calabrese: Calabrese is another guy that could find himself in the middle of the Irish defense. Calabrese had offers from plenty of the big boys, including Urban Meyer, and the New Jersey native just looks like the kind of guy that’d fit in the middle of a defense. It’ll be the first experience he has on the field collegiately, but Calabrese’s ability to step up and seize a job would be great for the Irish defense.
Dark Horses: Just about any of the young linebackers have a shot to make a mark on the field this year. Calabrese and McDonald’s names could’ve been Dan Fox or David Posluszny. I also don’t count out guys like true freshman Justin Utupo, Kendall Moore, and Prince Shembo, all good sized guys that can possibly play on the edge. While Darius Fleming is technically being called a defensive end, it’ll be interesting if Diaco and Kelly have him playing without a hand on the ground, taking advantage of his ability to rush the passer and also play in space.