Not too long ago, Brian Smith and Darius Fleming were wowing Irish fans with their potential. Smith, one of the final recruits added to the 2007 recruiting class, burst on the scene as a freshman, starting the final three games of the 2007 season at outside linebacker during an otherwise forgettable year, providing Irish fans hope for the future. Fleming joined the program a year later, committing to the Irish over teams like Michigan, Oklahoma, and USC, and giving the Irish a true blue-chip player that was a seemingly perfect fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker that could wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks, while having the athleticism to run and cover.
With the transition from Corwin Brown’s 3-4 system to Jon Tenuta’s 4-3 attacking scheme, the Irish were forced to move both players to positions that weren’t necessarily the best fits for their talents. Smith was moved to inside linebacker while Fleming found himself with a hand on the ground, lining up mostly as a defensive end last year.
Individually, neither player made the difference that people expected, and Charlie Weis’ gamble to bring Tenuta in to restructure the defense was the largest reason why a regime change happened. The defensive failures were symptomatic of players struggling to both fit and execute a defense that they weren’t intended for. For some fans, Smith and Fleming — once favorites — became scapegoats for the failure, neither succeeding at a role they were thrust into.
But with the first three spring practices in the books, and the Irish defense returning to a system Smith and Fleming were handpicked for, both players are back in their comfort zones.
“It’s crazy, the positions that we’re all at now, we’re excited to play them,” Fleming said after practice. “This is where we should have been. It’s all working out in the end.”
While Fleming’s size made the shift to outside linebacker more of a necessity, Smith’s move back to the edge was done to get him back in space, doing what he does best. So far, the head coach likes what he sees.
“I like to see Brian Smith out on the edge, he does a nice job of re-routing,” Kelly said of Smith’s ability to clog passing lanes. “He’s a natural out there.”
While its hard to shake the memories of last season’s defensive ineptitude (for a reminder, check this post out), Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco inherit some of the most talented edge players that they’ve ever coached, especially when you consider guys like Kerry Neal, Steve Filer, and Dan Fox likely working their way into the rotation. Skeptics might look at last season’s Cincinnati defense and notice the Bearcats finished middle of the road in total defense, but they finished in the top 10 for sacks, and top 5 for tackles for loss, proof that even with 10 new defensive starters, Diaco knew how to dial up the heat.
With Smith entering his final season at Notre Dame, and Fleming now joining the ranks of upperclassmen, there’s no better time for this defense to step up. And while last season’s results don’t give any reason to suggest it, I’ve got a feeling this group is going to surprise people. If they do, Smith and Fleming will be big reasons why.