When the Irish opened the season, most pundits predicted that Darius Fleming, an undersized defensive end moving to the ‘Cat’ linebacker position, would be one of the players who’d benefit most from the change to Bob Diaco’s 3-4 defensive system. A quick look at the final regular season statistics shows that prediction to be correct, with Fleming leading the Irish in both sacks and tackles for loss. But while the numbers may show Fleming at the top of the statistical heap, this season was anything but smooth sailing for the junior from Chicago.
“It was a tough fit for him early on,” head coach Brian Kelly said about Fleming’s position switch. “Playing in space position at the Cat was a diificult adjustment for him. He became tentative as a player because he was so concerned as to whether he was getting under the hitch or the curl, whether he was spot dropping the right way.”
It’s a credit to Fleming’s athleticism and work ethic that he’s the team-leader with 10 tackles-for-loss and six sacks, even though he was playing through a pretty difficult transition. But a quick look at the numbers, and a rewatching of the first few games on the Irish schedule, show just how difficult it was for Darius to adjust to playing in space after playing much of his first two seasons as a one-dimensional pass rushing defensive end.
Outside of the overtime loss to Michigan State, Fleming was held sackless for the first five games of the season, registering only one tackle in both the Purdue and Boston College victories and kept in relative check through the Navy loss. Ironically, the Irish’s loss of nose tackle Ian Williams was one of the things that jump-started Fleming, with the Irish playing more four-man fronts and allowing Fleming to get back to rushing the passer with guys like Prince Shembo coming on at linebacker.
“Once he felt more comfortable in space he started to come on,” Kelly said. “It was, more than anything else, a bigger transition for that young man than maybe a Kerry Neal or even a Brian Smith. He made a lot of that work when we moved our front down and played a lot more four-down (defensive fronts). “I think that the transition and getting into some nickel situations where he could line up on a tackle and use his speed and quickness.”
Fleming saved his most productive game for the season finale, where his seven tackles and one tackle-for-loss didn’t tell the complete story of a game where Fleming was constantly causing problems for the Trojans offensive front. It was the culmination of a great run of football for Darius, who other than sitting out most of the Utah game after suffering a minor concussion, played great football down the stretch for a defense that needed him.
There’s no position on the roster put in more positions to make plays behind the line of scrimmage than the ‘Cat’ linebacker position where Fleming plays. And while he led the team in sacks and tackles-for-loss, there’s no question that Fleming hasn’t even scratched the surface of the potential he has. And it was his defensive coordinator, who has told him as much after the loss to Navy.
“I knew that I didn’t perform at a good level,” Fleming said. “I talked to Coach D about it, and he told me exactly how he felt. He said, ”It’s getting toward the end of the season, and you really need to start picking it up because you need to become a leader on and off the field,'” Fleming said. “From that point on, I just did a lot more work. I didn’t really change too much, but I knew I had to step my game up, and I think that was the point that I changed.”
The light switch that turned on for Fleming also flipped for the entire defense, a unit that’s turned into one of the best in the country the last four weeks of the season. Thanks to those efforts, they get one more chance to do it against the Hurricanes.