While the message sometimes finds itself hidden when Bob Diaco addresses the media, he made his opinion on the expectations he’s set for Darius Fleming quite clear.
“What we’re interested in him being is one of the most productive players in the country,” Diaco said. “I’d like to see him have production to go along with all the awesome accolades of his intangible traits. We’d like to see some black and white stuff on paper that represents production, which he’s worked and put himself in position to have happen.”
Production. Statistics. Actual proof that Darius Fleming is the kind of linebacker that’s had the Irish coaching staff gushing since they first laid their eyes on one of the defense’s most talented players.
In what’s beginning to sound like a broken record, this is the final season for Fleming to live up to the promise Irish fans have had for him since he committed to Charlie Weis out of Chicago powerhouse St. Rita. And while flipping back and forth between linebacker and defensive end hurt Fleming’s development, it’s clear he’s finally clear in a system that’s almost perfectly tailored for the 6-foot-2, 255-pound athlete.
“Things have just started to gel for me,” Fleming told reporters this week. “I love it. I feel like this is the position I’m supposed to be playing. The coaches put me in the right spot, and the players around me are awesome.”
While six sacks and eleven tackles-for-loss are nothing to sneeze at, Brian Kelly has made it clear he expects much more out of his ‘Cat’ linebacker.
“He’ll be one of the more explosive players in the country this year,” Kelly said. “He’s just comfortable now. Last year it was all robotic. It was ‘get to this spot,’ now he flows to that spot. It’s a big difference.”
With Fleming free to let his athletic ability take over, Kelly’s seen what he needs to in practice this week to know that he’s got a player not just with All-American ability, but a mental aptitude that’s finally up to speed.
“There’s not a lot of guys that I have seen on film that can make those kind of plays,” Kelly said. “He’s doing it more instinctual. It would not surprise me that he becomes one of the players that’s regarded as a national player.”
What type of stats can we expect from Fleming if he becomes a “national player?” As an outside linebacker in Bob Diaco’s system, Fleming will spend time rushing the passer, chasing down ball carriers, and dropping into pass coverage. While not all defensive systems are created equal, Fleming is basically a hybrid between a defensive end and outside linebacker.
If you’re curious what the country’s best defensive ends and linebackers did last year, here are the AP All-Americans at both positions:
First Team AP All-Americans
DaQuan Bowers, Clemson: 66 tackles, 25 TFLs, 15 sacks
Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue: 70 tackles, 26 TFLs, 12.5 sacks
Luke Kuechly, Boston College: 183 tackles, 10.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, 3 INTs
Von Miller, Texas A&M: 68 tackles, 17.5 TFLs, 10.5 sacks
Greg Jones, Michigan State: 106 tackles, 10 TFLs, 1 sack
Second Team AP All-Americans
JJ Watt, Wisconsin: 61 tackles, 20.5 TFLs, 7 sacks
Jeremy Beal, Oklahoma: 71 tackles, 19 TFLs, 8.5 sacks
Tank Carder, TCU: 61 tackles, 9.5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks
Justin Houston, Georgia: 67 tackles, 19.5 TFLs, 11 sacks
LaVonte David, Nebraska: 152 tackles, 12.5 TFLs, 6 sacks
Third Team All-Americans
Adrian Clayborn, Iowa: 52 tackles, 7 TFLs, 3.5 sacks
Sam Acho, Texas: 58 tackles, 15.5 TFLs, 8 sacks
Mason Foster, Washington: 162 tackles, 14 TFLs, 6.5 sacks
Nate Irving, NC State: 92 tackles, 21.5 TFLs, 7 sacks
Akeem Ayers, UCLA: 68 tackles, 10 TFLs, 4 sacks
As a 3-4 outside linebacker, there was no better player in the country than Von Miller, who led the nation in sacks as a junior and was a first-team All-American as a senior. Physically, Fleming and Miller have similar builds, though I’m guessing Darius won’t be running an electronic 4.5 forty any time soon. Still, if you’re looking for production numbers that should better approximate Fleming’s ceiling, Miller might be on the high side, but Justin Houston, another hybrid outside linebacker-defensive end put up numbers that would have Irish fan’s pretty ecstatic.
If Fleming plays to the potential the coaching staff has for him, the Irish could be looking at two true All-American candidates at linebacker, with Manti Te’o already regarded as one of the nation’s best.
Just another story line to get Irish fans excited for another potential defensive resurgence.