Filling holes: Outside linebacker

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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.