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Pre-Spring Depth Chart: Linebacker

Our pre-spring look at the Notre Dame depth chart continues with the Irish linebacker unit. If you missed the first installment of the defensive side of the ball, clink on the link below.

Defensive Line

*Denotes fifth year eligibility

Anthony McDonald, Inside Linebacker, Senior*
David Posluszny, Inside Linebacker, Senior*
Manti Te'o, Inside Linebacker, Junior
Carolo Calabrese, Inside Linebacker, Junior*
Dan Fox, Inside Linebacker, Junior*
Kendall Moore, Inside Linebacker, Sophomore*
Jarrett Grace, Inside Linebacker, Freshman

Darius Fleming, Outside Linebacker, Senior
Steve Filer, Outside Linebacker, Senior
Prince Shembo, Outside Linebacker, Sophomore
Danny Spond, Outside Linebacker, Sophomore
Justin Utupo, Outside Linebacker, Sophomore*
Ishaq Williams, Outside Linebacker, Freshman
Anthony Rabasa, Outside Linebacker, Freshman
Ben Councell, Outside Linebacker, Freshman

A Few Quick Thoughts on the Linebackers

Without too much exaggeration, this is probably the best linebacker corps in some 20 years at Notre Dame in terms of a combination of talent, experience, depth, leadership, and upcoming youth.

Of course a statement like that can be made because of the presence of Manti Te’o, who is emerging as one of the best linebackers and defenders in the country. To put his impact into perspective a little bit, Te’o only has four fewer tackles (196) in 25 games than outgoing senior Brian Smith (200 tackles) had over a 47-game four-year career.

Even though Te’o is a big part of this position group’s upside, it goes beyond the native Hawaiian.

There is the surprisingly effective and physical play of Carlo Calabrese, the maturation and steady edge rushing of Darius Fleming, plus four or five young players ready to make their mark.

That’s not to say that this group is dominant or is about to be outstanding next fall, but it has been a long time since Notre Dame fans could sit back and be legitimately excited about the linebackers taking their game to a higher level.

Who Needs to Step Up?

I don’t there will be much disagreement that the player who needs to step up in 2011 is Steve Filer.

Filer hasn’t made much of an impact yet in his career and it is a shame given how highly regarded he was coming out of high school.

He was a consensus top 10 inside linebacker, nationally-ranked four-star recruit and arguably the top defender and one of the best prospects out of the loaded 2008 class. Now, he enters his senior season with a decent amount of playing time, but only 32 career tackles and 1.5 sacks to his name.

The Fighting Irish especially need Filer to step up because of the graduation losses of Kerry Neal and Brian Smith, both of whom started at outside linebacker and leave a starting spot open at the Dog position in 2011.

Filer’s career has been a curious one because he appears to have all of the physical tools and athleticism to not just start, but be a really big impact player. After last year’s Blue-Gold game where he was all over the field making plays and led the scrimmage in tackles, many thought 2010 would be Filer’s coming out party.

Then, he didn’t make the two-deep and was a rarely used backup for the vast majority of the season.

It’s been pretty clear from the new coaching staff that Filer has struggled with the complexities of playing outside linebacker in the 3-4 system and that there is some sort of mental disconnect that is keeping him from seeing the field more often.

Perhaps there is a real mental issue that isn’t going to be overcome, or maybe it’s just a difficult transition for a player who has been thrown through the coaching carousel like so many of his teammates and it will take him longer than most to get acclimated to the complex Dog position?

Whatever it is, this is Filer’s last chance to do something special.

There is some Versatility to Work With

There are a collection of players who are built perfectly for their respective positions. Manti Te’o and Carlo Calabrese are middle linebackers all the way. Rangy defenders like Ishaq Williams and Ben Councell are outside linebackers to the core.

But then there are a handful of other players who may not have found a home yet.

Prince Shembo is officially listed as a middle linebacker, but he fits the long-limbed type of athlete to play on the outside and he was utilized almost exclusively as an edge rusher during his freshman campaign.

Danny Spond is another one listed as an outside linebacker but seems to fit more of a middle linebacker mold.

The most interesting case going forward with regards to versatility should be Anthony Rabasa. He often played with his hand down in high school as an edge rusher with an evil first step and quickness, but he’s really part Mike/Dog/Cat linebacker all rolled into one rather than someone who fits one mold at a position as a freshman.

Another player to keep an eye on is upcoming sophomore Justin Utupo. He was a defensive end/tackle in high school who was listed at 6’3" 251 pounds last fall (significantly larger than his senior season) and could be in the rotation at Cat linebacker or even switch over to defensive end full-time.

There may even be the possibility that Utupo goes to work as a middle linebacker if he can stay at around 250 pounds. However, he looks to be the type of athlete with a frame that is going to be pushing 270 pretty soon, so it doesn't seem likely.

What Impact Will the Freshman Make?

Jarrett Grace appears to be a lock to redshirt with at least half a dozen middle linebackers ahead of him on the depth chart, but Ishaq should play often, Councell has a good shot at solid minutes, and even Rabasa could find himself a role as a freshman.

Williams is in for the spring and should have a good understanding of Diaco’s system in addition to added bulk from the strength and conditioning program. He was recruited to play the Cat linebacker position with his hand on the ground and could very well end up being the primary backup behind Darius Fleming.

Ishaq is really skinny (he's three inches taller than Fleming but gives up about 17 pounds) so Paul Longo's top priority this off-season may be to bulk him up to 240 so he can see the field.

I also wonder if Williams will see some time at the Dog position, particularly if someone like Filer doesn’t perform well in the spring. It’s probably unlikely, but Williams has the height, range, and speed to play there as well.

Councell immediately brings the athleticism Brian Kelly craves and the combination of height and speed that can make a difference on the edge.

Is he big enough to play as a freshman (he's listed as 225 pounds)?

Will the summer and fall camp not be enough time to get used to the system?

Councell’s progress will be something to watch out for because he has the talent to play as freshman and not a whole lot standing in his way at the Dog position. At the very least, no one should be surprised if Councell is blowing up a screen pass or batting down a ball or two in the months of October or November.

What Will the Lineup Look Like?

We might as well just carve Manti’s initials in stone for the starting middle linebacker spot, because he is there as long as he remains on the team.

Although he’s probably just short of being a lock to start, Darius Fleming is the overwhelming candidate to be the top Cat linebacker in 2011.

Figuring out who will grab the other two starting spots may be a futile exercise so far away from September, but that’s what I’m here for.

Playing on the inside opposite of Manti Te’o should be Carlo Calabrese, Anthony McDonald, or Kendall Moore.

Calabrese was one of the pleasant surprises last year and played pretty well when he was healthy. He’s a big physical linebacker who has a penchant for blowing up running plays and adding a nasty edge to the defense that had been lacking prior to 2010.

Calabrese should be the front-runner, but McDonald was preparing to start last year before an injury took him out of the race and forced him to miss most of the season.

Does McDonald come back strong and reclaim the starting spot or does Calabrese lock this position down for the next three years?

We might see players like Pozluszny, Fox or Spond get reps inside, but the coaching staff seems really high on Kendall Moore and he’ll likely end up as one of the backups in the middle if he’s not starting.

The Dog linebacker spot will be the most intriguing to watch because that is the only position that is replacing a full-time starter from 2010. Filer, Shembo and Councell fit the mold at this position the best, so they might battle it out right up until September.

Since Filer has the most experience overall and likely the most athleticism, I think he’ll be starting and hold that position down for most of the season.

It may shake out like this: Te’o starting with Moore backing him up, Calabrese starting with McDonald back him up, Fleming starting with Williams backing him up, and Filer starting with Shembo backing him up.

That’s hardly a very controversial prediction, wouldn’t you say?

Shembo will be an interesting guy to watch because he could play either the outside position, or even be used as a pass-rushing middle linebacker.

In 2010, he was used mostly in the Dog position (standing up), but was given the task of rushing the quarterback primarily on third downs, and not burdened with performing all of the duties in pass-coverage that a regular like Kerry Neal and Brian Smith did.

Will Filer be the first and second down Dog linebacker with Shembo continuing his role as the third down specialist and Councell plays in mop-up duty?

Elsewhere, Pozluszny, Spond and Fox all see minimal playing time, Grace sits out as a freshman, and Councell, Utupo and Rabasa all make a mark in some fashion.

One thing that may become apparent very quickly with the number of bodies available in the front seven is how many different unit combinations we will see.

Some interesting combinations could be:

Base 3-4 defense: Johnson/Cwynar/KLM plus Fleming and Filer on the outside with Te’o and Calabrese in the middle.

Run-stopping 4-3: Johnson/Nix/Cwynar/Tuitt with Te’o, Calabrese, and Filer at linebacker.

Third down speed 3-4: Lynch, Cwynar, KLM plus Shembo and Williams on the outside with Te’o and Moore in the middle.

This type of flexibility should make Bob Diaco a very happy man and cause a lot of smiles for Irish fans.

Not so much for Notre Dame's opponents.