With Brian Smith moving back to outside linebacker and Manti Te’o taking over as one of the inside linebackers in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 defense, an opening exists at one of the inside backer spots that will be one of the more interesting position battles of the spring.
While Brian Kelly mentioned on Friday that Manti Te’o has “got to get much better as a football player” and that he “wasn’t very good”, no one expects Te’o to be anywhere but the starting line come September. Kelly even went on to say as much without actually saying Te’o was locked in as a starter. “If you write the prescription for a coach; who do you want to coach? Get a guy like that,” Kelly said of Te’o.
In the new 3-4 defense though, there are two starting spots at inside linebacker. On Friday, junior David Posluszny was running with the first team defense alongside Te’o while the second unit consisted of junior Anthony McDonald and senior linebacker turned fullback turned linebacker Steve Paskorz.
The presence of Posluszny with the first team is a bit of a surprise if for no other reason than his listed weight of 225 lbs. That is easily on the light side for a inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense because it’s tough to take on guards at that weight.
The competition for that spot along side Te’o is anything but settled at this point right now and a starter may not emerge till the summer. McDonald is a former 4-star recruit who has battled a number of minor injuries over the last few seasons. He too is a little on the small side for an inside linebacker at only 230 lbs.
Paskorz, the converted fullback, was originally recruited as an inside linebacker and started his career on the defensive side of the ball before moving to offense in the spring of ’08. He’s got more ideal size at 245 pounds, but he’s spent the past two seasons learning the Charlie Weis offense and will undoubtedly have a little bit of a learning curve going back to defense. Luckily for Paskorz, he played in Corwin Brown’s 3-4 defense in 2007 so his lone season on defense was at least in a similar defensive system.
The wildcard in the mix at inside linebacker could be sophomore Carlo Calabrese. He didn’t play as a true freshman in 2009, but he is a hardnosed, throwback type player that has the type of attitude the defense has been missing. He lacks ideal mobility, but he is big and strong and should be able to handle taking on oncoming guards in the running game.
Whoever ends up starting should benefit from the extra attention that offenses are going to be paying attention to Te’o. The sophomore to be has the potential to have a breakout season and has all of the talent needed to become a standout linebacker. He showed signs of that kind of ability last year, but was inconsistent. With a full off-season in the weight room and learning the new defense, he should be ready to make an impact in the fall.
If McDonald can stay healthy, he might be the best bet to start next to Te’o. He’s got the best overall skillset among the candidates at the inside spot. He isn’t the biggest, but he has better coverage skills than Calebrese and has a little more size than Posluszny. To stake his claim to one of those starting spots, he’ll need to remain healthy throughout spring and fall camp – something that has been a problem for him in the past.
Whoever ends up starting next to Te’o is going to be tasked with helping a defense that was just abysmal against the run in 2009. Notre Dame ranked 89th in college football in defending the run while giving up over 170 yards a game on the ground. Poor tackling was one of the biggest factors in the Irish’s inability to stop the run last season meaning whoever starts next to Te’o will have to show consistent tackling skills this spring.
While there are plenty of questions about who will start next to Te’o, one thing is certain howeve. Should Te’o get hurt at any point this year, the Irish will be in a major bind at the position. Te’o may need some more seasoning and consistency, but Notre Dame simply lacks anyone else on the roster that has his raw skills.
If Diaco, who will coach the inside linebackers, can get Te’o up to speed and find a capable starter to line up next to him this spring, the Irish defense will be in solid shape heading into the season.
That might be easier said than done based on the situation facing Notre Dame’s new defensive coordinator.
There are plenty of questions at most areas of the defense this spring off the heels of last year’s poor defensive performance, but at most positions it’s a matter of developing talented players who have underachieved. At inside linebacker, Notre Dame will be looking for a starter among a group of players who’ve seen a total of just over 13 minutes of combined playing time.