Season Preview ’08: Linebackers

Ever since Brandon Hoyte and Corey Mayes graduated after the 2005 season, the linebacker position has been a liability for the Notre Dame defense.  The past two seasons the Irish have used an under sized cast of characters that were patched together more out of necessity than anything else.  As a result, the Irish have been vulnerable against the run for the better part of the last two seasons.

In 2008, Notre Dame will have a young group of linebackers who have the potential to become one of the strengths of the defense by the end of the season.  For the first time in years the Irish will have a group of linebackers with the size, speed, and athleticism to be on the right side of the College Gameday highlights.

Aside from having a group of very athletic linebackers this year, the biggest addition to this position this off-season was the hiring of linebacker’s coach Jon Tenuta.  Tenuta, one of the brightest defensive minds in the business, has brought an exotic blitz package with him to Notre Dame which should allow for the linebackers to make a lot more big plays this year than in years past.

Notre Dame also received an infusion of talent at the linebacker position this February with the signing of four highly touted linebacker recruits headlined by local products Steve Filer and Darius Flemming.

The Starters
The Notre Dame linebackers will be led by returning captain Maurice Crum, Jr.  Crum will be entering his fourth season as a starter for the Irish and is the unquestioned leader among the backers.  After spending the last two years as a middle linebacker, Crum will be playing the JACK linebacker position with sophomore Brian Smith moving to the MIKE position.  Crum never really had the size to play the MIKE position, but there just weren’t any other options for Notre Dame so Crum sucked it up and played a position he really didn’t have the size for.

Because Crum was playing a position he wasn’t exactly built for, he’s gotten a somewhat unfair reputation across the Notre Dame message boards.  Crum showed a lot of promise in 2005, but taking on guards the past two seasons hasn’t done much to showcase Crum’s talents.  The addition of Tenuta along with lining up at the JACK position, should allow for a very strong final season for Crum.

Sophomore Brian Smith will be stepping into the starting MIKE position with Crum sliding over to the JACK. Smith broke onto the scene last year as a true freshman when he intercepted Matt Ryan and returned it for a touchdown against Boston College. He ended up the season with 25 tackles, 4 TFL, and 1.5 sacks during his rookie season and has the Notre Dame coaches and fans excited about his future.

Weis and the defensive coaches decided to move Smith to the MIKE position this summer after experimenting with him there in the spring. Weis has said multiple times during camp that in this defense you want your best playmaker at the MIKE position and that the staff feels that playmaker is Brian Smith. We got glimpses of that playmaking ability last year and with the work Smith has put in in the weight room (he is up to 245 lbs on the official roster), it seems very likely that Smith could be in for a breakout season.

The WILL position this year might be a linebacker in name only. Throughout camp, the WILL linebackers have been working out almost exclusively with the defensive line and should be playing with their hands on the ground as pass rushers most of the time this year. John Ryan and Kerry Neal are listed as the co-starters at the position right now with Neal likely having the slight edge.

Like Brian Smith, Neal showed flashes of play making ability last year and was third on the team with 2.0 sacks. He was originally recruited as a defensive end but played outside linebacker last year when Notre Dame switched to the 3-4 defense. With Neal’s build (6’2″, 246 lbs) he seems like a perfect fit for the WILL position because he is also capable of dropping back into coverage. Tenuta liked to drop his ends back into coverage while sending his linebackers when he was at Georgia Tech and Neal’s skillset seems perfect for such a role.

Challenging Neal is junior John Ryan. Ryan started the 2007 as the starting outside linebacker but struggled most of the year as he battled through some injuries. Despite starting 10 games, Ryan managed just 39 tackles – six fewer than backup NT Ian Williams who started just two games. Still, Ryan was second on the team with 2.5 sacks and has looked a lot stronger this summer. He’s bulked up to 264 lbs for this year and could provide a very capable option at the WILL on running downs where his size could give him the edge over Neal.

Rounding out the starting linebacker coprs is the wild card of the group – sophomore Harrison Smith.  Smith, recruited by just about everybody as a safety, saw some action with the linebackers in the spring because the staff wanted to get him on the field however they could. At 215 lbs, he is certainly not the prototypical SAM linebacker, but the staff loves his athleticism and playmaking ability. That athleticism was on full display in the Blue-Gold game when Smith took home defensive MVP honors after intercepting Jimmy Clausen and returning it for a pick six.

Weis has said this summer that Smith’s speed and athleticism will come in handy when the Irish play teams with spread or pass happy offenses such as Michigan or Purdue. His size, however, will make him a liability against teams with power running games such as Michigan State. When the Irish face such teams look for senior Scott Smith to see the field quite a bit at the SAM position.

Smith, the special teams representative on the leadership committee, has gotten some praise from Weis this summer for his work on special teams and his attitude. He played in 12 games last year and recorded 18 tackles. At 235 lbs, he has got much better size to defend the run and should see the field plenty.

The Reserves
The theme amongst the Notre Dame reserve linebackers this year is potential. Notre Dame’s four freshmen linebackers have infused the position with a lot of talent and athleticism and should push the starters in practice all season long.

The only freshman currently listed in the two deep is Darisu Flemming, but it wouldn’t surprise many if a few of his classmates. Flemming is listed as the third WILL linebacker behind Ryan and Neal and has been impressive so far in camp. At 6’1″, 236; he is built very similarly to Neal as a freshman and could see the field very early in pass rushing situations. Notre Dame has lacked legit pass rushers for a while and Flemming has that kind of ability.

The headliner of the freshmen linebackers was Chicago native Steve Filer. Filer had gotten some praise from Weis and Corwin Brown this summer, but was absent from the two deep that was released last week. Still, the smart money says that Filer will find his way on the field at some point this season. The system Notre Dame is running is very similar to what Filer ran in high school and that has aided his transition to the college level.

The other two freshmen linebackers will have a bit harder of a time finding the field this fall. Anthony McDonald has been hampered by injuries since fall camp got started last month and David Posluszny is probably a year or two away from being ready to be a regular contributor.

Rounding out the two deep are senior Steve Quinn and junior Toryan Smith. Smith was expected to be a starter on last year’s defense, but struggled to make his mark. He saw action in 11 games and recorded just 14 tackles. With the incoming talent at linebacker the window of opportunity for Smith to make an impact for Notre Dame is rapidly closing. Quinn meanwhile has been a pleasant surprise this summer and will be looked at to provide some depth behind Crum. People sometimes forget that Quinn was at one time a Penn State commitment and Penn State knows their linebackers.

How It Should Play Out
With Jon Tenuta’s blitz packages expect to see a lot more big plays out of the Notre Dame linebackers this year. Tenuta is an expert at getting his linebackers in positions to make plays and getting after the quarterback so look for Notre Dame linebackers to be blitzing a lot more this year.

This year’s starters have much more speed and athleticism than any set of Notre Dame linebackers since Weis took over, but that speed and athleticism won’t be enough for this group to make their mark in 2008. Tackling from the linebacker position was spotty at best last year and without marked improvement in that department it won’t matter what blitzes Tenuta dials up.

Based on their performances last year, Brian Smith and Kerry Neal both seem like stars in the making, but they will still just be sophomores this year so growing pains are to be expected from them this year.  Harrison Smith has received a lot of hype this summer on the boards, but he too is just a sophomore who hasn’t seen the field yet in his career so it is tough to gauge how much of an impact he will make as well.

Overall, this is an exciting position for Notre Dame in terms of its potential playmaking ability, but the youth and inexperience at the position will cause some moments of frustration as well.

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