As Notre Dame begins the first spring practice in the Brian Kelly Era, the one position where we might see the fiercest competition is at outside linebacker where five talented athletes will be competing for two starting spots. The move back to a 3-4 defense has opened up a competition that should be fairly wide open.
The leading candidates to start at outside backer for the Irish right now appear to be senior Brian Smith and junior Darius Fleming, but junior Steve Filer, senior Kerry Neal, and sophomore Dan Fox are going to be providing plenty of competition.
Neal and Smith both showed the ability to play at a high level at the outside backer position in 2007 under Corwin Brown’s 3-4 defense. Both saw the field as true freshmen and showed flashes of big time potential at the position.
Once Notre Dame hired Jon Tenuta after the ’07 season and the Irish moved back to a more traditional 4-3 defense, Neal moved to defensive end where he struggled to show the same promise as he did as a freshman. Neal struggled playing along the defensive line as an undersized defensive end the past two seasons, but could be ready to make his mark at outside linebacker this season after losing six pounds during off-season workouts to get ready for his new position.
Likewise, Brian Smith will be making the move back to his more natural position after playing middle linebacker the last two seasons. Smith showed flashes as a freshman of having some real potential at outside linebacker which could make for a breakout senior campaign.
Junior Darius Fleming is in the same boat as Kerry Neal. He was recruited as an outside linebacker for the 3-4 defense, but was moved to defensive end in Tenuta’s 4-3. Like Neal, he struggled as an undersized defensive end and could be in store for a breakout season at his natural position. Fleming was already running with the first team defense on Friday. He’s a natural pass rusher and should benefit from coming off of the edge as an outside linebacker.
Fleming’s classmate Steve Filer is a wild card in the mix at outside backer. He hasn’t been able to crack the starting lineup in his first two seasons, but like Fleming he has some serious pass rushing ability. The move to the 3-4 should benefit him just as much as it will Neal, Smith, and Fleming since he was originally recruited for Corwin Brown’s 3-4 defense.
The last competitor in the mix is rising sophomore Dan Fox. Fox didn’t see the field as a true freshman in 2009, but was one of the more intriguing prospects to come out the recruiting class of 2009 for Notre Dame. Fox moves very well in space and has solid coverage skills – two very important characteristics for an outside linebacker. He will have trouble passing the upper classmen ahead of him on the depth chart, but he should at the very least provide some solid depth.
While Fleming and Smith have been running with the first team, don’t count Neal or Filer just yet. Neal has starting experience and was recruited because he was a prototypical outside linebacker for a 3-4 defense. Whether or not Neal can get his body back in prototypical form after trying to add the weight needed to play defensive end in a 4-3 defense remains to be scene, but from a pure talent and “profile” standpoint, Neal fits the mold of a outside linebacker to a tee.
Filer meanwhile has always had all of the tools needed to be an impact player. He’s big, strong, and fast. He just hasn’t put it all together yet. If he picks up the mental aspect of the game and combines that with his raw talent, he could be a heck of a pass rushing threat from the outside.
On paper, Fleming looks like the surest bet to start among the five outside backers. In 2009 he led the Irish with 12 tackles for loss. The other four combined for 10.5. What makes Fleming’s tackles for loss total even more impressive is that he only had 29 total tackles in ’09 meaning that more than 40% of his tackles went for loss.
All five of the outside backers competing for time have their best football in front of them. Neal and Smith specifically have a chance to show that their freshman season performances weren’t flukes. Hopefully they can make the transition back to outside linebackers smoothly this spring and summer and tap into that potential that made it impossible to keep them off the field three years ago.
Even if two clear cut starters emerge by the end of the spring, except to see all five of these players on the field come the fall.