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A key element’

Andrew Owens | Thursday, November 10, 2011

During his time at Notre Dame, senior outside linebacker Darius Fleming has always been willing to adapt to new situations, whether it’s the change of a base defense or, off the field, learning to cook.

“I got to eat, so I’ve actually started to teach myself a little bit,” he said. “Just being away from home — Mom’s not here to make every meal. We have to teach ourselves a bit.”

Fleming admits he is still learning how to cook and is open to trying new recipes, but said he has not tried anything too difficult just yet.

“[I just cook for] my roommates, like [senior defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore],” Fleming said. “So me and him will cook together and we have to feed ourselves, so we pitch in and figure something out, try new stuff and kind of go from there.”

Adapting on the field

Fleming, who has the second most career sacks of any active player, behind Ethan Johnson, has played for two different coaching regimes, and successfully navigated the switch from a base 4-3 defense to the 3-4 the Irish currently employ.

“[Adapting to the changes] has been a challenge at times, but myself and a lot of the other guys have adapted really well through the different coaches and different schemes, and [it] has helped us as players being coached by different coaches and being in different schemes,” Fleming said. “You just appreciate the type of coaching that we do have. I think we’ve done a good job with that, and I think the coaching staff is set for a while now, so I don’t think we have to worry about that in the future.”

Senior safety Jamoris Slaughter, who hails from the same class as Fleming, said the senior linebacker has been an irreplaceable presence for the Irish defense.

“I feel like Darius is a key element to the defense,” Slaughter said. “He’s one of those guys that does everything right. He’s going to set that example and edge for the defense and do his responsibilities. He’s good with the pass rush and he’s a great player.”

Irish coach Brian Kelly said Fleming is crucial to the success of the defense because of his versatility and the several hats he puts on as a playmaker on the unit.

“He has the dual responsibility of putting his hand on the ground and rushing as a defensive end, as well as dropping off in coverage,” Kelly said. “That individual position builds that uncertainty, in what you’re getting as a pre-snap look. If he’s only one-dimensional, in other words, if he can only rush the passer and not drop, everybody knows what you’re doing defensively.

“He now has taken that next step that he’s as good in coverage as he is on the line of scrimmage, defending the run, rushing the quarterback. That was the dimension we needed from Darius. He’s taken that next step now in year two and can do those things for us. That’s where you build the uncertainty ⎯ what is he doing, rushing, dropping.”

When using a three-linemen look, it makes the role of the outside linebackers even more critical in pressuring the quarterback. Kelly said Fleming is exactly the kind of player the Irish need at the “cat” linebacker position.

“I would say that we placed a high demand on him and we’re demanding that kind of play from him,” Kelly said. “Instead of just being a good player, we’re demanding him to be a great player. And he’s risen to that challenge. We’re challenging him every day. He’ll come to me on Sunday, two sacks one weekend. Are you a real player? You need two more next week.

“So it’s always been those jabs at him to keep pushing him to be the kind of player we think he can be. And then along the way, you’re gaining confidence as well.”

In Fleming’s senior season, he has continued to do what he has always done — adapt. With several defensive players injured, including both defensive ends, the management major has stepped up his game to another level as his teammates thrive on his presence.

“I just do my job, and I know the guys around me and who is out there will do their job,” Fleming said. “We have guys dinged up, but the guys stepping up are doing a great job and they’re helping the team get better every week.”

A playmaker making plays

In last week’s 24-17 victory at Wake Forest, Fleming made a critical play that snuffed out what proved to be the Deacons’ final scoring opportunity. Backed against its own end zone, the Irish defense got exactly what it needed — a turnover, in the form of a forced fumble. While senior safety Harrison Smith was initially credited with jarring the ball loose, Fleming was the one who made the initial hit, even if he does not take full credit for it.

“It was a play much-needed at that time,” he said. “Me and Harrison, we both joke about it; we made the play. We got there and made a big hit and the ball came out and it was an impact play in the game, so that was something big for us to step up and make that play. I’m not going to take all the credit. I’m actually going to share with Harrison, so I give myself half a caused fumble.”

The play ignited the defense the rest of the game, as the unit held the Deacons scoreless throughout the second half, good enough to capture the seven-point victory and improve to 6-3 on the season. Fleming said the defense thrives on making big plays in big moments.

“Forcing turnovers is huge as a defense, especially when the offense is in scoring position, you have to have players out there that are going to make plays and get the offense back there on the field,” he said. “I think we’ve done a decent job and continue to get better, and I think it will carry over to the games in the future.”

With only three games remaining in the regular season and a looming Senior Day on Nov. 19, Fleming said he is starting to realize his time at Notre Dame is about to come to a close.

“I definitely [think about it],” he said. “That’s definitely kicked in. It’s been a fast time here, but it’s fun. The good and the bad. I’ve enjoyed all my time with all the players, and [I have] just grown with these guys and just competing with them. My time here is narrowing down, but I’m going to enjoy every moment of it.”

With the bittersweet ending in sight, Fleming said he does not allow himself to think of what his lasting mark on the program might be.

“To be honest, I couldn’t answer that question yet,” he said. “We have three more games left and I’m going to try to leave a good mark with those, and after the bowl game, ask me that question and I think I’ll be able to answer.”