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Football: Right in the Middle

Matthew DeFranks | Monday, April 2, 2012

There is the humble and hard-working All-American. There is the experienced tag-team. There is the cat. There is the dog. There is the group of developing youngsters.

This is Notre Dame’s linebacking corps, a group that will be counted on to play behind the aggressive and promising defensive line and in front of an inexperienced and unproven secondary.

Senior Manti Te’o returns to Notre Dame after passing up an opportunity to be drafted in the NFL’s first round. In returning, he previously asked Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco to treat him like the worst player on the team.

“[Diaco] hasn’t treated me bad,” Te’o said. “He’s been great. He’s corrected me on all my little mistakes. He makes sure I can identify them and when I make a mistake, I know what I did and where it started from.”

Despite totaling 128 tackles and five sacks last year, Te’o and Diaco both said the veteran can still improve each practice.

“We’re working on things every day,” Diaco said. “We just give him something to work on each day. He goes out on the field and he diligently tries to work on it. He’s all about getting better on a daily basis.”

While Te’o has locked down the starting job at one inside linebacker position, the other has been up in the air since the beginning of last season, with seniors Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox battling for playing time.

Diaco, however, said the competition is not so much of a race.

“I’m not sure it’s a race,” Diaco said. “They’re both doing a great job. They both have incredible value. They both could start on defense. One could be the Mike, one could be the Will.

“The way we conduct our business on defense, there’s going to be enough plays for both of them to play.”

Irish coach Brian Kelly echoed Diaco’s sentiments and said other, less-experienced linebackers may get a shot at playing time as well.

“I’d say it’s a very competitive battle and I’d say Carlo’s got an opportunity to continue to press and play more,” Kelly said. “We are just going to let that [position battle] go, because we know what we have and we are going to let those guys continue to compete. They have got equal reps over there, and then add [sophomore Jarrett] Grace and [sophomore Joe] Schmidt and [junior] Kendall [Moore] inside. It’s a nice competitive spring for us inside that we can play a lot of those guys and get good film on them.”

Juniors Danny Spond and Prince Shembo and sophomore Ishaq Williams will see time at the outside linebacker positions, nicknamed Cat – the pass rusher – and Dog – the coverage backer.

Shembo has been earning reps mostly at the Cat position this spring, but he sat out practice Friday with turf toe.

The coaching staff has singled out Williams as one of the spring’s main improvements – mainly with his effort. Williams said the coaches had previous meetings with him about his effort a year ago.

“Ishaq is learning how to practice,” Diaco said. “He’s learning how to compete at this level and prepare to compete at this level. There’s a lot less plays where he’s loafing or not giving effort.”

Kelly harped on Williams’ potential when he gives the effort the coaches have been looking for.

“He’s getting there. The light is starting to go on,” Kelly said. “We had a couple of instances today where we had some one-on-one matchups with [sophomore tight end] Troy Niklas and Ishaq Williams. It was pretty exciting stuff. So he’s getting there, you know he has got to do it consistently, but we know what he is capable of when it all starts to come together.”

Contact Matthew DeFranks at mdefrank@nd.edu