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Three-man rotation at inside LB yields success

Jack Hefferon | Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Grace. Fox. Calabrese.

That’s the decision Irish coach Brian Kelly and his staff have faced in trying to determine who will play at their two inside linebacker spots this season. 

But it’s also a listing, in order, of Notre Dame’s top three tacklers this season, meaning the Irish have found an ideal recipe for playing time in the middle of their defense.

“You’ve got a three-person rotation that’s working out pretty good for us,” Kelly said. “All three of those guys are working well together.”

With the departure of Manti Te’o, the Irish linebacking corps was not expected by many to be the same strength heading into this season that it was in 2012. But struggles in the secondary and double teams on the line have forced junior Jarrett Grace and graduate students Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese into the spotlight. Grace leads all Notre Dame defenders with 28 tackles, and Fox and Calabrese follow close behind with 27 and 26, respectively.

Grace has been one of the team’s most surprising revelations. The Cincinnati native sat behind Te’o for his first two seasons before coming on strong this spring and working his way into the rotation. Kelly said while Grace may have risen back up the depth chart, the junior has always been a key player for the Irish.

“Even though he was behind our best leader in our program, and that has a tendency, obviously, to overshadow you, he led in community service,” Kelly said. “He led in fellowship. Now he’s starting to become more vocal as a football player as well, and he’ll continue to develop in that manner.”

Fox and Calabrese were mainstays in the Irish lineup with Te’o, and the two boast over 40 career starts between them. Grace said having two fifth-year players in the same unit has done nothing but help his development and all three have grown together as a unit.

“Something I’ve learned from Dan and Carlo is they’re always taking care of their bodies, addressing every little nick and bump,” Grace said. “We’re watching film together for hours, extra, every day, and we’re getting great vision and clarity when we step on the field. That’s something we’ve really embraced together.”

That group improvement has allowed the Irish to run a three-man rotation through their two inside linebacker spots, which has allowed the trio to stay fresh, show different looks and thrive as a group.

“We always err towards the senior first and foremost, and Dan has played a lot of football for us,” Kelly said of the rotation. “That’s how great of a team player [Fox] is, that he moves over … as we continue to get Jarrett some other work.”

Such competition for playing time might cause tension or pit a unit against one another. But Grace said he and the two seasoned veterans value the team success too much to succumb to those pressures, and they know the best thing each can do is push the other two on every snap.

“I have just as much invested in this team as these guys do, and we all want to win,” he said. “If I can do something that’s going to help the team win, I better do it.”

Contact Jack Hefferon at wheffero@nd.edu