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Not just ‘The Shirt’ guy

Douglas Farmer | Thursday, September 30, 2010

When the 2010 version of “The Shirt” was released in the spring, Carlo Calabrese hesitated to believe he would appear on it without ever playing in a game for Notre Dame.

“When it came out, I got like 20 text messages saying, ‘You are on the back of The Shirt!'” Calabrese said. “I thought it might actually be me, even though I hadn’t even stepped on the field yet.”

The sophomore linebacker soon discovered the image on the back of “The Shirt” was actually based on a picture of Irish defensive lineman Jim Flanigan from 1993. In that picture, Flanigan celebrates a defensive stop during then-No. 2 Notre Dame’s 31-24 victory over then-No. 1 Florida State.

But in only four career starts, Calabrese has displayed some of the same emotions Flanigan does in the image: strength and emotion on every play.

Stanford souvenir

Three plays into Stanford’s first possession Saturday, the Cardinal faced a third-and-one and called a fullback dive up the middle. Calabrese took the opportunity to display some of that strength and emotion, even if doing so drew his coaches’ ire.

“I read it as coming straight at me, so I played my run reads and clogged up the hole,” Calabrese said. “I thought I hit him in the backfield, and it was a knock-back tackle, so I don’t think he made it.”

Nonetheless, the officials awarded Stanford a first down on the play, but it was Calabrese’s action after the play that was even more noteworthy: In tackling the Cardinal ballcarrier, Calabrese ripped off his helmet, and then held up the souvenir to the crowd before tossing it aside.

“It was a big play. I thought I stuffed him so I was pretty pumped, and I had the helmet in my hand so I just held it up and then threw it down. I wasn’t really thinking,” Calabrese said. “[The coaches] got on me a little bit for it, just to make sure I didn’t get a personal foul, but I think they liked it.”

‘Game time’ player

Throughout fall training camp, Calabrese battled with junior Anthony McDonald for the starting linebacker position. Shortly before the season opener, McDonald suffered a leg injury that forced him into “questionable” status, according to Irish coach Brian Kelly at the time, and Calabrese suddenly found himself preparing to start Notre Dame’s first game of the Brian Kelly era.

“Leading up to the start of the season, not seeing [Calabrese] a lot in game situations, we weren’t sure what to expect,” Kelly said. “Game time he plays really, really well. He’s on things.”

That game time presence showed in Calabrese’s first game as a starter, when he led the Irish with nine tackles against Purdue. His total is now up to 27, third highest on the team, and his starting position has been secured.

“He has a great sense for the football, and sometimes we didn’t see that during practice,” Kelly said. “[McDonald] is still a really good player for us. When he gets his opportunities, he’s got to be productive when he gets in there, because Carlo right now has been so productive.”

‘Everything I could possibly do’

Calabrese did not play a single snap last season, and knew he still needed to improve himself, both mentally and physically, to earn playing time.

“I was watching everybody as a freshman,” he said. “That’s what you need to do when you’re being redshirted, so next year you are going to hop right in and know what’s going on, know the speed of the game.”

Once it became apparent that he had a chance at significant playing time this season, Calabrese became even more focused.

“I did everything I could possibly do — everything from lifting hard in the weight room to running hard during conditioning and getting in the film room to learn the plays,” the New Jersey native said. “I pretty much did all I could do to be a great player.”

When the time came to take the field against Purdue, it was not the speed of the game or the abundance of play calls that overwhelmed Calabrese. It was, in fact, something he could never have prepared for.

“The first time running out of the tunnel, knowing you are going to play, was just overwhelming,” he said. “After the first couple of plays though, it was, ‘OK, let’s go.'”

That “Let’s go” mentality carries through the middle of the Irish defense with a passion — Calabrese and fellow sophomore linebacker Manti Te’o push each other, and the rest of the team, to always give more, Calabrese said.

“I feed off of his energy, and he feeds off of my energy,” Calabrese said. “If he gets a big hit, I’m cheering him on, and if I get a big hit, he’s cheering me on.”

That being said, Calabrese only earned his starting position days before the season, while Te’o was entrenched in his since last season’s close. Calabrese’s 27 tackles may be impressive after his first four career starts, but Te’o has already doubled that tally for the season with 54. The newcomer to the linebacker corps realizes the differences between the two middle linebackers, and looks to Te’o for tips on improvement.

“Manti is a great, great linebacker. He makes me a better player,” Calabrese said. “I just look at him in film. I want to be like him, as good as him, so I learn a lot from him.”

‘Win nine more games’

Calabrese, unlike many Irish fans, sees a 1-3 record and does not think about what could have been. Instead, he talks about what will be, beginning this weekend against Boston College — a game with additional motivation for Calabrese.

“It’s a big rivalry, and Boston College was my number two team,” he said. “So I want to give it to them a little bit more.”

Indeed, Calabrese strongly considered playing for the Eagles before committing to the Irish, a commitment spurred by “the academics and tradition here.”

“There is nothing like the tradition at Notre Dame, football, classes and everything else,”