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Football: Diaco’s defense takes shape

Chris Masoud | Monday, April 4, 2011

Highlighted by a stretch of 13 consecutive quarters without allowing a touchdown, Notre Dame’s defense responded well to incoming coordinator Bob Diaco’s system in 2010. As the coaching staff evaluates talent for the 11 positions this spring, a number of battles have emerged for coveted playing time.

At the outside linebacker position, freshmen Danny Spond and Prince Shembo have emerged as the two frontrunners.

“It is a great battle between Shembo and Spond right now,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Either one of those guys can play winning football for us at a high level. Right now, I think both of those guys have made us very comfortable with the drop position, and now we can look towards the Cat and the Will and the depth at the Mike [linebacker positions].”

Sophomore linebacker Dan Fox has been excellent during spring practices and should also factor into the outside linebacker rotation, but that Spond has opened the most eyes on the defensive side of the ball, Kelly said.

“Fox didn’t play a lot as a positional player [last season]. He was obviously on all special teams. He’s impressed me. Danny Spond probably would be singularly the one guy that has been very impressive at the drop position. He plays with heavy hands. He’s very good in the pass game.”

Barring injury, sophomore inside linebackers Carlo Calabrese and Manti Te’o will resume their roles as starters in 2011. However, Kelly said that Calabrese has been moving between the weakside and strongside linebacker positions and could see time at both positions. Freshmen Kendall Moore and Justin Utupo have also been earning repetitions at the inside linebacker spots.

At cornerback, junior Robert Blanton and senior Gary Gray, who will be a graduate student next fall, are also expected to hold roles as starters. Freshmen Lo Wood and Bennett Jackson have battled for the backup positions, and Kelly said cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks and safeties coach Chuck Martin were impressed.

“We’re happy with their progress,” Kelly said. “Bennett probably has surprised us a little bit. He’s got a natural fit for his backpedal. He stays in. He seems to have a sense for it [and] plays the ball very well. Lo has made really good progress for us. Diaco and Kerry and Chuck feel really good about the progress those two have made.”

Kelly added that early enrollee Ishaq Williams should see the field as early as next season, albeit in a simplified role.

“When you have somebody that is gifted physically like that, I think it’s on the coaches to not make it so difficult,” Kelly said. “If we ask him to do all those things, it’s going to be paralysis by analysis. We’re going to let that kid line up and play.”

Kelly had nothing but positives to describe the performance of junior Darius Fleming. Fleming, who has emerged as a mentor to Williams, spent time in and out of the outside linebacker rotation last season, but looks to be a mainstay at that position in 2011.

“I’ve looked at film from last year and I know what I need to fix,” Fleming said. “I’ve been working on that every day. I’m getting better every day, and I feel like I’m helping the guys around me as well, just being that type of leader.”


Junior Michael Floyd possibly will meet with the Office of Residential Life this week, Kelly said. There are open lines of communication between the Irish coach and the office, and he described the relationship as “healthy.” He added that any decision will be made by the University.

“What I heard was that he would be meeting with residential life this week and that some kind of decision relative to that meeting would be very soon after,” Kelly said. “They have informed [Floyd] that a decision would be made quickly. My first reaction is always about, ‘How can we learn?’ But that’s me. I’m not in that other office.”

Kelly also mentioned that Floyd has taken steps to educate himself following his arrest on the morning of March 20 for operating a vehicle while intoxicated.

“He’s already taken definitive action,” Kelly said. “He’s already reached out to make that happen in a very positive way.”

Freshman wide receiver Daniel Smith remained inactive after suffering a grade one hamstring injury during practice last week. Kelly said Smith will complete a medication cycle before returning to practice, but did engage in a platelet-rich plasma procedure to accelerate the healing process.

“The MRI looked good — superficial tearing,” Kelly said. “This is nothing deep into the belly of the muscle. We just want to make sure we get him 100 percent. Our goal is to have him playing in the spring game.”

Notre Dame has been using Adidas tech-fit pants during spring practices. Worn by the New York Giants last season, the lighter pants feature no stitching, panels or belts.

“They look hideous, but our kids seem to like them,” Kelly said. “They’re very comfortable. Obviously we are trying them out to see if it’s something we want to pursue. The entire line of clothing and apparel and shoes is faster. If they like them and as long as they’re gold, I’m good with that.”

Notre Dame and Michigan will be wearing throwback jerseys for their matchup on Sept. 9, the first night game at the Michigan Stadium. Kelly said the Irish jerseys should resemble those worn during the Joe Kuharich era (1959-1962).