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Breaking Down Notre Dame: the Linebackers

In Part II of our series breaking down each unit of the Fighting Irish ahead of the BCS national championship game, we take a look today at the Notre Dame linebacking corps, assessing its component parts and comparing it to Alabama's own unit.

Veterans Dan Fox and Manti Te'o lead a stout Irish linebacking unit.
Veterans Dan Fox and Manti Te'o lead a stout Irish linebacking unit.
Jonathan Daniel

On Wednesday we took a look at the Notre Dame defensive line, and noted that the Irish have managed to upgrade their talent on that front by actually coming into SEC territory and nabbing a few SEC-caliber players. The result is that Notre Dame features a line at least on par, and perhaps even slightly superior to, the Tide's own unit.

Today, we move on to the back half of the Irish front seven. Of course, when one thinks of Notre Dame linebackers, the one thing that comes to mind is Manti Te'o and his Heisman candidacy, thanks to the Tim Tebow-esque love/hype that Te'o received from the media this season. Aside from Te'o, though--who is a legitimate talent, to be sure--the Irish also have a deep and fairly talented linebacking corps that hasn't gotten nearly as much credit as a unit as it deserves thanks to all the Te'o hype.

The Irish haven't raided any linebackers from SEC country the way they did with their defensive linemen, relying instead on their more traditional national recruiting model over several recruiting classes to assemble this year's unit. However, much like with their defensive line, they've managed to assemble a deep unit with more overall NFL talent than they've probably had at the position at any time in the last two decades. Say what you will about Notre Dame's season this year, but this Irish team is built much differently than the Notre Dame teams of recent decades, and the linebackers on this year's squad are further proof of that.

The Irish Linebackers

Editor's Note: In order to make objective comparisons of different players and units for this series, we're going to be leaning heavily on NFL draft projections compiled by the folks at CBS Sports. Of course NFL talent, or at least projected NFL talent, doesn't necessarily equate to effectiveness at the college level, but we find that it is highly correlated, and can often be the best objective measure readily available for the individual ability of college players. Further, the CBS projections are by no means the only ones out there, nor are they necessarily the best, but they are quite comprehensive and include projections not just for this year's draft entries, but also for underclassmen as well, which helps tremendously for this endeavor.

As we mentioned Wednesday, Notre Dame runs a 3-4 defensive scheme very similar to that Alabama employs. And like the Tide's scheme, Notre Dame utilizes a regular rotation of around six linebackers, with four linebackers listed as "starters" and four linebackers used on plays in which they operate out of their base formation, although other formations use just three or even two linebackers at a time. Also like Alabama, the Irish like to heavily rotate their linebackers, with no one except perhaps Te'o who is considered an every-down player--the other five primary linebackers come on and off the field depending on the formation and play call.

Although it's arguable whether or not his production and talent justified the overwhelming amount of hype he received this season or the first serious Heisman push of any linebacker in the modern era of college football, it is not arguable that senior middle linebacker Manti Te'o (#5) is Notre Dame's best defensive player, one of the best linebackers in all of college football, and probably the the very best true middle linebacker in the country. His talent is undeniable, as he came out of high school as an elite recruit with offers from every major program in the country, and is projected to be a high 1st round pick in this year's NFL Draft, perhaps even the very first linebacker taken, though many experts think that distinction will ultimately belong to Georgia's Jarvis Jones.

There's not a lot to say about Te'o that hasn't already been said (probably in overly dramatic fashion) repeatedly by those in the media this year, but hyperbole aside, Te'o is indeed a key cog for the Irish defense. As noted above, he is really the only Notre Dame linebacker that plays nearly every down, which is enabled by his ability to drop into pass coverage and play at a high level in that capacity, which is a rare capability for a 255-pound middle linebacker who is also excellent stuffing the run. This versatility is what makes him such a coveted player on the next level. At any rate, it's clear that Alabama's offense will have to go around, or through, one of the best linebackers in college football roaming the middle of the Notre Dame defense.

One of the more unsung heroes for the Irish linebacking corps lines up next to Te'o on the inside. Fourth-year junior Dan Fox (#48) is considered the other starter at middle linebacker, and while he obviously isn't on Te'o's level, he has plenty of experience and probably more talent than he's generally given credit for. He's ranked as the 8th-best junior inside linebacker, meaning he'll likely be a middle-to-late-round NFL Draft selection next year. Fox is fourth on the team and second among linebackers with 57 tackles on the season.

Another fourth-year junior, Carlo Calabrese (#44), plays significantly at middle linebacker as well, though he usually isn't listed as a starter. Calabrese is known more as a run-stopper, and though he isn't considered a starter, he has still manged to rack up 46 tackles and a forced fumble, evidence of how much Notre Dame's 3-4 defense, like Alabama's, relies on the middle linebackers to make stops against the run. Calabrese is not currently listed as an NFL prospect.

Notre Dame's top player at outside linebacker is junior Prince Shembo (#55), who has been a terror this year as a pass rusher. He leads the team with 12 QB hurries and is second on the team with 7.5 sacks. He's also tallied 48 tackles on the season. Shembo seems to have a pretty bright NFL future, as he is ranked the 9th-best junior outside linebacker, indicating he'll probably be considered a middle-round prospect, or maybe even slightly higher, for next year's draft assuming he stays for his senior season. Shembo plays the role most similar to Alabama's "Jack" position, and as such he'll often be sent into the backfield on blitzes or even line up as a down lineman. Like with defensive end Stephon Tuitt, Alabama's pass protection unit will have its hands full with him.

Lining up opposite Shembo at outside linebacker is yet another junior, Danny Spond (#13). Spond is not currently ranked as an NFL prospect, but his versatility provides a lot of value for the Notre Dame defense. Recruited as a safety, Spond has grown into a 248-pound linebacker and has graduated from special teams to now appearing in the Notre Dame starting lineup in most games. Not surprisingly for a former safety, Spond excels in pass coverage and most often appears in packages suited accordingly.

Rotating heavily at outside linebacker is sophomore Ishaq Williams (#11), the youngest player among those in the regular linebacker rotation but also one of the most talented. He is rated as the 5th-best sophomore outside linebacker prospect in the country, meaning that he could be a potential early-round draft pick in another year or two. Though he plays only situationally, Williams has accumulated 21 tackles, including 3.5 sacks, on the season. The fact that such a highly regarded young prospect like Williams plays only situationally speaks to the depth, experience, and talent of the unit as a whole.

The Irish also have some other young linebackers like redshirt freshman Jarrett Grace (#59), redshirt freshman Ben Councell (#30), and third-year sophomore Kendall Moore (#8) who occassionally see the field on defense and contribute heavily on special teams, though for the most part the rotation consists of starters Te'o, Fox, Shembo, and Spond, with Calabrese and Williams rotating in heavily.

Given the NFL prospects of this unit, it compares quite favorably to every team Alabama has faced this year, save LSU and Georgia, both of whom have a bit more high-end NFL talent than the Irish at the linebacker position. Still, given the depth (at least four solid NFL prospects, including one elite prospect) and the experience (three fourth-year players, two third-year players, and a second-year player in the primary rotation) this unit for Notre Dame isn't that far behind either LSU or Georgia's group of linebackers and would definitely be considered one of the top ten, and possibly even top five, units in the country.

Comparing Notre Dame's linebackers to Alabama's

When comparing Notre Dame's unit to Alabama's, many Irish homers and some in the media will want to lean a bit heavily on the presence of Te'o, forgetting that Alabama has its own elite (albeit much less hyped) linebacker. Junior C.J. Mosley (#32) was expected by most to be a 1st-round NFL Draft selection this year had he elected to leave early, though he announced just recently that he would in fact not do so, surprising many Alabama fans accustomed to losing multiple juniors each season to the 1st round of the NFL Draft. Mosley might not have gone quite as high as Te'o in this year's draft, but it would have been close. Additionally, Mosley has been nearly as productive as Te'o in the stats department despite playing far fewer snaps, due partially to Alabama's substitution scheme and partially to Alabama's pulling its starters very early in the second half of the majority of its games. At any rate, Te'o might be Mosley's superior, but if he is, it's very, very close--much closer than the hype difference between the two would suggest.

Like Notre Dame, Alabama rotates three players in its middle linebacker rotation, with one or two of them on the field at a given time. The most experienced of the group for Alabama is senior Nico Johnson (#35), who has been a regular presence in the Alabama linebacker rotation for nearly all of his four years on the team. Despite appearing in only about half of the Alabama defense's snaps, Johnson is projected to be a 3rd-round draft pick this year, and is ranked as the 5th-best inside linebacker in this year's draft class, meaning that he's rated a good bit higher than Notre Dame's Fox, who plays a very similar role for the Irish.

The third piece of Alabama's middle linebacker rotation is sophomore Trey DePriest (#33). DePriest is the youngest of the trio, but he is not short on talent. He is ranked as the #1 top inside linebacker prospect among sophomores nationwide.Though he's a bit younger, DePriest would seem to have a clear talent edge over both Fox and Calabrese, who is not rated as an NFL prospect, for Notre Dame.

Both Johnson and DePriest are known more as run-stoppers, while Mosley is a bit more versatile. Mosley leads the team with 99 tackles, while DePriest and Johnson are second and third, respectively, with over 50 tackles each--like Notre Dame, the middle linebackers accumulate most of the tackles in Alabama's defense.

Comparing the middle linebackers, the edge probably goes to Alabama. As noted above, Mosley is at least very near Te'o's level. Meanwhile, there would seem to be a clear talent edge among the Johnson/DePriest duo for the Tide relative to the Fox/Calabrese duo for the Irish.

Alabama's top player at outside linebacker is third-year sophomore Adrian Hubbard (#42). Hubbard plays the role most comparable to Notre Dame's Shembo, doing a lot of damage in the backfield relative to the inside linebackers as evidenced by his team-leading 6.0 sacks and 10.0 TFL. Hubbard is considered to be the 2nd-best outside linebacker in the nation among sophomores, meaning he should be an early-round draft pick in another year or two. Though he is in an older class, Shembo is ranked just 9th among juniors at the same position.

Listed as a starter at outside linebacker opposite Hubbard is another sophomore, Xzavier Dickson (#47). Though he is typically listed as a starter and usually plays in Alabama's "base" formation, Dickson plays fewer than half the team's defensive snaps. The young sophomore is not yet rated as an NFL prospect. The only other player who occasionally sees regular action for Alabama at outside linebacker is true freshman Denzel Devall (#30), who has managed to carve out a situational role for himself late this season and is likely a budding star. This duo is a bit less experienced than the Spond/Williams pair for Notre Dame, but it's not clear that they are less talented.

Alabama also has a host of highly-recruited talented linebackers who typically do not play in the regular defensive rotation but feature heavily on special teams, such as fourth-year juniors Tana Patrick (#11) and true freshmen Reggie Ragland (#18) and Tyler Hayes (#36).

Overall, much like with Wednesday's comparison of the defensive lines, it's hard to pick one unit that's clearly superior to the other. Notre Dame perhaps has the biggest star in Te'o, and has a little more experience in its six-man rotation than the Tide does. Alabama however has its own star player in Mosley and probably has the edge in overall NFL talent, with four players who should all be drafted in early rounds while Notre Dame's NFL prospects (aside from Te'o) are more likely to be taken in later rounds. You'd be hard-pressed to pick one side here, but if you had to go one way, Alabama would seem to have the talent edge once you start looking at the players beyond Te'o and Mosley.

With the slightest of nods to Notre Dame at defensive line, and the slightest of nods to Alabama at linebacker, it's fair to call the comparisons of the two teams' front sevens a collective draw. To reiterate what was said in our initial piece on Wednesday, the fact that Notre Dame has a front seven talented enough to fight the SEC champion to a draw says a lot about how they've managed to upgrade the kinds of athletes they have recruited at those positions.

Alabama has played at least one front seven (LSU) more talented than Notre Dame's and another (Georgia) equally as talented, so Notre Dame's front seven won't be anything that Alabama hasn't seen before, but it will nevertheless present a group of players on par with Alabama's own and one among the very best in the country. As we will get into next week, Alabama has a fantastic offensive line, but that line and the rest of the Tide offense will face a Notre Dame front seven on January 7th that is capable of challenging it in a big way.