Between 2007 and 2009 Notre Dame has technically had three different defensive coordinators, each year bringing a new approach on schemes, alignments, and terminology.
From Corwin Brown's implementation of the 3-4 in 2007 to the "Brown/Tenuta 5-2 Whatchamacallit" experiment in 2008 and then capped off with the "4-3-I've-seen-it-all-Tenuta-Show" in 2009, Notre Dame defensive players have certainly received their share of shiny new shamrock defense binders. The results of those seasons can be termed inconsistent at best and on to downright putrid.
However, in the midst of the madness, not everything is a depressing cloud; there are more than a few silver linings in the sky. Today, we talk about someone everyone will be talking about by the end of the season. Not just Notre Dame fans, EVERYONE.
That would be junior outside linebacker, Darius Fleming (the other possibility would be Ethan Johnson, but let’s save him for another day).
He came to Notre Dame a heralded four-star recruit from Illinois, who was fast and strong, with that ideal build for the 3-4 OLB spot in the defense that Notre Dame wanted to run at the time. And as a bonus, Fleming was tenacious in getting into the backfield and making the quarterback count seconds in his head until the hit came.
In 2008 he didn’t have that much of an eye-opening season, logging one sack, and 25 tackles with a pair of tackles for a loss thrown in. But he showed a high ceiling of athletic promise.
In 2009 he spent the first five games of the season being ranked in the top 10 for tackles-for-loss, he was schemed at both D-end and OLB, but early on he was primarily a pass rusher. In a three game stretch that spanned the Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue games, Fleming went on a two-sack, seven-tackle-for-loss spree.
Now, while that doesn’t seem like much, Fleming only got four more TFL on the year, with two of those coming against lowly Washington State. That was missing the Washington game and being limited in the Pittsburgh game.
When Harrison Smith got pulled from the starting safety position, Darius was forced to go the line full time as Smith was given a linebacker spot. Fleming’s production suffered accordingly, but ended up being ranked 50th overall. Had he not been injured and moved to mainly full time D-end he could easily have numbers to put him in the top 10.
I can hear you now. “But you said Darius was a Sack Master, tackles-for-a-loss are NOT sacks!”
Fear not friends, the title is correct.
Fast forward to spring ball, 2010. Darius is ready. Last season Darius only had three sacks, not very master-ish, I know, but the telling number in this case is the number seven. That number stands for the number of QB hurries Fleming had over the course of the season. That’s the number that means the QB looked over, saw Fleming about to crush him and threw the ball. Now, why that matters for this season is simple.
Darius Flemings is going to be used as a pass rushing OLB in a defense that was tailor made for him and his strengths. I fully expect that number of seven to represent only part of the total number of sacks that he will accumulate this season. I actually expect people will think midseason that Darius Fleming is going to break Justin Tuck’s single season sack record of 13.5 sacks. My personal feeling is that it will be close.
The first reason is a logical one. Offseason conditioning is all about being faster, stronger, and tougher than the guys across from you. Fleming has show the ability to improve over time, not only mentally in the understanding of the game, but physically as well.
His foot speed is improving as is his technique. Just a little bit more speed would have resulted in a few more sacks last season. Last season Fleming was able to get up into the 250 lb range and still maintain speed and athleticism.
The second is one that is not quite as obvious. In the Kelly/Diaco 3-4, the linemen are all expected to wreck havoc. Tenuta wanted to do this as well; however, he forgot to teach the defense the basic fundamentals of little things like shedding blocks, and leveraging against an offensive lineman.
After the very first scrimmage Kelly pointed to another monster of the defensive line, Ethan Johnson, and said that he was very difficult for the offensive linemen to block. This will ultimately help both Ethan and Darius. Ethan is placed along the defensive line in such a way that if he penetrates, the QB has to move. That means he is very likely to move right into the Sack Master’s waiting arms.
The third and final reason that I believe Fleming is going to be electric to watch this season again involves the defensive ends, but in a different way. When the defensive line isn’t penetrating (which depends on the defensive base, defensive play call, etc) he will very likely be doing everything he can to lock down the edge of the offensive line to allow the OLBs to get around them and into the backfield.
The beauty of the 3-4 is that the fourth rusher can come from anywhere. The OLBs have many responsibilities but from looking at Cincinnati from last season, it’s easy to tell that they do a lot of pass rushing. Even though Fleming and Brian Smith will be sharing this role in the upcoming season, I fully expect Fleming to be able to optimize his excellent athletic ability to create havoc and nab sacks.
Fleming is primed for a junior season breakout. He is already in the backfield often, and now in a defense that was made for him; I nominate him the way to early defensive player of the season and title him Sack Master.