Manti Te’o is the clear leader of a veteran Linebacking unit in 2012. Te’o, a four-year-starter, has tallied 324 tackles in his career. This ranks him eighth all-time on the career list. As a consensus preseason All-American for 2012, Te’o will undoubtedly be a first round selection in 2012 NFL Draft. Everything is status quo for Te’o this season. He is expected to lead the team in tackles and be the heart and soul of a stout defense. However, Te’o did not come back just to stay the same. He came to improve. It will be interesting to see if Te’o improves his pass coverage and becomes that “impact player” that the Irish are lacking on Defense. If Te’o can force a few more fumbles or intercept a pass or two, he will improve his draft stock and his chances of taking home some post-season hardware.
Playing next to Manti Te’o will be a rotation players of this season. The rotation will consist of Dan Fox, Jarrett Grace and Carlo Calabrese. Dan Fox has played in every game the past two seasons. He recorded 68 tackles in 2011 playing beside Te’o. As a converted Safety, he appeared to be the fastest Linebacker that Notre Dame had on its roster. However, his instincts have been lacking because of his position switch. Hopefully in 2012, he has properly adjusted to the new spot and will become a more solid player. Jarrett Grace did not see any action in 2011 as a Freshman.However, Defensive Coordinator Bob Diaco raved about Grace since he stepped on campus. Now, Grace is the back up to both Te’o and Fox. He might be the best player at stopping the run besides Te’o. Grace is expected to make flashes of greatness and demonstrate that he is capable of replacing the most talented Linebacker Notre Dame has had in some time. The last player that will rotate at this position is Calabrese who begins the season sitting on the couch from South Bend as his team competes in Dublin. Following his comical May arrest, Calabrese was suspended for the first game of the season. However, Calabrese is a quality player that adds great depth to the Fighting Irish football team. They will need him especially against run oriented teams like Michigan State and Pittsburgh. There is no one answer at the spot beside Te’o but it should be filled adequately by the players named above.
The Outside Linebacker position remains more of a question mark for the 2012 team. According to the latest depth chart released by Brian Kelly, Ben Councell and Prince Shembo will start the game against Navy and until otherwise stated. Councell enters the 2012 season after not playing at all his Freshmen year. At 6’5” 240, he has the length needed to disrupt the passing lanes at the Dog Linebacker position. How will he do with his inexperience? Can he stand up to quality offensive linemen at 240 pounds? Councell will need to answer the questions before he can become a solid starter. Prince Shembo has played in 25 career games and has tallied 46 career tackles. Shembo is one of the better pass rushers on the team which makes him perfectly suited for the Cat position. The pass rush that he will be able to generate is critical for the 2012 Defense. The players playing back up are Ishaq Williams and Romeo Okwara. Williams was a heralded recruit from Brooklyn, New York who played in 11 games his Freshman. According to many reports, Williams lacked the drive to play 100% all the time. There is no doubt he is talented. If Williams turns it on, he will most likely push one of the starter’s out of their slot. Okwara is the X-Factor of this group. Since entering camp this season, Okwara has truly proven himself. He looks more like a Junior than a 17-year-old entering college. Can he translate his raw physical talent into production? If he can, Notre Dame should have a very deep Outside Linebacking corps.
Overall, Notre Dame’s starting line is very solid. However, if they have a few more players step up, this group could truly be tremendous and the strength of the 2012 team overall.