Saturday, August 29, 2009

Don't Overlook the Middle Man | by George

In which we examine if the Irish need to be an army of one up the gut. The "12 Keys" continue...

#7 - "The Man" in the Middle

The all-Smith linebacking corps dreams may have taken a hit with the relocation of #22 (Harrison) to the defensive backfield, but Notre Dame's middle linebacking group is still heavy on the Mr. Smith rotation with #49 (Toryan) and #58 (Brian) listed as starters, along with team captain #41 (Scott) backing up Darius Fleming at the outside position. Then there's this new kid on the block, Manti Te'o, currently listed as #2 behind Brian Smith but guaranteed to be on the field (and not in mop-up time). Reports coming in from corners unknown indicate that this Te'o gentleman may potentially be a good player. Since he hails from the tropical island of Hawai'i, precious little has been stated about his ability aside from his being, apparently, the GREATEST DEFENSIVE RECRUIT EVER. There's also a couple of sophomores of quality pedigree who've risen up the depth chart and will hopefully provide quality backup minutes, Anthony McDonald & David Pozluszny.

Why is middle linebacker so important? Aside from the fact that the recruiting experts will be looking for Te'o to record a five-yard tackle for a loss on every down he plays, every snap of his college career, the Irish need to make a leap forward here. For many seasons now middle linebacker has been a position at Notre Dame known for steady, dependable leadership performances (not like those are unimportant - they're huge, turned in by the likes of Anthony Denman, Mike Goolsby, Courtney Watson, and most recently Maurice Crum). At some point though, Notre Dame needs a true playmaker out of the linebacker corps. Every team needs a player like Crum, but every elite team has a player like USC's Rey Mauluga.

So, will it be Manti Te'o with an instant impact up the middle? We'd all like to think so, if only so all those miles Brian Polian racked up flying to Hawaii will look worth it right away. But for all Te'o's obvious gifts, he remains a freshman. The player who needs to be the rock, emotionally and schematically, is Brian Smith.

Smith is a third-year starter who will serve as the fulcrum of the defense - and he knows it. Always an emotional firecracker and a vocal leader of the Irish defense, even dating back to his wild-eyed freshman days (when he pick-sixed Matt Ryan), the time has come to elevate his game to the next level and bring the rest of the unit along for the ride. Moving into his third year as a starter, he needs to be more than a player who can be counted on for a strong play or two per game. He needs to be a guy opposing offenses have to account for on every single down. I may be adverse to predictions but I will offer one up right here - if Brian Smith notches 100 tackles for the season, the Irish will be a BCS team.

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