Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco will turn only 40 this year, and his best coaching days are still in front of him. The sad aspect is that such a young age, he may have already worked with his greatest player ever in the graduated Manti Te’o.
Junior Jarrett Grace is working to share time on the inside with returning fifth-year seniors Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese, who have combined for 277 career tackles.
“We’re not going to replace Manti,” said Diaco unequivocally after Notre Dame’s second practice this spring. “He’s an irreplaceable player, he’s a once-in-a-lifetime-type guy.”
Still, the games must go on at Notre Dame minus one of the most decorated defensive players in college football annals and the 2012 Heisman Trophy runner-up. The only Fighting Irish player to finish higher than Te’o the last 48 years in the balloting was 1987 winner Tim Brown — yet Notre Dame still collectively improved from 8-4 to 12-0 the next season.
That’s the approach Diaco is taking to 2013 with regard to elevating the collective whole. And that is why Jarrett Grace, the potential successor at Mike for Te’o, doesn’t feel a greater burden if he is to become the heir.
“He talks about defense as a whole, he doesn’t really talk about individuals, even though we had a great individual performer last year,” said Grace of Diaco. “We’re definitely more concerned with team production, team results. I’m really just concerned with mastering everything about the Mike linebacker position, and when opportunities [are] present, hopefully I can seize those opportunities.”
The two inside linebacker positions are likely going to be more of a three-for-two proposition, as opposed to two players rotating at just one position as Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese have at the Will position the past two seasons while aligning next to Te’o.
The trio on the inside is, for now, projected to be Grace and fifth-year seniors Fox (22 career starts, 131 tackles) and Calabrese (13 starts, 146 tackles, the most among all returning players, with Fox second).
Fox is rehabilitating this spring from winter shoulder surgery, leaving Grace to line up at Mike and Calabrese at Will. However, once Fox returns in fall camp, he will be the swingman and maybe the projected favorite to start at the Mike slot vacated by Te’o.
“Carlo is going to be the Will [exclusively],” Diaco said. “He is not a multi-position guy for us. Dan is definitely going to be a multi-position player for us, and Grace will be at Mike. That’s mechanically how we’re going to structure ourselves.”
The X-factor in the equation might be senior outside linebacker Danny Spond, who found his niche at the drop position (Dog) last season, although he did line up on the inside during his freshman year.
It’s all about putting the best 11 defenders on the field, including the best four linebackers. If current sophomore drop backer Ben Councell proves to be one of the four best linebackers with Spond at the same position, then the flexibility could be there to shift Spond inside. If not, then the three-for-two rotation with Fox, Calabrese and Grace might remain.
“Danny Spond can do any job we need him to do,” Diaco said. “There’s not an all-encompassing moment where you do or you don’t with a guy like that. We work him inside fundamentally at times, so he’s getting work inside also — and he’s been inside.”
“For me it’s always been whatever position the team needs me, and I’ll play,” said Spond, who started the final 11 games at Dog after overcoming severe migraines last August that threatened his football career and every day life. “I did play inside as a freshman and sophomore. If I happen to move back in there or something, I’ll do whatever I can.”
Spond, who is a robust 6-2, 248 pounds, seemed to be a natural at the tricky drop position, though, and his experience there can’t be marginalized.
“I definitely got really comfortable with it,” Spond said. “That’s where I feel I fit best right now. We’ll just play it from there.”
Senior Kendall Moore, who has two years of eligibility remaining, has been working at the Will position. Primarily a special teams mainstay the past two seasons, Moore has appreciably improved his consistency, according to Diaco.
“He’s got a different level of purpose,” Diaco said. “He’s got a totally different level of focus right now.”
The fifth scholarship inside linebacker is Anthony Rabasa at Will, where he has shifted after working behind Prince Shembo and Ishaq Williams at Cat, with sophomore Romeo Okwara also now aligned at that position after apprenticing behind Spond and Councell last year.
With three years of eligibility remaining and Calabrese and Fox each in his final college season, Rabasa has an opportunity to groom for a major role as soon as 2014.
All that matters now is 2013 and not taking too far of a step back sans Te’o, who mentored Grace throughout last season in case he needed to take his place.
“I talked to him a lot,” Grace said. “Just be in the right spot. He was such a smart player. He was obviously physically gifted as well, but he always seemed to know what the offense was doing. He had so many interceptions (seven) last year, it almost seemed like he knew what the quarterback was doing. But he really showed that in film study.”
A new class is in session, but the teaching remains the same.