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Irish LBs focused on personal gains

Dan Fox used a dangerous word — one that the senior-to-be has avoided, has no doubt been trained to avoid, during his three years at Notre Dame. It was the right one to use, though, for him and his fellow inside linebackers. This spring, Fox plans on being “selfish.”

Irish linebackers Dan Fox and Manti Te'o team up to take down Florida State's James Wilder, Jr. in the Champs Sports Bowl.

“For me, [it’s] just being selfish on my game, work on my game and taking my game to the next level,” he said when asked about his objectives for the coming month.

The middle of Notre Dame’s defense is boring. There are no new wrinkles to test or new personnel to establish. There’s hardly even a depth chart competition to speak of. The inside linebackers are the peaceful eye of the storm, surrounded by frightening potential in front of them and frightening inexperience behind.

Boring is delightful for Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. He doesn’t need to prod his senior mainstays at middle linebacker — Fox, Carlo Calabrese and Manti Te’o — to quarterback the defense. Te’o has been a calming force on the field for the last two seasons, and now all three are comfortable aligning their linemen properly and checking into a new look or play if the situation demands it.

“Those two [Calabrese and Fox] are senior leaders that have a lot under their belt and they’re ready to do it,” Diaco said. “I’m pleased they’re accepting their role well.”

In the meantime, this spring, all three have the luxury of being able to focus on themselves without having to digest a new playbook or worry about where they fit in the grander scheme of the Irish defense.

Te’o, who passed up a likely spot in the first round of the NFL Draft for reasons more sentimental than anything else, is using his last spring in South Bend to finely tune his technical side. He asked Diaco this winter to treat him like the worst player on the team and pick him apart on a daily basis.

“He’s corrected me in all my little mistakes and makes sure I can identify them. When I make a mistake I know what I did, I know where it started from, so that I don’t make any mistakes,” Te’o said.

Calabrese and Fox are slated to split time beside Te’o at the weakside linebacker position like they did last season. Diaco said there’s no race to separate one from the other as a starter. In his mind, both are starters and there are plenty of reps to keep both very busy next fall. The co-starters don't seem as content.

“It’s a battle everyday. You never stay complacent with anything,” Fox said. “My goal is to be out there on the field the whole time. I’m sure that’s [Calabrese’s] goal too.”

Fox held the edge on paper last season, wrapping up 48 tackles to Calabrese’s 37. Calabrese has the ideal linebacker mentality and attacks the line of scrimmage like a wrecking ball. Fox excelled at reading plays well and taking away the middle of the field in pass coverage. He said he hopes offseason gains in the weight room will make him more solid at the point of attack. One of his main focal points this spring is keeping his feet under him when he has to battle with oncoming offensive linemen.

Fox said it’s no secret that he and Calabrese have their different strengths and weaknesses. They’ll spend this spring trying to build on both. And of course, he added, they will do it in the spirit of making the Irish a better team no matter who ends up on the field.

Next In Line
Fox and Calabrese are eligible for a fifth season in 2013. They could potentially be on the field together, with one of the two sliding over to replace Te’o. If they both stay put, the next two players waiting in line are sophomore Jarrett Grace and junior Kendall Moore. On Wednesday, Diaco said it was getting increasingly harder to keep Grace off the field.

“There are a lot of jobs to do. Manti has shown that there are times when he doesn’t need to be in there or can’t be in there. So, those opportunities would be a time when Grace will go in,” said Diaco, who also expects the 6-3, 240-pound linebacker to contribute heavily on special teams.

Grace ran with the second unit at times as a freshman, particularly when the Irish were facing a triple option offense. Grace’s high school, Colerain (Cincinnati), ran the option, which prepared him to defend it well. Diaco said if he continues to develop at his current pace he could work into some specific packages this season.

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