Other than a haircut, nothing about Dan Fox is different than it was eight months ago. His circumstances are new. The fifth-year senior is tasked with taking over as Notre Dame’s boundary-side middle linebacker and patrolling a defense flush with returning starters. But Fox’s approach, like his new look, has been all business.
Fifth-year senior Dan Fox fields questions in the Notre Dame press box Thurdsay during the team's media day.
College coaches often talk about the click — that moment before a senior’s final season when they wake up to the sound of an alarm clock that is suddenly ticking louder and faster. It brings with it a renewed sense of something to prove. For Fox and fifth-year counterpart Carlo Calabrese, both of whom are heading into what amounts to their second senior season, the clock has remained as steady as a metronome.
“If anything I think I’m more comfortable,” Fox said in his measured tone from a seat in the Notre Dame press box Thursday. “I don’t feel any sense of anxiety or anything. Complete comfort. I’m ready.”
Fox pointed to his experience as the source of his calmness. He’s played in 39 consecutive games for the Irish and spent the majority of the past two seasons as a starter at linebacker. He and Calabrese have tagged off with one another at the Will linebacker position for three years and have combined for 277 total tackles in that time.
This year, though, will be different. The veteran duo will be lined up side-by-side, together in the middle of the field for the first time. For three season they rode shotgun as Manti Te’o, an eventual All-America star, drove the Notre Dame defense. For nine months now, they’ve fielded questions about filling his surfboard-sized shoes. Their game plan is to change as little as possible.
“We played with Manti for all four years. We have experience too,” Calabrese said. “We know what to do on our defense, and I don’t think it will be hard to replace him because we’re just going to go out there and be our normal selves.”
There are the small adjustments, of course. Fox has to get accustomed to playing on the short side of the field. He’ll have to retrain his brain to expect the type of route combinations opponents tend to run when they have less room to spread horizontally.
Calabrese has also focused on the passing game in the run-up to his final season. Fox typically handled the obvious throwing downs when they worked as a pair. The 6-foot-1, 250-pound Calabrese has to reshape himself physically to be able to stay on the field in those situations in the future. Even that process is not new in his training.
“He’s worked hard on his speed and change of direction, his overall athleticism,” said Bob Diaco, Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator. “We really go back to two years because he started to improve those things even a year ago. Experience and reps and seeing those patterns in coverage over and over again you’ve got a chance to play them better.”
Diaco says there are only subtle nuances that separate the responsibilities of the two inside linebacker positions. Fox and Calabrese don’t anticipate that communication or working together will be an issue this season. They’ve had four years to learn what to expect from each other.
The only element that has changed is the absence of Te’o and his bold, program-changing personality. How can two typically understated linebackers fill that leadership void? By being themselves, says Fox.
“I think we’re just different people,” he said. “Everyone’s got their own personality, and the coaches do a great job of not trying to shape anyone into anything they’re not. We are who we are. That’ something we know.”