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ND’s Best Freshmen: Outside LBs

Forty years ago, the NCAA eliminated freshman ineligibility for good. Freshmen were permitted to play in 1951 during the Korean War, but they were not allowed to compete in the ensuing 20 years on the varsity level until they became sophomores.

Kory Minor made an instant impact while starting 11 games for the 9-3 Irish in 1995.

First Freshman OLB To See Action
This can be a little murky because of the different definitions of outside linebacker in a 4-3 set compared to a 3-4 — which features more of the prototype that defines the outside, or the edge of a defense.

In the 4-3, it took three years before a freshman OLB began to see action for the Irish. That was 1974 with Doug Becker, who had 12 stops in 39:11 of action.

Notre Dame really didn’t have a three-man front until the Gerry Faust era commenced in 1981, and that was the year his freshman product from Moeller High, Mike Larkin, played 54:57 on the weak side and recorded 10 tackles.

First Freshman OLB To Start
In the 4-3, it would have been Mark Zavagnin on the weak side in 1979, where he made two starts and had game high 12 tackles against Air Force. As a senior, Zavagnin would move into the middle to succeed the graduated all-time leading tackler at Notre Dame, Bob Crable.

In the 3-4, it would be Arnold Ale for the 1988 national title champs at drop end, where he rotated with Andre Jones and Darrell “Flash” Gordon, each starting four games apiece.

Most Recent Freshman To See Action
The Irish recruited four in 2011: Ben Councell, Troy Niklas, Anthony Rabasa and Ishaq Williams. The one who became most prominent was Niklas, who was recruited as a tight end by Stanford, an offensive tackle by USC and a potential defensive end at Notre Dame.

Instead, Niklas excelled on special teams and became the top backup at drop (Dog) linebacker, behind Prince Shembo. When Shembo had to attend to a family emergency, Niklas started in the 31-13 victory against No. 15 Michigan State. Later in the year he would line up along the defensive front in pass rush situations. He finished with 20 tackles, but was shifted to tight end this spring. Williams played 71 snaps and had six tackles (one for loss).

Five Best True Freshman Outside Linebackers
1. Kory Minor (1995) —
Next to Manti Te’o, maybe the most decorated high school defensive recruit to sign with Notre Dame the past 30 years. He started the opener against Northwestern and made a sack, and his 239:38 playing time was the most ever by an Irish freshman in head coach Lou Holtz’s 11 seasons. He recorded seven tackles and two sacks in a home victory versus Texas and made 10 stops, with a sack and a forced fumble, in a 28-27 squeaker versus Army. His 47 tackles are the most by a Notre Dame freshman OLB, and he had a team high six sacks and three fumbles caused.

2. Arnold Ale (1988) — His first career start came against No. 1 Miami, a 31-30 Irish victory, the week after he made a late interception to seal a hard fought victory at Pitt. He started three other times for the national champs, including the regular season finale at No. 2 USC. In the Fiesta Bowl, he was in on a key sack of QB Major Harris deep in Notre Dame territory. In the opener against Michigan, he recovered a fumble on a kickoff. His 115:29 playing time resulted in 23 tackles. Similar to Aaron Lynch, he transferred back to his home state (UCLA) because of homesickness.

3. Mark Zavagnin (1979)— He played in his last nine games as a freshman and totaled 113:23 of action, with starts at Air Force and Tennessee. Zavagnin had a dozen stops in both of those outings and finished with 43 during the season, three for lost yardage.

4. Cedric Figaro (1984) — Finished with 30 tackles, highlighted by seven in a 30-22 upset of No. 6 LSU in “Death Valley” — earning him the game ball in his home state. He also started in a 24-20 victory at Michigan State, and recorded a sack in the Aloha Bowl loss to SMU. Finished with 87:32 playing time.

5. Bert Berry (1993) — Made five starts — four at outside linebacker and one on the inside — for a team that finished No. 2 in the country. His playing time (68:55) was not quite as much as the others, but he too excelled on special teams. Overall, Berry finished with 25 tackles, one for lost yardage.

Interesting Facts
• Until safety Harrison Smith this April, the most recent Notre Dame defensive player drafted in the first round was defensive end Renaldo Wynn in 1996. Wynn arrived in 1992 as an outside linebacker recruit (red-shirted his first year), as did Bryant Young, another first-round selection (1994).

• The top Irish NFL alumnus in the NFL from the last 15 years of recruiting is Justin Tuck. He red-shirted at Notre Dame in his freshman season (2001) as an outside linebacker before eventually starring as a defensive end.

• During the 3-9 debacle in 2007, freshmen Kerry Neal and Brian Smith both started several times. Neal played 146:07 and had 20 tackles (two sacks), while Smith played 143:31 and made 25 stops (four for loss), plus returned an interception for a TD against Boston College.

How About 2012?
After recruiting the four aforementioned outside linebacker prospects in 2011, this was not a priority in the 2012 cycle. The Irish did ink one in 6-4, 240-pound Romeo Okwara, who physically meets the profile at OLB.

Because Okwara doesn’t even turn 17 until June 17, he would appear to be an ideal red-shirt candidate in order to give him time to grow into his body, similar to Councell and Rabasa last season.

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