SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame linebacker Kerry Neal is a prime example of a player benefiting from the Irish’s switch to a 3-4 defensive scheme.
Neal, who was a defensive end last season when Notre Dame was using four linemen in a 4-3 scheme, has climbed up the depth chart.
The senior, who had 25 tackles last season, passed linebackers Brian Smith and Steve Filer for the starting spot as an outside linebacker after starting fall camp behind fellow starter Darius Fleming at the other outside linebacker spot.
It’s a big difference going from defensive end to outside linebacker, Neal said. There is more coverage. I’m in space and coverage and stuff like that. It’s been fun.
Notre Dame’s defense appears to be having more fun after giving up 397.8 yards and 25.9 points per game last season.
The change to the 3-4 defense has put a lot of the players back in the positions they were recruited at, and it changed the defense’s outlook.
Everybody’s attitude changed, everybody is more hungry, Neal said.
Linebacker Manti Te’o said the coaching staff and the excitement created by the scheme change are significant factors in the change of attitude.
It’s always great when you have a spark, Te’o said. (The coaches) bring that spark and hint of excitement and passion to the game that players need. College students need that push.
Sophomore Carlo Calabrese, like Neal, has pushed his way to a starting role.
Calabrese was locked in a battle with Anthony McDonald for a starting inside linebacker spot alongside Te’o.
But coach Brian Kelly said McDonald’s hyperextended right knee has left the junior questionable for the Sept. 4 season opener against Purdue.
Calabrese is in line to start, but Kelly said the linebacker needs to be more consistent.
We get a good day, bad day (from Calabrese), Kelly said. A lot of that is inexperience and getting comfortable with what the role is at that particular position.
Players’ roles are just part of what will make the 3-4 scheme work.
Another is the work defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and the staff put in to deliver a defined message of what is expected from the players.
We communicate with them in a demanding, intense way, but it is not dehumanizing. It is not demoralizing, Diaco said. We are not interested in tearing people down.
We are interested in being positive and building them up.
Defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore said coaches talk with energy and passion and a trust has built up between the players and staff.
And even when a coach criticizes a player, it will not be degrading.
They are going to tell you what you did wrong, and they are going to love you at the end of the day, Lewis-Moore said. It’s a pretty big change (from last year). We will leave it at that.