Notre Dame football: Fox, Calabrese ready for a reboot inside

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - Toggling back and forth through the action, wearing out the pause button, and then racing through the commercials is how Mike Goolsby prefers to experience Notre Dame football after Manti Te’o.

It still kind of stings.

Early in the season, the former Irish inside linebacker and current medical/dental equipment sales rep expected some growing pains in the middle of the Irish defense. Goolsby’s hope was that by the time ND rebooted after its first of two bye weeks and began the second half of the season against arch-rival USC, that the narrative would have evolved.

But Saturday night, ND’s inside linebackers find themselves squarely in the cross hairs of intersecting story lines of the 85th rendition of the rivalry between the Irish (4-2) and Trojans (4-2), and not necessarily for all the right reasons.

There are more questions than absolutes in an area that fueled Irish victories over USC in two of the past three seasons. Depth leads the list of concerns.

Layer that on top of Irish quarterback Tommy Rees’ career 101.6 pass-efficiency rating against USC, roughly 30 points lower than his overall career numbers, and it underscores the urgency of a defensive resurgence the Irish showed signs of in their most recent game, a 37-34 toppling of Arizona State on Oct. 5.

All-America middle linebacker Te’o’s graduation to the NFL’s San Diego Chargers merely started the defensive drama this season, but junior Jarrett Grace’s season-ending leg surgery for a broken tibia two weekends ago heightened it.

“I remember telling my dad that I thought Manti was one of the best things to happen to that program since, who knows, Lou Holtz or something,” said Goolsby, a Joliet, Ill., product now living in Wichita, Kan., and ND’s leading tackler nine seasons ago. “I mean, across the board, the way he dealt with fans, his leadership, all of those things.

“Athletically, (ND freshman outside linebacker) Jaylon Smith is twice the athlete Manti was and is. But I think there were so many intangibles that kind of came along with Manti that were going to be missed more so than on-the-field athleticism.

“I remember watching him as a sophomore, and he was (darn) near 260-something pounds and he was too big, too bulky. But he lost weight and he got better. Every year and every game you could see him improve.”

Now the next wave of inside linebackers must find a way to do so.

They’ll face a rapidly improving and deep USC running game, which finally got senior Silas Redd off the injury list for the first time Oct. 10 against Arizona. The Trojan passing game also seemed to find new life, with quarterbacks coach Clay Helton, the new offensive play-caller in the aftermath of head coach Lane Kiffin’s purge, taking the straitjacket off first-year starting quarterback Cody Kessler.

And USC leading receiver Marqise Lee has been clamoring since early in the week that he expects not only to play against ND but to be 100 percent against the Irish after sitting out the 38-31 win over Arizona with a knee injury.

“There will be times where you've got to think about double coverage,” said Irish coach Brian Kelly, who will try to corral ND’s first win in the series at Notre Dame Stadium since 2001, the last year of the Bob Davie regime. “You've got to think about special coverages for him. So all that has to be part of your thought process.”

There are only five healthy, scholarship inside linebackers on the ND roster now to plug into that thought process — and one of those five is a former walk-on himself, Californian Joe Schmidt, a junior backup. Seldom-used senior Kendall Moore is also in the second tier. Freshman Michael Deeb, who has yet to see his first college snap, is Plan C at both inside spots.

Kelly is banking that his opening-day alignment of fifth-year seniors Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox will not only be able to take more snaps than they’ve ever experienced in their careers, but they’ll find a way to climb to a higher level of consistent performance.

The two shared the weakside linebacker position the past two seasons playing alongside Te’o. In the opening weeks of this season, they shared getting picked on by opposing offenses, including winless Temple.

The two Irish veterans certainly won’t be lacking inspiration.

Fox’s comes in the form of channeled anger — having been demoted after game three and replaced at middle linebacker by Grace.

The Irish did improve with Grace in the middle, especially against the run. They’re 23rd nationally in run defense and have allowed just three rushing TDs. Only Iowa (zero), Louisville (one), Florida State (one), Alabama (two) and Michigan (two) have yielded fewer.

They have not allowed a 100-yard rusher this season. Michigan QB Devin Gardner, in game two, amassed 82 yards rushing — the most against the ND defense. He also owns the longest run of the season against the Irish (35) and the longest pass (61).

Grace’s role began to expand after that game, a 41-30 loss on Sept. 7.

“He was livid. He was mad,” Kelly said of how Fox dealt with the change. “And then he handled it the way that I would expect somebody of his character to handle it. He just went to work. And worked on getting better.

“He could have been disruptive ... but that's why Dan Fox is a special kid. ... Now he's got a great opportunity to finish his senior year and finish it in an incredible fashion.”

Part of that equation, though, is staying healthy. And Fox has already dealt with severe shoulder pain and a knee injury this fall.

“I feel as healthy as I’ve been since I got here,” he said midweek.

Middle linebacker was and continues to be an adjustment for the former high school safety, who played outside linebacker early in his college career.

“Obviously it’s a different position, so you have different things attacking you,” he said. “But it’s another transition I made. I’m just trying to deal with it still. I wouldn’t say I’m perfect at it. I’ve got to get better every single day.”

Calabrese draws motivation from his mother, Annie, a breast cancer survivor who reached her five-year cancer-free milestone recently. The family will celebrate it Saturday afternoon with a tailgate party/cancer fund-raiser on the corner of Edison and Twyckenham that is open to the public.

“I was back in high school (in Verona, N.J.),” Calabrese reflected about when his mom was first diagnosed with breast cancer. “I just thought about everything really, if things went wrong, I thought about that — just not having her around. It was a pretty tough time.

“She gets to every game. Even when she was going through chemo and radiation, she made a point to get to every game. She went to work, too. I know it was difficult for her, and she’s just a really strong lady, and it’s just awesome seeing her doing great.”

Calabrese also takes heart this weekend in that former ND linebacker Ned Bolcar, who has become a mentor of sorts, is in town with most of the rest of the 1988 Irish national championship team.

“We just talk about the mental side of football and just little things here and there,” Calabrese said of Bolcar, a fellow New Jerseyite. “He gives me a little hint here or there. He loves to talk, and he could talk forever, and that’s good. It was awesome to become friends with him.”

If ND’s depth takes another hit Saturday night, Kelly may have to think about sneaking Bolcar into the game at age 46. The Irish head coach assured there were other options on the roster that could be converted quickly to inside linebackers.

Those on the outside looking in, like Goolsby, said that would be more difficult in practice than in theory. Outside linebacker Ishaq Williams, for example, is the wrong body type.

“When you’re inside linebacker, so much of it is quick feet and small steps this way or that way, choppy small steps,” Goolsby said, “where Ishaq is more of a strider.”

Another outside linebacker, Ben Councell, would be used to playing pass coverages, but Goolsby pointed out things happen a lot more rapidly inside than outside and that he’d have to get used to using his hands a lot more.

Ultimately, Goolsby said he’d like to see rising star Smith move inside — perhaps even more so next year.

“You’ve got a unique, gifted athlete that’s a good kid on top of it,” Goolsby said. “And he’s got some leadership ability. If it were me, I might just cover him up and let him go play as a weakside linebacker and go after the ball.

“As it is, I wish there were times they would let him rush the passer a little bit more. Maybe that’s just a flaw of the defense and the way it’s set up. My thought is if you’re going to ask a linebacker to be walked out that far out to the field, why wouldn’t you just put a strong safety in there?”

Kelly will face the same questions, maybe more urgently, after the season ends, when Fox and Calabrese exhaust their eligibility. Inside linebacker is the only position group in which Kelly has yet to sign a top-100 prospect in his first four recruiting cycles..

But “player development” and “next man in” have been his mantras, and his ability to orchestrate that inside linebacker could mean the difference between a late BCS run or a winter of discontent.

Fox, for one, is banking on the former.

“I (learned) you could battle through any adversity,” Fox said of the lessons his early-season struggle and then demotion taught him. “Stick to how you were taught and how the coaches teach you and you’ll be fine.”

Notre Dame linebacker Carlo Calabrese is getting plenty of support from family. SBT photo/JAMES BROSHER