Linebacker Rabasa eyes fresh start with Irish

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- Three nondescript years as a member of the Notre Dame football team included a redshirt year in 2011, one tackle in 2012 and a 2013 season in which linebacker Anthony Rabasa tallied six stops in five games.

Perhaps Rabasa could have been labeled a bad fit in former coordinator Bob Diaco's defense; maybe some viewed the former top-150 recruit as one who was falling short of his potential. Whatever the opinion, Rabasa simply had not done much in terms of production after coming to Notre Dame from Columbus High in Miami.

Opportunity, however, appears to have presented itself this season with the arrival of new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. In fact, former Irish defensive end Stephon Tuitt, a classmate of Rabasa's who bypassed his senior season to play in the NFL, pointed out to Rabasa that change can equate to opportunity.

"Once he heard about the whole coaching change, he was like, 'That's it man, this is your chance now. Time's running out, you've got to make it happen now,’” Rabasa recalled. "'This guy, he's going to give you an opportunity, you've got to do it.'"

That's what Rabasa has been doing this spring, which could very well lead to more of the same this fall.

The 6-foot-3, 243-pound Rabasa appears to fit as a pass-rush specialist in obvious passing downs, a role he relishes.

"Definitely, that's what I love to do. Of course I'd love to play every down but realistically that's maybe not something that's going to happen, but as long as I'm out there I'm able to contribute to this team, help this defense out, get production and be productive for the team," Rabasa said. "That's perfect for me. That's all the action I've ever wanted."

During the previous three years, while Rabasa was seeing limited action during games, he was tinkering at different spots throughout the defense. He dabbled at every position but safety and cornerback.

"I couldn't find my niche in the defense. It was definitely frustrating to sit on the sideline for the most part the last three years, that was definitely frustrating, but at the same time I got more mature, I learned from experience, I saw these guys, I saw what they did and how they did it and now it's paying off," said Rabasa, who picked Notre Dame over a list of offers that also included Miami, Florida, Florida State, LSU and Nebraska. "Having the insight of each position you kind of know more about the defense and it allows you to grow as a player because you're more aware of what the other team is doing and what the responsibilities are."

Three years dominated by game-day inactivity, however, began to chip away at Rabasa's confidence.

"After three years I'm like, 'Oh, maybe I'm not that good at football. Maybe I wasn't as good as I thought I was,'" Rabasa said.

That began to shift, though, when VanGorder was hired during the offseason. When the former New York Jets assistant met with the players, Rabasa began to sense opportunity.

"We really didn't talk schematically but you could kind of get the vibe that he was coming in with a whole new outlook and switching the whole thing up," Rabasa said. "That alone gave me confidence in my mind. I'm definitely going to be able to show my skill set. That helped a lot."

So has the spring, during which Rabasa has impressed.

"I'm starting to feel like myself out there. I feel 100 miles per hour. I feel everything I do, I'm just running after the ball, I'm going after the quarterback, beating offensive linemen," Rabasa said.

"I feel confident again in my game. Every day I come out, I know what I can do, and I know these guys can't stop me."

Even during the challenging times, Rabasa never wavered in his commitment to Notre Dame. Despite limited playing time, he vowed to leave with, at the very least, his degree.

"I was here three years, it was like no way," Rabasa said. "I'm not leaving South Bend empty-handed."

Linebacker Anthony Rabasa cherishes the chance to start fresh under first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. (SBT File Photo).