Former Notre Dame LB Darius Fleming embraces long snapping in search of NFL rebirth

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Darius Fleming is still a football player.

That’s one thing we know. We also know his dimensions (6-foot-2, 245 pounds), his background (Chicago native, Notre Dame graduate), his hobbies (bowling, horseback riding) and his accolades (among other things, a Super Bowl title).

And that’s where the convenient definitions dissipate. Fleming last played in the NFL with the New England Patriots, where the linebacker appeared in a total of 11 games and made 10 tackles in 2014 and 2015. He was released following the 2015 season, and has spent much of the last year training at EFT Sports Performance outside of Chicago.

When NFL training camps get underway later this month, Fleming hopes to earn an invitation.

As a linebacker.

Or a long snapper.

Or, just maybe, a little of both.

“I’ve been working at my linebacker skills, and at the same time I’ve been trying to get better at long snapping,” said Fleming, who won a Super Bowl as a member of the Patriots in 2015. “That is something I want to bring to the table when I do get that opportunity.

“It is something that I see myself doing in the future. With the right coach and the work I do by myself, I think I can be effective at it at the next level. We’ll see. Hopefully somebody gives me a shot, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity.”

To be clear, Fleming didn’t pick up long snapping on a desperate, last-ditch whim. The former Irish outside linebacker was also the starting long snapper at Chicago St. Rita High School, and then served as the emergency long snapper during his four seasons (2008-2011) in South Bend.

Now, if necessary, the 2012 fifth round NFL draft pick is willing to reinvent himself by digging into his past.

“It’s tough, because the margin for error is very small,” Fleming said. “At linebacker, if you make the wrong read, if you take the wrong step, you’re able to make it up. As the long snapper or specialist, that margin for error can’t exist.”

Scott Daly knows this better than most. Notre Dame’s recently departed starting long snapper — who started 51 consecutive games from 2013 to 2016 — is also working daily at EFT, training and honing his craft while waiting for an opportunity.

In the meantime, though, he’s taking a fellow Irish alum under his wing.

“I’ve been able to train with Darius and snap with him on multiple occasions,” Daly said on Monday night. “He definitely has the talent. He’s very raw. He has the athletic ability to be able to play that position. He’s big. He has the size. He’s a physical specimen by any means.

“He can take it to the next level if he continues to work at it and wants to pursue it. It’s definitely a way that guys that are on the bubble can make themselves more marketable and more versatile to make a roster.”

For Fleming, that’s the plan — though there isn’t much of a precedent. Still, he can point to one example — former Patriots teammate Rob Ninkovich, who serves as New England’s starting outside linebacker while also handling the long snapping duties in emergency situations. Before he was a reliable staple in the center of Bill Belichick’s defense, Ninkovich was his team’s long snapper at Lincoln-Way Central High School, then Joliet Junior College, then Purdue. That versatility made Ninkovich invaluable.

For Fleming, it could be a useless footnote, or a foot in the door.

“I definitely need some practice. I need some live work, and that’s hard to get right now,” Fleming said. “I’m not even practicing with shoulder pads on. But give me the right coaching and give me a solid camp, and I can do this.”

The coaching part is taken care of. Along with Daly, Fleming plans to work with former high school teammate Tom Harrington, who was an accomplished long snapper at Western Michigan.

The trick, Daly says, is repetition … and time.

“Long snapping is just like a golf swing. It comes down to muscle memory — doing the same thing over and over and over again,” Daly said. “Repetition, repetition. Bottom line, it takes practice. You’ve got to be able to discipline yourself and make sure you take your preparation going into a game seriously, so when you go out there you can trust yourself.

“It’s really all mental. It’s all confidence. I was able to get confidence by making sure I prepared myself leading up to game day and going out there and doing what I do best.”

But, after two ACL tears, two NFL seasons and one more spent on the sideline, what does Fleming do best? He’s a linebacker by trade and a long snapper in training. Above all else, he’s a football player.

For now, but not forever.

“I told myself that by the end of training camp, if I’m not in camp, I’ll be working (elsewhere) in August,” said Fleming, who earned a degree from Notre Dame in business management and has begun making contacts in recent months.

“My goal is that I want to be able to play in some preseason games and get my feet under me. If I get that opportunity, I’ll go with it.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame's Brian Kelly greets senior Darius Fleming before the game against Boston College Saturday, November 19, 2011 (SBT File photo).