It was a gamble disguised as a dream that Darius Fleming bought into roughly four years ago.
Then-Notre Dame defensive coordinator Corwin Brown pushed the new position (outside linebacker), the new scheme (3-4), the new energy he was going to bring to the Irish defense.
But when Fleming, a senior at Chicago St. Rita High at the time, turned on the TV, he saw an Irish front seven that looked like it was plodding. He even wondered aloud to a reporter, at the risk of sounding disrespectful, if his Lo-Def TV was playing tricks on him.
In a lost 3-9 season, in which seemingly just about every statistic threatened or exceeded dubious historical standards, the 2007 Irish did miss the mark for worst rushing defense ever at ND - but not by much.
Only the 2-8 ND team of 1956, which ironically produced a Heisman Trophy winner (Paul Hornung) on the other side of the ball, had a worse run defense comparatively (102nd nationally, 279.1 rushing yards per game) than Brown’s first and last solely at the controls of the ND defense (96th, 195.4 yards).
“When I committed here, the defense wasn’t that great, but that’s one of the reasons I came here,” acknowledged Fleming, a 6-foot-2, 255-pound senior who will start at outside linebacker Saturday night, when the Irish (2-2) take on Purdue (2-1) and the nation’s 11th-ranked rushing offense.
“I wanted to be a part of it, the turnaround of this place,” he said, “getting it back to the glory days, you might say. And you know what? This is a defense I’m proud of. We continue to get better every week. It’s fun to be out there. It’s not like a task anymore. It’s like, when the whistle blows, it’s our time. Let’s do it.”
So far the Irish are doing it to the tune of 93 rushing yards a game, good for 25th-best in the nation and against four strong rushing teams (South Florida, Michigan, Michigan State and Pitt). It’s actually a continuation of the final four games of last season, when the Irish moved up 29 notches nationally to finish 50th in rush defense.
And why it’s particularly notable is that rush defense is still the top predictor of teams that land in the BCS and win games there. From 2005-09, only seven of the 48 teams that landed a BCS berth in that span didn't have a rush defense ranked among the top 25 nationally. Two of those were Charlie Weis-coached ND teams (2005, 2006) that collapsed on the big stage in large part because of that deficiency.
In 2010, seven of the 10 BCS entrants were among the top 27 rush defense teams. And in four of the five BCS matchups last season, the team with the better rush defense prevailed.
There are so many elements as to why ND has made the dramatic climb in this critical serious area, but speed on the edge is right in the middle of the conversation.
ND’s outside linebacker play was the entry point for most opposing offensive coordinators in games 1-8 last season to attack the Irish defense, and that included in the short passing game.
Over the past eight games, dating back to last season, it’s been a strength - with first-time starter, sophomore Prince Shembo, and a remade Fleming leading the way.
“There was a time I wasn’t confident. There was a time when I wasn’t comfortable,” Fleming said. “But I’m so beyond that now.”
Fleming is sixth on the team in tackles (18), second in tackles for loss (3.5) and first in sacks (2.5). And he’s immeasurably valuable in plays that don’t show up in the stat column - containing a play from breaking outside, forcing a quarterback into a panicked decision, etc.
“(He gets attention) for his flash production, those wow plays,” said Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. “But he’s had so many plays that nobody notices, plays when you break them down on film, you say to yourself, ‘Whew, that was really something.’
“It doesn’t get isolated on the camera. It’s not something (the media) is talking about, but they’re as good a football play as those other plays. So we’ve been pleased with him every single week.”
If you believe in recruiting rankings, this was how it was supposed to happen. Fleming was the first top 60 national recruit that played in the defensive front seven to commit to Weis. But that wasn’t until the fourth recruiting cycle of Weis’ regime.
Weis did land 22 top 60 players overall in his five recruiting cycles, but linebacker Steve Filer and defensive end Ethan Johnson in Fleming’s class and linebacker Manti Te’o in the class that followed, were the only other top 60 front-seven players Weis could lure to ND.
Kelly already has three such players.
But it wasn’t just about raw material; it was fit. And Fleming continually dealt challenges in that area.
By the time Fleming arrived on campus, Weis had brought in Jon Tenuta to mentor Corwin Brown, and suddenly the Irish were back in the 4-3. Fleming was an undersized defensive end who did excel in obvious pass-rush situations and got bulldozed on running downs.
The Irish did flip back to a 3-4 when Kelly and Diaco came in Fleming’s junior year, but the nuances of the scheme and lack of experience at the position (he was an end in high school) tripped him up the first two-thirds of the 2010 season.