LinebackersManti Te'o and everyone else. That was the prevailing theme for the Mike, Will, and Dog positions reviewed below (Prince Shembo, the Cat, was reviewed with the defensive line linked above). And while ancillary stories emerged, Te'o's ascent from potential All-America to the nation's best player dominated the headlines.
Camp Questions: Would suspended senior Carlo Calabrese regain his 50/50 role at the Will position in tandem with classmate Dan Fox? Who would emerge as the starting Dog 'backer, Danny Spond or redshirt-freshman Ben Councell? Would the Dog position belong to 5th-year senior safety Jamoris Slaughter when the Irish faced speedier foes? Would Te'o, 22-16 in his career at Notre Dame prior to the season, enjoy a senior year that merely resulted in better draft position or finally yield team success? And later, would Spond, with an undisclosed head injury, ever play football again?
The season's answersSpond's return from a severe migraine condition stands as the best story, with the junior 'backer not only contributing, but joining Te'o as one of two front seven players to rarely leave the field (consider that statement again). He played cornerback in nickel packages, linebacker in both the 3-4 and 4-3 fronts, and even lined up in a down position at the goal line.
Calabrese played his best football late, earning five starts in the final 11 games, though Fox again ranked as the better all-around Will 'backer. The Irish loss Slaughter to injury midway through Game Three at Michigan State but Spond picked up the slack, turning the Dog position into a defensive strength for the first time in the Kelly era.
Adding further relief of Slaughter was backup Cat 'backer Ishaq Williams, who became a regular nickel linebacker (coverage) and pass-rusher (DE) as the Irish often employed just four defensive backs throughout the season, relying on the coverage skills of Williams, Fox, Spond, and of course Te'o.
Season Takeaway: Te'o famously developed into the nation's best linebacker, defensive player, and by most accounts, football player. His ascent from All-America candidate to all-time program legend ranks as the definitive personnel story of the 2012 season. With a win in Miami, his face will don the modern-era Mount Rushmore of Notre Dame football legends.
BCS Championship Questions: Can Fox, Spond, and Williams continue to thrive in third-down passing situations against an array of speedy Crimson Tide weapons? Or will Slaughter's absence finally be felt on an otherwise impenetrable defense?