SOUTH BEND – Manti Te’o left Notre Dame as the most honored player in college football history.
The former Irish middle linebacker earned seven major postseason awards, eclipsing the previous high of five.
But the players tasked with replacing Te’o – fifth-year seniors Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese and junior Jarrett Grace – didn’t dwell on filling his shoes.
I don’t really think anyone on defense thought about it, or anyone on the team really, Grace said. I don’t think there was any anxiety, any fear at all. We knew we were capable to get the job done, week in and week out. That’s how we felt all through camp.
Grace backed up starters Fox and Calabrese in the No. 14 Irish’s season-opening 28-6 victory over Temple last Saturday as the three linebackers rotated between the two middle linebacker positions.
I think all three of us are comfortable with it, being able to give it our all for the plays we are in there, Grace said. I thought it was a good balance.
It’s doubtful any of the three will be able to match Te’o’s production from last season when he led the Irish with 113 tackles and seven interceptions.
But it was a solid start for the 6-foot, 250-pound Calabrese, 6-2, 245-pound Fox and 6-2, 245-pound Grace as the No. 14 Irish (1-0) prepare for a bigger test when they travel to play No. 17 Michigan (1-0) on Saturday night.
First half spotty, second half firm, much better, coach Brian Kelly said of the play of the middle linebackers against Temple. I thought that the second half, we fitted the plays a lot better. One of the hallmarks of our defense, no easy runs on the perimeter. We had one easy run on the perimeter, and that’s very unusual to happen in the first half. We had one, then none in the second half.
The playing volume wise, Fox and Calabrese, their volume was way up. But I thought in the second half they played much, much better.
Fox finished with a team-high 10 tackles for his first double-digit tackle game, and he had one tackle for a loss. Calabrese had nine tackles. Grace had seven.
The three linebackers helped hold Temple quarterback Connor Reilly to 9.9 yards per completion and 4.9 yards per attempt, and the Owls averaged 4.6 yards per rush.
I think we just locked it in better in the second half, Fox said. First game, you’re not sure what they are going to do. The coaches did a great job of getting new checks, so we played a little bit better.
It was great. We all did a great job.
The linebackers will face a different test against Michigan after dealing with the short passes Temple used last weekend. The Wolverines are more of a power team and ran for 242 yards with six rushing touchdowns in a 59-9 win over Central Michigan last weekend.
I like to think we are able to combat any type of offense, but at least from a personal standpoint, I would like to play (Michigan’s) style of offense more often than not, Grace said. It’s going to be a battle of wills out there. It’s going to be guys lining up and just going at each other. And I think we have great guys for that. I think they have great guys for that. It is definitely going to be a game where we are just lining up and hitting each other, and the best man will win.