Oct. 21, 2011
By Craig Chval
When senior outside linebacker Darius Fleming first came to Notre Dame for his official visit, it was not the kind of weekend a coaching staff envisions for a recruit.
"I didn't really know much about Notre Dame before I started the recruiting process," says Fleming, a product of St. Rita High School in Chicago, Ill. "So once I got my offer from here, my dad and I, being close, we made a visit. I went to a game - it was a Georgia Tech game. It was rough."
That Georgia Tech game - on Sept. 1, 2007 - saw the Irish outrushed 259 to minus-8 in a 33-3 season-opening loss. Notre Dame finished the year with a 3-9 record, the most losses in program history. Surprisingly, this was the beginning of Fleming's road to Notre Dame.
"They beat us up pretty bad, but it was incredible just to be in that Stadium and just to have that experience," Fleming remembers. "It kind of drew me here, and education is by far one of the best qualities. The opportunities after football are limitless."
Considering offers from such schools as Michigan and USC, Fleming continued to visit South Bend until he realized he wanted to make Notre Dame his home. And even though the `07 Irish team struggled, he saw the positives in joining the effort.
"Notre Dame's had great football tradition, but we've struggled in the past, and I told myself I wanted to come here and change things around," Fleming says. "I wanted to be a part of that group that turned Notre Dame back into what people remember."
Fleming's career at Notre Dame has been marked consistently by changes and adjustments. He has worked with two head coaches, three defensive coordinators, two defensive schemes and played two different positions.
In 2008, Fleming played as an outside linebacker in Corwin Brown's 3-4 defense before switching to Jon Tenuta's 4-3 style the next year. In that system, Fleming returned to defensive end, the position he played during most of his scholastic career.
However, when head coach Brian Kelly was hired in 2010 and brought in Bob Diaco as defensive coordinator, Fleming had to deal with an entirely different coaching staff in addition to another schematic switch back to the 3-4.
"I think everything has been helpful, even going from 3-4 to 4-3 my freshman to sophomore year," Fleming says. "Playing that position with my hand on the ground against some of those bigger guys prepared me for how I'm playing now - I'm up and then I'm down. So it just gave me experience to be able to handle those tackles and bigger guards when I'm playing now. So it's fun, and I think that playing the 4-3 in the past helped me now."
This year has brought a rare season of continuity for Fleming, who experienced no schematic or coaching changes in the offseason. As a result, his play at outside linebacker is more natural and instinctive.
"I'm just to the point where I feel comfortable dropping and rushing at the same time," Fleming reflects. "I really appreciate how the coaches have taught me how to do that job because I wasn't comfortable last year at all. When it was a coverage call, I was so nervous or just not really confident in my ability to do my job.
"But this year is totally different. I'm comfortable with every call. I know my job -- I know my responsibility. I know what they expect of me and what I expect of myself, so it gives me a lot more room to just relax and just have fun out there without my mind racing."
Listed on the preseason Butkus Award Watch List as the nation's top linebacker, Fleming entered the season surrounded by high expectations. In turn, his teammates have witnessed an increased level of intensity on the field both in practice and on game day.
"Darius is freaky strong. Freaky strong. If you watch certain plays, he's literally folding offensive linemen, folding tight ends," junior linebacker Manti Te'o describes. "There's nobody in the country who can block Darius Fleming but Darius Fleming. If he blocks himself, the defense is done. But if the opposing team has to block him one-on-one, he's going to beat them every single time."
To reach his current playing ability, Fleming was able to find support while learning all the different schemes and plays. Former outside linebacker Kerry Neal, a year older than Fleming, became a friend and mentor in his development.
"He was always the guy that regardless if I was coming for his spot was going to teach me as much as he knew. He was always there for me when I was struggling in camp or academics or anything," Fleming says. "He was somebody I could count on to help me out. And I try to carry over what he did for me and be that guy to others now."
One of the beneficiaries of Fleming's knowledge and support is sophomore Prince Shembo, another outside linebacker. As a first-year starter, Shembo has often looked to Fleming for advice.
"Darius is like family to me," Shembo says. "Ever since I got here, he's been teaching me exactly how to do things on defense. He's my roommate in the hotel before games. We go out together -- go over to his house. We're just like family."
When the Irish beat 15th-ranked Michigan State this season, Shembo was unable to play due to a family medical emergency. Fleming was one of the first people he heard from, and Shembo learned the team would be playing for him.
"Prince would have done anything to be at that game," Fleming remarks. "We talked about it a little bit and I wanted to just play - play for your brother, play with his effort. Play the game the way that he plays it because he plays with a totally different kind of energy than anybody I've ever played with.
"And I really wanted to win for him because of what he was going through. So we definitely thought about him as we were out there, and it was good to win just to do that for him and his family."
Over the last two years, Fleming has acted as a mentor to Shembo, but this year he is also one of the leaders for the entire Irish defense - a unit that has seen massive improvement over the past year.
After starting 4-5 in 2010, the defense led a late surge, winning the final four games while allowing one offensive touchdown or less in three separate games. This year, defense has continued to be the identity of the team, and Fleming has been a core leader.
"Darius has really been proactive in trying to get the defense to realize that we have to play at a certain level, we have to play with a certain level of intensity, and we have to play physical," Te'o says. "He not only displays that with his play, but when he feels that the defense is lacking energy and is lacking motivation and is lacking that confidence, he'll get that message across verbally.
"He's always mindful of that, and that's something that he's developed over time. He wasn't like that before, but with him knowing that he's a senior, he's really taking control of that leadership role."
Fleming's leadership extends off the field when he serves as a role model and friend to the rest of the team. Besides earning recognition as one of the best players on the defense, he has also gained respect from his teammates for his leadership and friendship.
"I remember one time I was scared. It was winter break," Shembo recalls. "It was cold, this campus is dark and there's no one in the dorms. And I thought I was hearing stuff -- I was freaking out. And I called him at like 3 a.m. I was like, `Darius, man, I'm scared. Can I stay at your house?' And so the rest of the week before the bowl game I just stayed with him the whole time."
Although it was Shembo who experienced his kindness that week, he is certainly not the only teammate who has come to respect Fleming's character and willingness to help.
"Darius is possibly one of the most humble guys that I've ever known in my life - him and Harrison (Smith). They're possibly the most humble, the most dependable, the most trustworthy guys I've ever met," Te'o says. "And Darius, he's the kind of guy where his door is always open to you. If you ever need something, you can call him.
"Darius is not only one of the strongest and most dependable players on our team, but he's one of my closest friends -- he's like my brother. And he'll always be there for you, and that's something that you can't teach and something that you can't fake."
As strong as Fleming's impact has been on his teammates, his influence may very well surpass simply whom he crosses paths with during his four years at Notre Dame.
His first official visit to Notre Dame saw a defense routed by Georgia Tech. With the defensive turnaround that has happened over the past year for the Irish, Fleming's tenure could become the one that propelled Notre Dame's long-awaited return to glory.