The improvement of junior outside linebacker/defensive end Darius Fleming was encapsulated during a two-play sequence in the first quarter against USC immediately following the first of four Irish turnovers in their own territory.
Aligned as a down linemen in a three-point stance, Fleming squared up blocking fullback Stanley Havili, tossed him aside, and made the tackle on Marc Tyler for a three-yard loss. On 3rd-and-6, Fleming again played the proper technique, shed the blocker, and made the stop two yards short of the first down, thus forcing the first of three Trojan field goals.
Notre Dame's sudden change defense benefited greatly from the sudden change in Fleming's game.
"It was a tough fit for him early on," recalled Irish head coach Brian Kelly of Fleming's transition into Bob Diaco's 3-4 defensive front. "Playing in space at the Cat (linebacker) was a difficult adjustment for him, and he became tentative as a player.
"He was so concerned about whether he was getting under the hitch or the curl, whether he was spot dropping the right way, and once he felt more comfortable in space, he started to come on."
By his own admission, Fleming's move didn't come until the ninth game of the season against Tulsa when two of his four tackles were for lost yardage. In fact, four of his 10 tackles for loss this season came in the final four games. Seven of his 46 tackles - a full 15 percent of his stops - came in the Southern California game alone.
Some pointed words from Diaco helped pound the message home.
"He said, 'It's getting toward the end of the season, and you really need to start picking it up because you need to become a leader on and off the field,'" Fleming recalled. "From that point on, I just did a lot more work. I didn't really change too much, but I knew I had to step my game up, and I think that was the point that I changed."
The Cat linebacker position - any outside linebacker position for that matter - often is one of the trickiest spots to play on the defensive side of the ball. It requires a multiplicity of skills that no other position embodies.
You are expected to be solid against the run, and no one is supposed to break outside containment. You have to read run-pass, and just when you've taken on an aggressive frame of mind to pursue the run, you find yourself dropping back into pass coverage, covering space, and looking for receivers running in your area. Sometimes you have to lock up one-on-one with a receiver off the snap of the ball. And then there are the pass rush responsibilities, which are game-changing situations. Get to the quarterback…but don't let the quarterback break containment or the whole thing can fall apart.
"More than anything else, it was a bigger transition for that young man than it was for Kerry Neal or Brian Smith," Kelly said. "It was that more than anything else, and then he started to feel more comfortable and confident in his position."
With the Irish playing more four-man fronts in November, Fleming found a comfort zone.
"A lot of (Fleming's improved play) was done when we moved our front down and played a lot more four down," Kelly said. "He was able to feel a lot more comfortable. So there was the transition, and then getting into some nickel situations where he could line up and push on the tackle and use his speed and quickness."
Fleming believes it all clicked simultaneously, not necessarily because he was playing with his hand on the ground more often.
"It's just all around being comfortable," Fleming said. "It was a process that I had to go through. I felt like I was coming on at the beginning of the season, but obviously my on-the-field performance really didn't show that.
"I was just thinking too much. It was a new defense and I was trying to make plays that weren't there for me to make. Now that I understand my responsibilities, it allows me to play better.
"I was playing the defense that was written on the board. I wasn't being a player on the field a lot of time. After the Tulsa game, I started to feel like I was getting more comfortable, and that allowed me to play faster and stop thinking so much."
Fleming's "come to Jesus" talk with Diaco prior to the Tulsa game paid immediate dividends
"I knew that I didn't perform at a good level at all," said Fleming after Navy rushed for 367 yards against the Irish. "I talked to Coach D about it, and he told me exactly how he felt. From that point, I started to pick my game up."
Fleming's comfort level reached a new high against USC.
"Oh, yeah, I feel like I'm definitely coming along really well at the position after that game," Fleming said. "Like Coach Diaco said, I'm not thinking anymore and that's allowed me to play a lot faster.
"I definitely enjoy playing (in a three-point stance). But I think I'm at the point now where it doesn't matter if my hand is up or down. I know what I'm doing and I know I can play."
The mentality has rubbed off on the entire defense, which allowed just 38 offensive points over the final four games combined.
"We've got that mentality that it doesn't matter where the ball is, we're going to go out there and stop whoever is out there," Fleming said. "The bye week (after Tulsa) definitely helped us to worry about our defense and not the opponent's.
"After the Tulsa game, we saw we could be a really good defense if we just stuck together. Wherever the ball is put down, we've got to go out there and perform."