'Oddball' Fleming rolls strikes for Notre Dame defense

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

Darius Fleming's outside interests might not match those of the typical college football player.

The Notre Dame linebacker's favorite sport growing up was bowling, and he didn't really play football until high school. While friends in his Chicago neighborhood were out causing trouble, he'd spend his free time riding horses.

"I'm definitely the oddball when it comes to stuff like that," Fleming said.

Let's just say there's more than one side to Fleming. And the sophomore's versatility makes him a valuable player on what the Fighting Irish hope is an improving defense.

Strictly a pass-rushing specialist as a freshman, the 6-foot-1, 240-pound Fleming moved to strong side linebacker this spring. Defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta still brings him down to end in passing situations, and Fleming has helped shore up what was a shaky defensive line earlier in the season.

He leads the team and ranks eighth nationally in tackles for loss with 11.5, and he's tied for the team lead in sacks with three.

"I definitely feel like my speed has helped me with some of those," he said. "The coaches are helping me use my ability and my speed to get inside and make some plays from the edge."

Notre Dame's coaches always thought Fleming would be a good pass rusher. They didn't know how good of a run stopper he could be, but he's coming on strong in that area as well.

"He's now using his quickness and explosiveness to become a more complete player," head coach Charlie Weis said. "When he first started, he was more one-dimensional. His thought methodology was rush the passer. But now he's using those same skills to be disruptive in the run game."

A real test for Fleming comes this week against Navy. The triple-option shows no mercy on inexperience, and Fleming only saw it for a handful of plays in last year's game.

But he has proved that he's a quick learner, grasping the fundamentals of both linebacker and defensive end in a short time. Fleming had almost no football background before high school, except for a brief interlude on his sixth-grade team.

"I don't know if I just wasn't good or what, but we'd be losing by 40 points and my coach wouldn't even put me in the game," Fleming said. "So I told my dad, 'I don't want to do this any more.'"

Instead he focused on his favorite sport: bowling. Most of his family liked to bowl, and Fleming played in competitive leagues from the time he was 7. He made it to London for a junior Olympic competition as a freshman in high school and rolled a 289 his senior year. He still keeps a half-dozen bowling balls in the trunk of his car, and last week he and some teammates hit the lanes in South Bend.

"A couple of guys are really good, like Robert Blanton, George West and James Aldridge," Fleming said. "I'm looking to put a team together in the spring."

When he wasn't bowling, Fleming was usually hanging around horses. He learned to ride and participated in some rodeos under the tutelage of his aunt. She recently moved to Arkansas, taking Fleming's two horses -- Stormy and Amigo -- with her. Fleming said that will be the first place he goes this summer.

"In the neighborhood I grew up in, (riding horses) helped me stay out of trouble," he said. "My friends were doing things they shouldn't be doing, and I was out at the barn with my aunt preparing for shows."

That may not be the typical background for a college football player. But Notre Dame is happy to have his versatility.