In a rush to learn

Fleming's workouts with the Bears' Harris paying dividends

September 3, 2009, 3:36 PM

By: Eric Hansen

Darius Fleming

Scott Boehm/Getty Images

Darius Fleming's move to No. 1 strongside linebacker is arguably the most significant among the recent Irish depth-chart shifts.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Darius Fleming's climb up the depth chart to a starting outside linebacker's spot this fall started in a crowded weight room last spring and with an unlikely mentor.

Chicago Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris befriended the Notre Dame sophomore from Chicago and several of his Irish teammates last May, when they were regulars at EFT Sports Performance in Highland Park, Ill.

Fleming, running back Robert Hughes, safety Sergio Brown, linebacker Steve Filer and recently anointed special teams captain Scott Smith first ran into Harris at EFT during the six-week interlude between ND's spring semester and the start of summer school.

"I practically lived at the gym, it seemed," said Fleming, who gave up the sport of bowling for the summer. And if you don't think that's a big deal, consider the once-aspiring pro bowler almost transferred from St. Rita High School because he wasn't convinced the school took the sport seriously enough.

Harris took his role of mentor seriously. He gave Fleming tips on rushing the passer and offered him and his Irish teammates advice on working out.

Fleming's move to No. 1 strongside linebacker is arguably the most significant among the recent Irish depth-chart shifts. After playing defensive end situationally on obvious passing downs last season as a freshman, Fleming moved to linebacker in the offseason.

But he'll drop down to end in ND's nickel packages.

"He is definitely our best pass rusher," said fifth-year Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis, whose Irish open the season at home (2:30 CDT) against Nevada on Saturday.

And Fleming is quick to credit Harris for helping him build that reputation.

Here are the four other significant depth-chart shifts in the past week to 10 days:

• Freshman kicker Nick Tausch displacing junior incumbent Brandon Walker on place kicks and senior Ryan Burkhart on kickoffs: Walker finished a respectable 14-of-24 on field goals after a 1-of-7 start, but the four he missed in November were all big ones -- one in the fourth overtime of a quadruple-overtime loss to Pittsburgh and three in a one-point upset loss to Syracuse; Burkhart had just one touchback in 2008, tied for fewest in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

• Freshman kicker Theo Riddick surfacing as the top option on kickoff returns: Riddick was the "other running back" in ND's 2009 recruiting class. Cierre Wood has been impressive in practice, but Riddick will make it to the field on game day first.

• Sophomore Jonas Gray to No. 2 running back: Weis said Gray's ascension is due in part to Hughes' NCAA-imposed suspension for a fight he was involved in during a loss to USC last November. But Weis said, more significantly, Gray had a strong training camp.

• Sophomore Sean Cwynar to No. 2 nose tackle: The Marian Central Catholic product was buried on the depth chart in the spring and made perhaps the most dramatic surge of any Irish player during fall camp.

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