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December 21, 2011

Fox finds footing


Dan Fox didn't score well on Bob Diaco's wish list for inside linebackers.

When the Irish defensive coordinator arrived in South Bend alongside Brian Kelly, Diaco saw a linebacker in Fox who could be molded into a contributor. But Diaco also saw a player with plenty holding him back from reaching his potential.

Now Diaco speaks of an inside linebacker that has earned the respect of his peers.

"Dan worked hard and moved his game forward from being a liability, which he was at it relates to the program," Diaco said. "He moved himself in a year's time, from August to August, to a position where he's one of the better players on the team from being one of the worst players on the team."

Moving into a position to be voted Defensive Newcomer of the Year over freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch and sophomore nose guard Louis Nix was no simple task.

Fox entered the season expected to split time with Carlo Calabrese in part because of perception. Calabrese was supposed to be the run stopper and Fox the finesse linebacker more suited to pass coverage.

Given that Fox grew up playing at the back end of a defense, the role projection wasn't much of a surprise. But finding a way through those preconceived notions and being a more physical player would be the keys to carving out a role.

Fox always believed he had a physical edge in his game.

"Personally, I felt I've always had it," he said. "It's just a different type at linebacker. At safety you're kind of deeper. At linebacker it's just a different type of physicalness."

Whatever Fox needed to change this season took hold as he started all 12 games, accumulating 46 total tackles and two for a loss. Calabrese played in every contest but moved to more of a reserve role as Fox grew into his own.

As time moved on Manti Te'o noticed he was lining up next to a more assertive player.

"He's more confident," Te'o said. "He's not asking so many questions because he knows. He's answering more questions. With Dan, he's getting better. He's getting more comfortable. His linebacker fundamentals are getting better, so he's improving."

Fox has leaned on his partner up the middle of the Notre Dame defense often this season. Learning from Te'o, who turned down the NFL draft to return for his senior season, has been invaluable.

Without that help it's tough to say whether Fox would have blossomed at all.

"He's helped me every day," Fox said. "He's always just telling me, 'Do this or do that.' He's got these little nuances that I have to learn. He's obviously a more experienced player so he knows those types of things."

Now it's safe to say Fox has a grasp of exactly what it takes to play his position at a winning level. Whether it's playing tougher or playing with better fundamentals, he's embraced everything.

"He's bought into those things," Diaco said, "He always had intent and he's a high contact player."


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