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Notre Dame’s Darius Fleming, Steve Filer often mistaken for each other

Darius Fleming is one nation’s top defensive players.  | Getty Images

Darius Fleming is one of the nation’s top defensive players. | Getty Images

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Updated: November 10, 2011 3:09PM

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The former Chicago prep stars don’t mind being mistaken for one another, which is often the case even though they don’t look much alike. Their last names start with the same letter, they’re seniors who play outside linebacker for Notre Dame and they wear Nos. 45 and 46. Hence, the confusion.

The biggest difference between Darius Fleming and Steve Filer is that Fleming has been recognized as one of the nation’s top defenders, while Filer is still trying to establish himself on a defense coming off its best performance of the season as it prepares for Pittsburgh on Saturday.

“He had his best game of the year,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said of Fleming’s performance in a 31-13 win over Michigan State. “Last week I was asked about him. My comments were, ‘Good, not great.’ We have a high bar for him. He played great. He played his best game. Obviously now — is one time an accident? As I told him, [if you do it] twice, now you’re trending in the right way. Hopefully, we’ll see it again.”

The Detroit Free Press rated Fleming the second-best high school linebacker in the Midwest coming out of St. Rita in 2007. The only linebacker ranked higher was Mount Carmel’s Filer, who’s listed behind Fleming on the official Irish depth chart.

Not that Fleming takes any satisfaction from that. Their personal rivalry ended once they became teammates.

“Honestly, I knew of Filer, but I really didn’t know him until we started getting recruited,” Fleming said. “I wasn’t a big fan of his because he went to Mount Carmel and I went to St. Rita. After we got recruited, we started hanging out, and we’ve become great friends.”

Fleming’s development as the “cat” linebacker coincided with the defense’s late-season surge in 2010 that has ratcheted up expectations for this season. The position requires him to rush the passer or drop into coverage depending on a pre-snap read. Because he had never played in space before, it took half a season for him to quit thinking and start reacting. But once he did, it created headaches for opposing quarterbacks who had to predict what he might do from play to play.

Fleming finished last season with a team-high six sacks and 11 tackles for loss. He has 14 tackles and half a sack this season.

“On a play-in and play-out [basis], [Fleming] had a huge impact on the game; he was dominant at the point [of attack],” Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. “He made a ton of tackles. He was more productive and more of a positive factor than in any game to date. He’s moving his game forward.”

Filer has led the Irish in special-teams tackles the last two seasons. He remains a mainstay on special teams while also finding a regular role on defense. Coaches started using him as a situational pass rusher during spring practices, and he has done so well in that role that Diaco considers him a starter, even if he’s not on the field for the first defensive snap.

Against Michigan State, Filer also filled in at linebacker for Prince Shembo, who missed the game because of a family medical emergency. He had one tackle for a three-yard loss.

If Filer fails to have the season many expect, it won’t be for lack of athleticism. Remember how a YouTube video of Bears 2009 third-round pick Jarron Gilbert jumping out of a pool created a sensation before the draft? There’s a similar video of Filer. In the background, Fleming is cheering him on.

“I’m a senior, and there are things I should know and be aware of,” Filer said. “I’ve been here for three years already. I’m just trying to do what’s best for the team right now. Wherever the coach wants to put me, whatever is best for the defense is where I’ll play.”

Fleming also is convinced his former rival is poised for a big season. They’ll know that’ll be the case when they start being mistaken for each other on the field as often as they are off it.

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