Prince Shembo, Sean Cwynar, Hafis Williams

Spond and Shembo: The year of the Dog (linebacker)


Think back to last summer. Notre Dame fans hypothesized what the Irish defense would look like as it shifted back to a 3-4 alignment.  One position Notre Dame fans felt fairly confident about was outside linebacker. On one side, Darius Fleming, one of the Irish’s top defenders, was going back to a position that fit his skillset, a hybrid pass-rusher / stand-up linebacker. And on the other side, Brian Smith, who burst onto the scene as an outside linebacker early in his career, would hopefully rejuvenate a career that seemed to stagnate as he bounced between outside and inside spots.

Sure there were questions about who would play next to Manti Te’o and what would the Irish do with their depth problems along the defensive line. (Not to mention could the new coaching staff fix what was wrong between Harrison Smith’s ears.) Yet most fans seemed to think that while the combination of Fleming, Smith, Steve Filer, Dan Fox, and Kerry Neal wouldn’t be an embarrassment of riches, it would certainly rank among the top position groupings on defense.

Of course, last season didn’t go the way many planned it. Jumping off to a slow start, the outside linebacker play was sporadic at best, with Fleming — a guy many pegged ready for a truly breakout season — regressing as he thought his way through the defense. Smith and Neal worked their way through an awkward platoon of sorts, with neither giving Bob Diaco the type of pass-rush look needed to keep defenses on their toes. Even Filer, a fan’s annual rite of preseason optimism, seemed relegated to using his incredible athleticism on special teams for the third straight season, while struggling to find the field on first, second or third down.

Yet as the season progressed, Fleming’s game came around enough for him to lead the defense in sacks and tackles-for-loss. Neal took over at the dog linebacker, while Carlo Calabrese’s injury gave Smith a chance to slide back inside, and the senior played inspired football. We don’t need to recap the Irish’s late season defensive turnaround again, but the linebacking corp that was expected to be strong all season certainly played up to expectations as the Irish finished the season on a four-game run.

As preseason expectations ramp up for a defense that returns many of the same players that keyed the renaissance, one position that demands the spotlight is the outside linebacker spot opposite Fleming. Two rising sophomores have all but been named co-leaders for the job, with Prince Shembo and Danny Spond taking over at the dog linebacker position.

As a fit, the position doesn’t seem 100-percent natural for either player. Shembo was initially recruited as an inside linebacker, and wavered on his commitment until a January visit from Bob Diaco and Kerry Cooks quelled any concerns. Once he got to campus, Shembo learned just enough of the playbook to become a pass-rushing specialist of sorts, using his size and speed to finish third on the team in sacks with 4.5, even without starting a football game and getting limited reps. As the Irish came into spring drills this year, Shembo would be taking his base knowledge and building exponentially on it. The freshman season spent playing one-dimensionally would have to be the springboard to learn a dog position that required dropping into coverage, reading multiple keys, and taking much more responsibility on the football field.

If Shembo’s potential move into the starting lineup was surprising, the fact that Danny Spond will walk into fall camp a co-starter is even more shocking. As Irish fans evaluated Brian Kelly’s first recruiting class, Spond was targeted as nothing more than a developmental project by most, a big-bodied athlete that could work his way into the mix at safety, grow his way into a linebacker, and if the Irish really needed it, be an emergency quarterback of sorts.

But Spond came to the attention of Irish fans early, when Brian Kelly name-checked the freshman in one of his opening press conferences, praising Spond’s ability to play with his hands. Spond rarely showed up in the stat sheet (he had one tackle on the season), but his work on the practice field and on special teams (before a late season injury limited him) gave the Irish coaching staff the belief that Spond was ready to ascend to the top of the depth chart.

While we haven’t seen enough of either player to know fully what to expect, it’s easy to make the assumption that in Shembo, the Irish have the closest thing to a mirror image of Fleming as they can get. For defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, this gives him options he never had last season, when everybody in the stadium knew that it’d be Fleming pass-rushing and Neal or Smith dropping into coverage. If you’re looking for a reason to think the Irish pass rush will be better next season, that’s where you start, as Shembo’s ability to come off the edge will keep offensive lines off balance and keep teams guessing when both Fleming and Shembo creep toward the line of scrimmage.

We’ve seen nothing to judge Spond’s pass rushing abilities yet, but the Irish will be putting an excellent athlete on the field. In the limited role he played in the spring game, Spond looked smooth in coverage, and Kelly and Diaco’s belief in Spond’s ability to play physically against the run was showed when the freshman ascended into the two-deep at middle linebacker. At his best, Spond could be the kind of linebacker that’s all over the field, dropping into coverage and chasing quarterbacks in the same set of downs. He seems like a cerebral player, and if his quick grasp of the defense was enough to get him on the field early as a freshman, the physical transformation he made during his first year in the strength and conditioning program should have him ready to compete come September.

The expectations on this defense are higher than any in recent memory. The unit that willed the Irish to victories down the stretch will now be expected to dominate, something an Irish defense hasn’t done in a long time. If that’s going to happen, a lot of weight is going to be thrust onto the shoulders of two sophomores. For Shembo and Spond, it’s the Year of the Dog.

Pregame Six Pack: Anchors await

Chris Swain, Max Redfield

Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic. Work began on Mount Rushmore. The Jazz Singer ended the silent film era. Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs. And Notre Dame played Navy in football for the first time.

The Irish won that contest 19-6, and the two teams have played every year since then. So much has changed since that first game, yet the longest running intersectional rivalry is still rolling on, stronger now than maybe ever.

While the Irish’s four game winning streak has extended their already lopsided series lead (Notre Dame holds a 74-12-1 edge), the ledger is hardly what makes the game special. An annual David & Goliath matchup, both schools remain committed the game, part of the unique bond that exists between the two institutions.

So much of this week has been made about the mutual respect between the two programs. A 30-minute documentary aired earlier this week. Both teams will share part of their uniform—as will the coaches on the sidelines—a tip of their cap to the shared history (and nifty corporate synergy) between respected opponents once again doing battle.

But make no mistake: All the respect talk this week doesn’t make this a friendly Saturday.

There is no love lost between the Irish and the Midshipmen on the field.  So while both teams may honor the other by standing during their respective alma mater, this is a game that each team desperately wants to win.

After a rain-soaked weekend in South Carolina, it looks like a dry Saturday in South Bend. So let’s put away the rain panchos and get to the Pregame Six Pack.


After watching the Georgia Tech game from the sideline, Max Redfield steps back into the starting lineup. 

Drue Tranquill begins his recovery from ACL surgery today, as fearless as ever. And while Matthias Farley has shown some playmaking ability against option attacks, Brian Kelly confirmed that Max Redfield would stay in the starting lineup against Navy.

Redfield is coming off his most productive game as a college football player, making 14 tackles—including 11 solo stops—against Clemson. Now Redfield will step into the one-high safety role, while Elijah Shumate will take over for Tranquill in the box.

“He plays the role that Shu played. Shu played the role that Tranquill played,” Kelly said.

That means it’ll be Shumate running the alley and handling the pitch man. And Redfield will be asked to serve both as the last line of defense and also make a difference in the option game as well.

Just about everybody who watched Redfield last week saw a different player than the one who was largely ineffective against Virginia as he tried to play through a broken thumb. And Kelly talked Thursday evening a little bit about the journey Redfield has taken to get there.

“Each kid is a little bit different in the way that football strikes them,” Kelly said. “He’s somebody that I think is looking at football through a different lens and understands that there are so many details to it… He wants to play at the highest level, he wants to play on Sundays. He wants to get his degree from Notre Dame. I think he’s just maturing and developing at a pace that’s comfortable to him.”


DeShone Kizer did more than just survive at Clemson. Can his silver-lining performance trigger a more explosive offense?

With the game on the line and Hurricane Joaquin creating a relentless rain storm, nobody would’ve thought putting the game on the shoulders of DeShone Kizer would be Notre Dame’s best chance to win. Yet that’s what Brian Kelly did, and Kizer very nearly pulled a rabbit out of the hat.

Navy doesn’t play defense like Clemson. While the Midshipmen’s defense is vastly improved (they rank just one spot behind Notre Dame in total defense heading into Saturday’s contest), they’ll be in a physical mismatch for most of the day, relying on turnovers and stops to limit the Irish offense.

But after serving as the unexpected engine of Notre Dame’s comeback last Saturday, Kizer looks capable of doing more than just game managing, especially for an offense that’s averaged seven touchdowns a game against Navy the past four years.

“I just think when you get opportunities to play on the road, leading your team back in the fourth quarter, you gain more of an understanding of a quarterback who’s got to make plays,” Kelly said. “I think we knew he was the guy that could handle the moment, he certainly was able to do that… I think it just added on to the fact that we’ve got a quarterback that can help us win a championship.”


For as challenging as slowing down Navy’s option is every year, Notre Dame fans sometimes forget that Navy’s got to find a way to stop the Irish, too. 

As mentioned just before, Notre Dame is scoring 48.25 points against Navy during their four-game winning steak. And one of the biggest challenges that Navy faces is Brian Kelly the playcaller.

Earlier this week, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo talked about what makes Kelly’s offense so good and why Notre Dame’s head coach is so difficult to stop.

“Coach Kelly, I’ve always admired the way he calls plays. Some play-callers bury their face in their call sheet, but he’s watching the game,” Niumatalolo said. “But if he sees something, he’s going to exploit it. He’s got a great feel for the game. We’ve got to be able to adjust. We’ve got some ideas of what we can do, but he’s going to adjust very quickly to us and we’ve got to be able to adjust.”

Expect Kelly to try and get the ground game back rolling again after a difficult weekend at Clemson. And with veteran safety Kwazel Betrand likely lost for the year with after suffering a broken ankle against Air Force, the back end will be tested as well.

It’s a challenge at every level for Navy. And with Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford keeping the offense moving, it’ll stress the Midshipmen like no other game on their schedule.


Even with one loss, Kelly still thinks Notre Dame controls their own destiny. 

Earlier this week, Brian Kelly hopped on SiriusXM radio with Stephen A. Smith. And while on Tuesday Kelly said he wasn’t sure if a one-loss team could get into the College Football Playoff, he sounded more confident that the Irish still controlled their own destiny when he was talking to Smith.

“After you lose, you’re going to take that bump. That’s really part of it,” Kelly said, sounding unworried about the slide to No. 15. “I think we have a really good football team. We did not play up to the level we’re capable of and you should fall considerably because of it.”

But Kelly thinks the Irish have a schedule in front of them that can allow them to step back into the race. And while it’s still way, way, way too soon to be wondering if the Irish have the schedule needed to qualify without a conference title game, Kelly seemed to think winning out would solve all of those problems. (Even with USC’s Thursday night loss to Washington.)

“The great part of it is that we’ve got a schedule in front of us that’ll allow us to control our own destiny,” Kelly said. “If we continue to play better football and we’re a better football team in November than we are right now, we’ve got a chance to be where we need to be at the end of the year.”



For Notre Dame to win, they need to slow down Navy’s option specialist, record-setting quarterback Keenan Reynolds

Justin Thomas may have gotten all the preseason attention from Irish fans. But Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds is the more dangerous of the option trigger-men. The senior quarterback and leader of the Midshipmen will finish his college career as one of the most prolific players in college football history.

Reynolds has already scored nine touchdowns this season and his 73 career rushing touchdowns tied for second most in college football history, only four behind Montee Ball‘s record. At 25-11, his 25 wins as a starter are the most in Navy history, third most among active NCAA players.

Reynolds saw his first action as a freshman in 2012, thrown into action in Dublin after starting quarterback Trey Miller went down. Looking for his first victory against the Irish, Reynolds cherishes the opportunity to come to South Bend and fight for one.

“I’m excited. Playing at Notre Dame Stadium. I wouldn’t want to go out any other way,” Reynolds said. “It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a tough challenge. They’re a very, very good team. It’s the best team we’re going to see, they’re a Top 10 team in the country, even with a loss.”


This is Ken Niumatalolo’s best Navy team. And he knows it needs to play perfect to beat Notre Dame. 

During this week’s Onward Notre Dame: Mutual Respect documentary, we saw the large photo that hangs on the office wall of Ken Niumatalolo—the chaos and happiness of Midshipmen celebrating after they shocked Notre Dame in 2007, ending a 43-year losing streak.

While Niumatalolo was just the offensive line coach at the time, he acknowledged just how important that victory was to his program.

“For us it was a great accomplishment. I have [the picture] up there because they’re hard to beat and it doesn’t come too often, so we had to relish that one time we beat them in 2007,” Niumatalolo said in the documentary. “A big part of that picture just shows the jubilation of years trying to get over the hump.”

If there was ever a Navy team that’s well positioned to make a shocking statement at Notre Dame Stadium again, it might be this team. Outside of sophomore right tackle Robert Lindsey and sophomore linebacker D.J. Palmore, every starter on Navy is an upperclassman.

The offensive line doesn’t have a man smaller than 275 pounds, a much larger unit than you’re used to from Navy’s standards. The entire backfield is seniors, led by Reynolds but tag-teamed with fullback Chris Swain and slotbacks Desmond Brown and DeBrandon Sanders.

Even with Reynolds and a veteran group of talent, this group knows it can’t afford to make any mistakes, especially in the turnover column.

“It’s priority each and every week. But especially this week,” Reynolds said. “We can’t give them any [turnovers]. They’re very very good on offense, we can’t put our defense in a bind by giving them a short field. We understand the importance of ball security this week and having zero turnovers.”

Defensively, Dale Pehrson has taken over for Buddy Green as defensive coordinator while Green recovers from offseason surgery. With a veteran front seven and some talent on the back end, this isn’t a hapless defense just hoping to capitalize on an Irish mistake, but rather a defense that Kelly said is befitting of a Top 25 team.

Still, it’ll take more than just Niumatalolo’s best team to beat Notre Dame—they’ll need the Irish to falter. But in the midst of a four-game losing streak against the Irish, expect Navy to empty their arsenal to do anything to get a win.

“We’ve had a hard time making the plays,” Niumatalolo said about the last four years. But this is our best defense that we’ve had. We’ll go in there and take a shot at them. They’re really good. Always have been.”


Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”