Prince Shembo, Sean Cwynar, Hafis Williams

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

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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.

Restocking the roster: Running Backs

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Josh Adams #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs for a 26-yard gain against the USC Trojans in the first half of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s running back depth chart was tested to its max less than 10 minutes into the season opener. The projected two-deep, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant, were both lost for the year—Bryant out of school as an academic and disciplinary casualty by the start of fall camp and Folston because of a knee injury suffered on his third carry of the season.

Welcome back to Notre Dame, Autry Denson.

The school’s all-time leading rusher in his first season as a running back coach had to be feeling a little woozy. He had a converted wide receiver taking featured-back carries and a true freshman a little over a year removed from his own major knee injury serving as his primary backup.

That the Irish had their most prolific running season under Brian Kelly says quite a bit about the job that Denson did. It’s also a credit to the offensive line blocking, the adjusted scheme that also protected two new starting quarterbacks, and the talent that remained at the position.

Spring presents new challenges. Tarean Folston should be a little over seven months removed from ACL surgery, making him doubtful to do anything more than wear a red jersey. With C.J. Prosise‘s departure, Adams goes from record-setting rookie to spring starter, with Williams likely carrying a large load as well.

Tony Jones Jr. and Deon McIntosh arrive this summer, reinforcements on the way. But before we get there, let’s take a look at the pre-spring roster at running back.

 

DEPARTURES
C.J. Prosise (156 carries 1,032 yards, 11 TDs)
Greg Bryant (lost preseason 2015)

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Josh Adams (117 carries, 835 yards, 6 TDs)
Dexter Williams (21 carries, 81 yards, 3 TDs)
Tony Jones Jr.
Deon McIntosh 

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Tarean Folston,* Sr.
Josh Adams, Soph.
Dexter Williams, Soph.
Justin Brent,* Junior

*Additional year of eligibility remaining.

 

ANALYSIS: This might be a position battle deferred to fall camp, especially if Folston is still in recovery mode. At this point, it doesn’t make sense to rush back from an ACL tear for 15 practices, so while the rising senior may be chomping at the bit to return, it’s better to save it until August.

Folston will likely be the team’s most versatile back, but keeping Adams off the field will be a hard chore. His breakaway speed was on display multiple times in 2015, with his record-setting run against Wake Forest the team’s longest play from scrimmage. Adams also likely added some mass and physicality to his game in the offseason weigh-training program, giving the Irish someone capable of hitting the big play and also moving the sticks in short yardage situations.

The staff believes that Dexter Williams is a talented back, so with three solid contributors on the roster before Jones or McIntosh hit campus, it’ll be fun to see how snaps get sorted. (From that perspective, you can only wonder how they’d have dealt with the champagne problem of having Prosise around…) Justin Brent remains an option as well, though the attrition from the receiving corps makes you think he’ll be back at receiver.

The wildcard in all of this is Folston. He’s a unique talent with natural ability you just can’t teach. If he’s fully recovered and ready to engage in a position battle, there won’t likely be a drop off even with the early departure of Prosise.

 

Notre Dame gets 10 invites to NFL Scouting Combine

2013 NFL Combine
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Notre Dame will send ten former players to the NFL Scouting Combine. The annual event in Indianapolis serves as the unofficial apex of draft season, a meat-market where the best professional prospects are poked, prodded, questioned and tested in a variety of on- and off-field drills.

Heading to the festivities from Notre Dame are:

Chris Brown, WR
Sheldon Day, DT
Will Fuller, WR
Nick Martin, C
Romeo Okwara, DE
C.J. Prosise, RB
KeiVarae Russell, CB
Elijah Shumate, S
Jaylon Smith, OLB
Ronnie Stanley, OT

For a prospect like Smith, it’ll be teams first opportunity to talk to the elite prospect and check his progress medically as he returns from a Fiesta Bowl knee injury. Russell will also be a non-participant in physical drills, waiting until Notre Dame’s Pro Day to go through testing.

Invites to Chris Brown, Romeo Okwara and Elijah Shumate are crucial in finding their way into the draft, as the three former Irish starters participated in the Shrine Bowl, where scouts had an early look at them. Likewise, Nick Martin and Sheldon Day continue their ascent, both coming off strong Senior Bowl weeks.

For Irish fans, it’ll be fun to watch early-enrollees Fuller and Prosise test. Both are expected to be some of the fastest players at their position. Brown may also have the ability to surprise teams, with his track background and leaping ability capable of earning him an extended look. Offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley will look to impress as well, hoping to check out as one of the draft’s most impressive athletes at offensive tackle.

Ohio State led all schools with 14 invites. National Champion Alabama had nine former players invited.

 

WR Corey Robinson named Notre Dame student body president

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On Wednesday, wide receiver Corey Robinson added another impressive title to his resume as a student-athlete at Notre Dame: Student Body President.

The junior, paired with classmate Becca Blais as his vice presidential running mate, won a majority of the votes cast by his fellow students, a runaway winner with 59.4% of the votes, nearly triple the next highest vote getter.

Robinson posted the following on Twitter, thankful for the opportunity to serve his fellow students:

Robinson’s time at Notre Dame has been filled with accomplishments both on and off the field. He was named an Academic All-American as a sophomore. He’s a six-time Dean’s List member in the prestigious Program of Liberal Studies and is also pursuing a sustainability minor. He’s won the team’s Rockne Student-Athlete Award as well.

That’s quite a bit on the plate of Notre Dame’s lone senior wide receiver. But as you might expect, Robinson is well prepared for the next challenge ahead.

“I’ve planned ahead, gotten all of my hard work out of the way this semester, and I’m finishing up my senior thesis,” Robinson told The Observer. “I’m doing all the hard stuff now so in the fall and the spring, I just have to take two classes pretty much.”

Robinson’s other contributions as a student-athlete at Notre Dame include One Shirt one Body, an opportunity for college athletes to donate their athletic apparel to local communities. Robinson has presented the plan to the ACC as well as the NCAA, earning immediate support from both organizations.

 

Mailbag: Now Open (scheduling input requested)

UNIVERSAL CITY, CA - JUNE 01:  Actors Mike Myers (L) and Dana Carvey as Wayne and Garth from "Wayne's World" onstage during the 17th annual MTV Movie Awards held at the Gibson Amphitheatre on June 1, 2008 in Universal City, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
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Okay folks, we’ve had enough semi-positive encouragement to keep the video mailbag going for another week. With that said, I’ll need some reader participation to keep this thing rolling on.

As always, submit your questions below or on Twitter @KeithArnold. You can also ask your questions live via Facebook. You’ll need to LIKE THIS PAGE first, and then at the appropriate time, head on over to watch and participate.

To that point, let’s pick a time that works for everyone. Right now, here are the options that work at Inside the Irish HQ.  Weigh in and the best time wins. (How’s that for a democracy?)

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