BYU v Notre Dame

Ten players, ten reasons: Danny Spond


The second in a series on ten below-the-radar players whose performances helped key the Irish’s run to a national title game. For more, see part one on Zeke Motta.

It’s a story that’s been told, but certainly one that bears repeating. Danny Spond thought his football career was over. In August, the junior linebacker, the leading candidate to play Dog linebacker, a position that’s been tough to fill in the Irish defense the past two seasons, suffered a scary injury on the football field in August.

Early reports said Spond suffered a particularly nasty concussion. Some thought he had suffered a stroke. Others thought it was heat exhaustion. Whatever it was, it left Spond with blurred vision and eventually a pain so debilitating that his body went almost entirely numb.

“It hit so hard. It was so intense. It was a complete numbness,” Spond said, recalling the incident.

That numbness didn’t subside. Spond laid in a hospital bed for multiple days, doctors continuing to run tests on the Colorado native, unable to figure out what had stopped Spond from being able to move almost half of his 250-pound body.

“I was just trying to walk again,” Spond said.

To look back at the incident now, even Kelly’s comments on the injury — a scary incident that had spread like wildfire across Irish message boards and websites — showed the confusion that came along with the symptoms.

“We’ve been able to eliminate some things,” Kelly said of Spond’s condition. “First of all, he did not have a concussion. We exhausted a number of different tests. He’s come back clean on all of them. We’re going to do a little more work before we move any further with him relative to contact and getting him on the field.

“I’m not trying to be evasive, but they’ve eliminated head injury as well. So we can’t give you a specific, because they’ve done so many tests that have come back clean, but yet obviously there are still some symptoms as well.”

It took specialists at the University of Michigan to finally identify the problem. Spond was diagnosed with a semi-hemiplegic migraine, a headache so painful that it essentially shuts down the body. It took nearly a week for the headaches to stop, allowing Spond to finally sleep peacefully. He had to go about reteaching himself to walk, his left leg still riddled with numbness.

Spond wasn’t cleared to resume football related activities until early September, but the veteran linebacker who had his first two seasons marred by injuries, willed his way back onto the football field in time to help the Irish beat No. 10 Michigan State before playing a crucial role in the Irish’s 13-6 victory over Michigan, a game where Spond made a career best seven tackles and forced a fumble.

From there, Spond has seen his production take off, filling a crucial role in the Irish defense, using his athleticism and size to be one of the most diverse defenders on the Irish roster. A year after playing Prince Shembo out of position at a linebacker spot where versatility is the most important trait, Spond’s return helped key the Irish defense’s resurgence, and solidified the linebacker’s crucial role on one of the nation’s most impressive units.

“If they were giving out helmet stickers, he’d have a lot of helmet stickers,” Kelly said. “He’s a guy that gets a lot of production points.”

Just as important, Spond fills a role at a position that was in vital need of production. Without Spond, the Irish were likely to need redshirt freshman Ben Councell to play major minutes, a daunting task for a young linebacker that hadn’t seen the field. Kelly’s contingency plans were just as shaky. Seventeen-year-old linebacker Romeo Okwara was shifted outside, pushed into a depth chart at a spot that was hardly a natural fit. Same thing for safety CJ Prosise, who took practice reps down in the box throughout August. Even Shembo, who struggled in the open field as a sophomore, was preparing to replace Spond, a move that would’ve robbed the Irish of their best edge rusher.

Spond’s stats won’t particularly wow you. His 38 tackles, one interception, and three pass break-ups aren’t dazzling, but Spond’s ability to cover a wide receiver in space, and hold up at the point of attack, is something not a lot of players can do. But after two years of only hearing the head coach’s praise for linebacker’s natural ability, Spond has more than lived up to billing.

The relationship between linebacker and head coach is an interesting one. When Kelly took the Irish head job, many were interested to see the type of players the new head coach would bring in. One of his first targets was Spond, a high school quarterback that was recruited as a “big skill” player to South Bend. In every aspect, Spond fit a recruiting profile. He was an intriguing athlete — a player Kelly brought to campus with the thought that Spond would help the staff figure out where he’d end up on the field. He was also the personification of an RKG. A true scholar-athlete, Spond was something of a renaissance man. During Sun Bowl prep in El Paso after Kelly’s first season, Spond’s original piano composition, played from memory in front of both Notre Dame and Miami’s roster, let you know that the Irish weren’t just getting a typical jock.

Then again, that shouldn’t be surprising. In a season where nothing seems typical, Spond fits the bill perfectly. He’s battled long odds, back from an injury that nearly robbed him from playing football, and taken control of a position where his teammates desperately needed him.

It may be the understatement of the year, but Spond has come a long way since August.



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.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”