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Spond’s injury opens up outside linebacker position

Aug 19, 2013, 1:11 PM EDT


The realities of college football hit home in South Bend this weekend with the news of Danny Spond walking away from his playing career just weeks before starting his senior season. There’s no way to sugar coat the departure of Spond — he was a key cog in the Irish defense. But his injury will test Brian Kelly’s mantra of “Next Man In,” and after three full recruiting cycles, the Irish are in a position to absorb Spond’s loss with a mix of veteran players and exciting youth.

Before looking at who’ll replace Spond, a quick appreciation of what he did for the Irish last season should be afforded. After missing the season’s first two games after a scary injury was finally diagnosed as debilitating migraine headaches, Spond returned to be almost an every down player. Just a season after the Irish were forced to mix and match at the drop linebacker position, Bob Diaco and Kelly had found a guy that had the versatility and skill-set needed to stay on the field in just about every situation. While Spond didn’t necessarily fill up the stat sheet, he played well in run support, was athletic enough to supplement the Irish defense in nickel coverage, and did a lot of the unseen dirty work that helped turn the Irish defense into one of the country’s elite units.

With Spond now staying with the team in a leadership and coaching role, let’s take a quick look at the three candidates that’ll try and fill Spond’s void:

6-4.5, 254 — Jr.

Just when it started to appear that Councell was in danger of getting lost in the mix, the junior linebacker will now be thrust into a very important role. A season after it was clear he wasn’t yet ready for a starting job, Councell will have another shot at taking control of the position, now three years into the defensive system.

From a physical profile, Councell is the best fit for the job on the roster, with or without Spond. At nearly 6-foot-5, Spond has the length needed to effectively play the position, and athletically he’s able to do a lot of the things that made Spond so good. Playing in all 12 games last season in a reserve role, Councell was able to learn on the job, chipping in four tackles during the Irish’s dismantling of Wake Forest at senior day.

Perhaps the best glimpse into Councell’s readiness for the job was gathered when the hulking linebacker was stuffed into a bleacher seat in Miami, doing his best to avoid the sun during media availability before the BCS National Championship game. Sitting beside teammate Jarrett Grace, Councell was open and candid about the learning curve associated with the outside linebacker position, but felt confident that his season spent mostly watching was far from a lost year.

While it appeared Councell was in line to back up Spond at one of the more crowded positions on the Irish roster, that confidence will come in handy as he now prepares to slide into the starting lineup in less than two weeks.

6-2.25, 230 — Fr.

Any worries about how Smith was going to see the field this season have all but been eliminated with Spond’s retirement. Instead of being a specialty wrinkle in the Irish defense this season, the door is wide open for the talented freshman to take the job and run with it.

That said, thinking that Smith will just step into the starting lineup and wreak havoc is a bit foolish. Just look back at other elite defensive recruits that came in as freshmen — both Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt were used carefully as they went about learning the nuances of their jobs. All the skill in the world doesn’t do much for Bob Diaco if he can’t get his young talent to play assignment correct football.

Of course, Smith is a different breed. It’s not hard to watch just the glimpses of the freshman’s work on the practice reports to know that he’s the most athletic player on the Irish defense. With the ability to run like a cornerback and also crash off the edge, this is less a battle for the starting job than finding the way for both players to complement each other.

“They’re both gonna play,” Kelly said on Saturday. “They’re both gonna play a lot.”

6-3.75, 258 — Soph.

If there’s one player potentially most effected by Spond’s injury, it could be sophomore linebacker Romeo Okwara. A season after seeing the field out of necessity, Okwara might do the same this year, cross-training once again at the drop linebacker position, even with the body of a defensive end.

There’s been plenty of speculation about potentially redshirting Okwara this year. The sophomore will have just turned 18 years old on opening day, playing all of last season as a 17-year-old college freshman. Of course, Okwara might be too good to keep off the field, and that he’s able to drop and run at his size gives you an idea about the Charlotte native’s athleticism.

With Prince Shembo and Ishaq Williams both sitting in front of Okwara at the Cat linebacker position, Okwara’s versatility might be his biggest asset right now. Then again, the whole position group seems to have the ability to do multiple jobs, with Kelly talking about Williams ability to slide down and be the third defensive end for the Irish, now more important than ever with a knee injury to Tony Springmann looking like it could be potentially serious.

Even with Okwara’s versatility, he’s likely the third option in this race. But with injuries reshuffling the front seven, the outstanding depth Kelly and his staff have built up front will now come into play.

  1. irishaggie - Aug 19, 2013 at 1:46 PM

    Romeo is a monster. I doubt he will get redshirted although it would be ideal in a perfect world. We need depth in game situations, and you don’t want your stars too long on the field in fourth quarter blow outs. I remember seeing him play cleanup against Oklahoma and deliver a big hit. I was like no way he’s 17.

    • NotreDan - Aug 19, 2013 at 9:59 PM

      I’m comment hopping to the top here, but WHY SO QUIET Keith?

      We are within 2 weeks of the season, and the information flow is getting smaller, not bigger

      • onward2victory - Aug 20, 2013 at 1:06 AM

        Dude there’s only so much to say and write about. If you want the same regurgitated articles or news then go to Bleacher Report or watch Sportscenter. I’ll take quality over quantity any day.

      • Hakuna Budi - Aug 20, 2013 at 8:30 PM

        I’m going to agree with ND Dan – this is rehashing what any of us could look up on our own. And what’s missing is the reality – that it’s much more complex that the article makes it appear. What’s really missing from the analysis sadly is that the Diaco/Kelly defense likes to drop a big safety to cover the drop backer in pass situations (and even in run situations at times). Kelly even said this in his last presser, reminding the press that John Turner had impressed so much they were dropping him down to play some drop. Why isn’t Turner (or that strategy) covered in this article? Just saying. But no offense Keith, your still the man making nothing out of something every day for us :) Go Irish!

  2. irisheyesinsd - Aug 19, 2013 at 2:17 PM

    What ever happened to Anthony Rabasa? Wasn’t he a highly toughted OLB/DE recruit? Is he still on the team and buried in the depth chart?

  3. onward2victory - Aug 19, 2013 at 2:22 PM

    Imagine if you are an opposing QB:

    It’s 3rd and long, you’re in shotgun doing a pre-snap read. Directly in front of you is 1000 lbs of strength and quickness in Tuitt, Nix, and Day. Out of the periphery of your left eye you spot Shembo with his hand down ready to trample you like a charging Rhino. Out of your right eye you spy Jaylon Smith lined up in press coverage. “Please God, don’t let him blitz, too”, you pray.

    Naturally, you audible a half-back draw.

    • ndadvocate - Aug 19, 2013 at 2:36 PM

      Well said Onward. Also, consider having to find a mismatch to pass against when our 6th DB is a freak athlete such as Max Redfield.

      • 1historian - Aug 20, 2013 at 9:41 AM

        not to mention the genius on the sideline named Diaco who has them all playing TOGETHER

  4. martyhealy - Aug 19, 2013 at 3:07 PM

    Does anybody know the schedule for the rest of fall practice. or a link. I know they usually tone down the
    hitting in the last week before Temple.

  5. canadianndfan - Aug 19, 2013 at 4:05 PM

    Let the Jaylon Smith era begin!

  6. gtizzo - Aug 19, 2013 at 4:20 PM

    I wonder if ND should do what some NFL teams do. Put Nix and Tuitt (or Day) in the middle and put Smith and Shembo on the outside. Blitz from the outside. You figure Nix and Tuitt (or Day) in the middle of the defensive line would make running the ball tough. Not to mention Grace and Calabrese would be there to clean up. Dropping back and throwing you run the risk of getting sacked. Might make a good third and long play.

  7. 25kgold - Aug 19, 2013 at 4:50 PM

    Thoughts? (I can tell you right now, we don’t lose to ASU!!)

    • irishbornraised - Aug 19, 2013 at 6:01 PM

      Honestly, ASU is probably the game on the schedule I’m 2nd most worried about (Behind Stanford)

      • nudeman - Aug 19, 2013 at 9:46 PM

        Pitt is the sleeper IMO
        Have come damn close to beating us last two years and this one’s at Pitt.

    • baldyscotsman - Aug 20, 2013 at 2:29 PM

      I don’t see them losing either, but then i look at the schedule and this is a perfect time for an upset by the Devils.

      But in saying that ND has done a very, very good job of “getting up” for the Shamrock series games and i would not expect anything less from them in this game as well. I am going to this game so they better not lay an egg!

    • danirish - Aug 20, 2013 at 3:35 PM

      I disagree with some of the predictions BUT what I am really tired of is the “controversial call” on the goal line during the Stanford game. So let’s get this straight. Stanford runs, the rb gets stuffed, thrown back, Irish players begin to celebrate, the whistle blows, Irish celebrate more, the rb then “leaps” across (maybe) the goal line.


  8. papadec - Aug 19, 2013 at 7:04 PM

    There are no games on the schedule that I’m worried about. Worrying doesn’t accomplish anything. There are some games that I think will be tougher to win, some that will be easier. There are some games that will be downright aggravating – that’s why I used my clippers to cut my hair off about a week ago. So I can’t pull it out! I watch the games by myself, or with my son, so I don’t embarrass anyone with my Marine Corps vocabulary. I put my $50 on the Irish to win the BCS Championship @ 40-1. If they win it – OK! If they don’t, f it – it’s only $50. GO IRISH!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  9. 4horsemenrideagain - Aug 19, 2013 at 8:36 PM

    Dad? I didn’t know you visited this site!

    • 4horsemenrideagain - Aug 19, 2013 at 8:38 PM

      That was supposed to be a reply to papadec. damn.

      • papadec - Aug 19, 2013 at 9:30 PM

        4horse – I took your post as such. Glad to have another surrogate son. I have many. I have biological offspring – a son & a daughter – their friends gave me the handle when they were in HS, it carried over to his frat brothers @ Wash State & Law School buddies, even friends they didn’t go to school with. Not unusual for someone to yell – “Papa is in the house” if I show up at a function, because they know it means a cooler with two cases of beer (for beer pong) & two pizzas. In HS it was two cases of pop and Cheetos, chips, whatever.

  10. 1notredamefan - Aug 19, 2013 at 9:01 PM

    I do believe ‘D’ is were we can lose a great guy like Spond! and not lose the team… KA had her right a cpl posts ago about our offense! GO IRISH!!!!

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