Spond’s injury opens up outside linebacker position


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.

Only focus after Clemson loss is winning on Saturday

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The 2015 college football season has yet to showcase a truly great football team. With early title contenders like Ohio State and Michigan State looking less than stellar, Alabama losing a game already and the Pac-12 beating itself up, the chance that a one-loss Notre Dame team could still make it into the College Football Playoff is certainly a possibility.

But don’t expect Brian Kelly and his football team to start worrying about that now.

We saw a similar situation unfold last season, after the Irish lost a heartbreaker in the final seconds against Florida State. With many fans worried that Notre Dame wasn’t given credit for their performance in Tallahassee, the Irish’s playoff resume mattered very little as the team fell apart down the stretch.

As Notre Dame looks forward, their focus only extends to Saturday. That’s when Navy will test the Irish with their triple-option attack and better-than-usual defense, a team that Brian Kelly voted into his Top 25 this week.

Can this team make it to the Playoff? Kelly isn’t sure. But he knows what his team has to do.

“I don’t know,” Kelly said when asked about a one-loss entrance. “But we do know what we can control, and that is winning each week. So what we really talked about is we have no margin for error, and we have to pay attention to every detail.

“Each game is the biggest and most important game we play and really focusing on that. It isn’t concern yourself with big picture. You really have to focus on one week at a time.”

Kelly spread that message to his five captains after the game on Saturday night. He’s optimistic that message has set in over the weekend, and he’ll see how the team practices as they begin their on-field preparations for Navy this afternoon.

But when asked what type of response he wants to see from his team this week, it wasn’t about the minutiae of the week or a company line about daily improvement.

“The response is to win. That’s the response that we’re looking for,” Kelly said, before detailing four major factors to victory. “To win football games, you have to start fast, which we did not. There has to be an attention to detail, which certainly we were missing that at times. We got great effort, and we finished strong. So we were missing two of the four real key components that I’ll be looking for for this weekend. As long as we have those four key components, I’ll take a win by one. That would be fine with me. We need those four key components. That’s what I’ll be looking for.”

Go for two or not? Both sides of the highly-debated topic

during their game at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina.

Notre Dame’s two failed two-point conversion tries against Clemson have been the source of much debate in the aftermath of the Irish’s 24-22 loss to the Tigers. Brian Kelly’s decision to go for two with just over 14 minutes left in the game forced the Irish into another two-point conversion attempt with just seconds left in regulation, with DeShone Kizer falling short as he attempted to push the game into overtime.

Was Kelly’s decision to go for two the right one at the beginning of the fourth quarter? That depends.

Take away the result—a pass that flew through the fingers of a wide open Corey Robinson. Had the Irish kicked their extra point, Justin Yoon would’ve trotted onto the field with a chance to send the game into overtime. (Then again, had Robinson caught the pass, Notre Dame would’ve been kicking for the win in the final seconds…)

This is the second time a two-point conversion decision has opened Kelly up to second guessing in the past eight games. Last last season, Kelly’s decision to go for two in the fourth-quarter with an 11-point lead against Northwestern, came back to bite the Irish and helped the Wildcats stun Notre Dame in overtime.

That choice was likely fueled by struggles in the kicking game, heightened by Kyle Brindza’s blocked extra-point attempt in the first half, a kick returned by Northwestern that turned a 14-7 game into a 13-9 lead. With a fourth-quarter, 11-point lead, the Irish failed to convert their two-point attempt that would’ve stretched their lead to 13 points. After Northwestern converted their own two-point play, they made a game-tying field goal after Cam McDaniel fumbled the ball as the Irish were running out the clock. Had the Irish gone for (and converted) a PAT, the Wildcats would’ve needed to score a touchdown.

Moving back to Saturday night, Kelly’s decision needs to be put into context. After being held to just three points for the first 45 minutes of the game, C.J. Prosise broke a long catch and run for a touchdown in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Clemson would be doing their best to kill the clock. Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the game brought the score within 12 points when Kelly decided to try and push the score within 10—likely remembering the very way Northwestern forced overtime.

After the game, Kelly said it was the right decision, citing his two-point conversion card and the time left in the game. On his Sunday afternoon teleconference, he said the same, giving a bit more rationale for his decision.

“We were down and we got the chance to put that game into a two-score with a field goal. I don’t chase the points until the fourth quarter, and our mathematical chart, which I have on the sideline with me and we have a senior adviser who concurred with me, and we said go for two. It says on our chart to go for two.

“We usually don’t use the chart until the fourth quarter because, again, we don’t chase the points. We went for two to make it a 10-point game. So we felt we had the wind with us so we would have to score a touchdown and a field goal because we felt like we probably only had three more possessions.

“The way they were running the clock, we’d probably get three possessions maximum and we’re going to have to score in two out of the three. So it was the smart decision to make, it was the right one to make. Obviously, you know, if we catch the two-point conversion, which was wide open, then we just kick the extra point and we’ve got a different outcome.”

That logic and rationale is why I had no problem with the decision when it happened in real time. But not everybody agrees.

Perhaps the strongest rebuke of the decision came from Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister, who had this to say about the decision in his (somewhat appropriately-titled) weekly Point After column:

Hire another analyst or at least assign someone to the task of deciphering the Beautiful Mind-level math problem that seems to be vexing the Notre Dame brain-trust when a dweeb with half-inch thick glasses and a pocket protector full of pens could tell you that in the game of football, you can’t chase points before it is time… (moving ahead)

…The more astonishing thing is that no one in the ever-growing football organization that now adds analysts and advisors on a regular basis will offer the much-needed advice. Making such decisions in the heat of battle is not easy. What one thinks of in front of the TV or in a press box does not come as clearly when you’re the one pulling the trigger for millions to digest.

And yet with this ever-expanding entourage, Notre Dame still does not have anyone who can scream through the headphones to the head coach, “Coach, don’t go for two!”

If someone, anyone within the organization had the common sense and then the courage to do so, the Irish wouldn’t have lost every game in November of 2014 and would have had a chance to win in overtime against Clemson Saturday night.

My biggest gripe about the decision was the indecision that came along with the choice. Scoring on a big-play tends to stress your team as special teams players shuffle onto the field and the offense comes off. But Notre Dame’s use of a timeout was a painful one, and certainly should’ve been spared considering the replay review that gave Notre Dame’s coaching staff more time to make a decision.

For what it’s worth, Kelly’s decision was probably similar to the one many head coaches would make. And it stems from the original two-point conversion chart that Dick Vermeil developed back in the 1970s.

The original chart didn’t account for success rate or time left in the game. As Kelly mentioned before, Notre Dame uses one once it’s the fourth quarter.

It’s a debate that won’t end any time soon. And certainly one that will have hindsight on the side of the “kick the football” argument.