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 UND.com 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.
Aug 20, 2014, 1:03 PM EDT
Of the players made available to the media yesterday, grad student Cody Riggs wasn’t among them. But the cornerback stopped by UND.com’s Media Day coverage, and after watching his interview with Jack Nolan it’s hard not to be impressed.
Aug 19, 2014, 9:57 PM EDT
With access to Brian Kelly, his assistants and a handful of veteran players, today’s Media Day felt a little different than most. That’s understandable, with the aftermath of unexpected academic suspensions still lingering over the program. With the investigation still on media lockdown, speculation has varied widely, but it’s clear that Kelly is moving forward, the only thing a head coach can do.
Aug 18, 2014, 7:28 PM EDT
The Irish practiced today without four suspended veterans, as an academic investigation continues at Notre Dame about potential Honor Code violations committed by DaVaris Daniels, Kendall Moore, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams. And with rumors swirling and little actual info coming out of anyone inside the program, Phillip Daniels was a guest on NBC 5’s Sports Sunday, and spoke candidly about his son’s situation.
Aug 18, 2014, 6:07 PM EDT
Providing depth in 2013, sophomore Isaac Rochell just became a very large part of Notre Dame’s plans this season. Irish A-to-Z continues with a lock at Notre Dame’s accidental starter at defensive end.
Aug 18, 2014, 9:00 AM EDT
Notre Dame plays Rice in less than two weeks. While that might take a backseat to the interest following the academic investigation that’s underway, the Irish are preparing for a football game, and 15 practices into camp, things are starting to come together.
Aug 17, 2014, 1:02 PM EDT
Among the fleet of celebrity sons playing on Notre Dame’s football team, sophomore Corey Robinson looks poised to make his own name in 2014. Irish A-to-Z continues with a look at the young receiver.
Aug 16, 2014, 2:53 PM EDT
Life goes on for Notre Dame’s football team, as the Irish practiced inside Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday morning. After practice, Brian Kelly addressed the assembled media, talking for over 20 minutes, primarily about the suspensions of DaVaris Daniels, Kendall Moore, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams and the internal investigation taking place.
Aug 15, 2014, 9:29 PM EDT
The college football world stared at Notre Dame on Friday. Some snickered as they hoped to see smoke and fire emerge from the Golden Dome. Irish fans braced for impact, with even the most level-headed dreading impending doom, with things getting worse by the minute as Notre Dame brass stayed silent.
Aug 15, 2014, 5:10 PM EDT
An investigation is taking place at Notre Dame, the university announced Friday. With a news conference scheduled for 6 p.m., four Notre Dame football players have been taken off the field and held out of practice and competition until the investigation is complete.
Aug 15, 2014, 2:08 PM EDT
As rumors swirl out of control, multiple reports have Notre Dame suspending four players for the season as the result of an academic probe.
Aug 14, 2014, 12:46 PM EDT
Heading into fall camp, surprises were expected on the defensive side of the ball. But while everybody is talking about Brian Kelly naming Everett Golson his starting quarterback, the Irish head coach’s comments about his evolving defense were probably the most illuminating we’ve heard from Kelly in years.
Aug 14, 2014, 11:20 AM EDT
Notre Dame announced this morning that graduate assistant Kyle McCarthy is taking a leave of absence from the football team to battle cancer. The former Irish captain is in his first season working with the Irish under Brian Kelly after retiring from the NFL.
Aug 13, 2014, 7:48 PM EDT
After using the graduate transfer rule to fill niche roles like situational punter, Notre Dame landed a potential difference maker in Florida graduate Cody Riggs. Irish A-to-Z takes a closer look at the diminutive cornerback.
Aug 13, 2014, 1:47 PM EDT
While it may have taken longer than many expected, Brian Kelly named Everett Golson his starting quarterback after practice on Wednesday. The senior beat out sophomore Malik Zaire, who put up a valiant effort.
Aug 12, 2014, 11:27 AM EDT
A year after struggling to get on the field, Max Redfield has emerged as one of the key pieces of Notre Dame’s defense. Irish A-to-Z continues with a look at the former five-star safety.
Aug 11, 2014, 4:18 PM EDT
As fall camp continues, we take a (way-too) close look at the latest UND.com practice video, with the Irish going 11-on-11 in full pads.
Aug 11, 2014, 2:31 PM EDT
Notre Dame practiced on Monday inside Notre Dame Stadium, their first official workout on the team’s new playing surface. After following the transformation from natural grass to FieldTurf, getting inside a stadium that hasn’t been enough of a home-field advantage over the past few years was critical.
Aug 11, 2014, 10:34 AM EDT
Our annual exercise is over and the result is a Top Five that was as close to consensus as possible. On a roster with unproven talent and unprecedented depth, part of what makes this list interesting and fun is that I put zero qualifications on the logic used to rank players. Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder.
Aug 9, 2014, 1:02 PM EDT
Sophomore wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. is expected to miss 4-6 weeks with a groin tear, Brian Kelly announced after practice on Saturday.
Aug 9, 2014, 12:31 PM EDT
After a freshman season spent watching and learning, sophomore linebacker Doug Randolph’s eligibility clock begins in 2014. Irish A-to-Z continues.
- With all eyes watching, a dig for truth begins at Notre Dame 132
- Academic misconduct investigation underway at Notre Dame 58
- Multiple Reports: Notre Dame set to suspend four players for season 130
- Ready or Not: Young Irish defenders making moves 82
- Kelly names Golson starting quarterback 78
- Irish A-to-Z: Max Redfield 56
- With all eyes watching, a dig for truth begins at Notre Dame (132)
- Multiple Reports: Notre Dame set to suspend four players for season (130)
- Kelly addresses academic investigation (128)
- Phillip Daniels feels confident son DaVaris will be cleared (93)
- Ready or Not: Young Irish defenders making moves (82)