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 30, 2015, 3:34 PM EDT
There are a ton of good questions to get to so this will roll out in multiple parts. Many thanks for the thoughtful work. (And some nice examples of brevity.)
Aug 29, 2015, 3:19 PM EDT
After a long line of starters with plenty of experience, Notre Dame’s tight ends all but start over in 2015. Scott Booker’s position group comes in with all sorts of intriguing traits. Unfortunately, none of those are experience.
Aug 28, 2015, 2:50 PM EDT
Brian Kelly was on the Dan Patrick Show this morning and the Irish head coach got his last weekend without a game started by chatting it up with the popular radio host. While Kelly didn’t make any headlines in the interview, he did conduct it from his desk with a Showtime crew hanging a boom mic over his head, part of life with a documentary film crew following him around.
Aug 28, 2015, 1:04 PM EDT
Just about everybody expects Harry Hiestand’s offensive line to be a dominant unit. But after months of preseason hype, they now need to prove they can do it.
Aug 27, 2015, 8:48 PM EDT
Ishaq Williams’ college football career is over. Notre Dame’s exiled defensive end, who sat out last season as part of a two-semester suspension for his role in the “frozen five” academic dishonesty investigation, has lost his NCAA appeal for reinstatement. Brian Kelly shared the news on Thursday after practice
Aug 27, 2015, 8:25 PM EDT
The votes are in and Notre Dame’s football team will be captained by five players. Graduate students Matthias Farley, Nick Martin and Joe Schmidt will be joined by senior Sheldon Day and junior Jaylon Smith as the captains of the 2015 Irish.
Aug 27, 2015, 12:34 PM EDT
It appears that the Greg Bryant era at Notre Dame is over. The junior running back, who was declared academically ineligible to play for the Irish this fall, has enrolled at ASA Miami, a junior college with a new football program run by former Irish assistant Ernest Jones.
Aug 27, 2015, 9:00 AM EDT
After two seasons of trying to find carries for a handful of emerging running backs, Notre Dame has the opposite problem: Trying to spread out a growing workload among a smaller, highly-differentiated position group.
Aug 26, 2015, 1:56 PM EDT
With the season right around the corner and preseason camp finished, it’s time to get our final preparations done before the games start counting and the journey begins. We spent the summer pumping out tens of thousands of words on Notre Dame’s evolving roster, so if you’re looking for 50 hours of easy reading, check out the Irish A-to-Z series.
Aug 26, 2015, 12:42 PM EDT
Have a final question before we have actual football to talk about? Today’s the day. Drop them below or on Twitter @KeithArnold.
Aug 25, 2015, 5:06 PM EDT
Notre Dame announced a number of enhancements to Notre Dame Stadium on Tuesday. Most notable among them, a video board that’ll go atop the south end zone.
Aug 25, 2015, 12:45 PM EDT
Our final installment of the A-to-Z series is perhaps our most important one. Because Notre Dame’s fate is in the hands of quarterback Malik Zaire.
Aug 24, 2015, 2:18 PM EDT
With the injury to freshman cornerback Shaun Crawford, an unlikely candidate has emerged as the frontrunner for the No. 3 cornerback job: Devin Butler. The junior, who struggled mightily at times last season after he was forced into action, looked to have lost his grip on that spot this spring after strong work by sophomore Nick Watkins.
Aug 24, 2015, 12:27 PM EDT
No freshman will be tossed into the deep end quicker than kicker Justin Yoon. Essentially Notre Dame’s sole option to kick field goals in 2015, Brian Kelly and the Irish coaching staff are putting a ton of the shoulders of a true freshman, who’ll be asked to fix a three-point operation that went haywire down the stretch after the Irish’s all-time field goal leader Kyle Brindza lost his mojo.
Aug 23, 2015, 10:45 AM EDT
When Brandon Wimbush enrolled in school this summer, he became the latest blue-chip quarterback to join the Notre Dame football program with the burden of great expectations. The New Jersey state player of the year, Wimbush would be wise to forget about the prep accolades, instead focusing his efforts on learning the playbook, with the third-string quarterback closer to the field than you’d ideally want.
Aug 21, 2015, 12:12 PM EDT
Keith Gilmore’s move to Notre Dame reunites him with Brian VanGorder, two football lifers who have known each other since they shared a huddle as players. After a long coaching career, Gilmore also reunites with Brian Kelly, a coach he’s worked for at Grand Valley, Central Michigan, Cincinnati and now Notre Dame.
Aug 21, 2015, 9:00 AM EDT
Notre Dame landed another Indianapolis product when safety Mykelti Williams joined the Irish this summer, the freshman lending some much needed depth to the secondary. Hailing from Warren Central, the same program that brought Notre Dame Sheldon Day, Williams’ might not contribute as quickly as Day did, but he’ll have a chance to compete for a spot in the two deep behind Max Redfield at free safety.
Aug 20, 2015, 12:54 PM EDT
With Notre Dame’s running back depth chart down Greg Bryant, freshman Dexter Williams has a clear line to the football field this fall. While wide receiver Justin Brent has converted to the backfield and Tarean Folston returns as a starter, Williams and fellow freshman Josh Adams couldn’t ask for a more advantageous situation, especially with C.J. Prosise taking time to heal an ailing hip flexor.
Aug 20, 2015, 12:17 PM EDT
Don’t talk to KeiVarae Russell anymore about his suspension. He’s not all that interested. He discussed it with Sports Illustrated, he discussed it at the opening of training camp and he continued to answer questions about it on Media Day.
Aug 19, 2015, 10:13 PM EDT
Talented freshman cornerback Shaun Crawford tore his ACL at practice on Wednesday and is lost for the season. Brian Kelly made the announcement Wednesday night via the sports information department.