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.
Oct 30, 2014, 1:33 PM EDT
With a little over 48 hours until Notre Dame and Navy play, the final pieces of installation around going in before the chess match between two coaching staffs take place. For the Irish, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder gets his first chance at stopping the triple-option in over a decade.
Oct 29, 2014, 3:32 PM EDT
Drop your questions below or on Twitter @KeithArnold.
Oct 29, 2014, 2:11 PM EDT
For a man that’s had more success against Notre Dame than any of his predecessors over the past two generations, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo certainly doesn’t think he’s figured out the Irish. In fact, for his Midshipmen team to win, Niumatalolo acknowledges that it takes more than just his team playing near-perfect football. He needs Notre Dame’s help as well.
Oct 29, 2014, 12:21 PM EDT
With last night’s announcement had all eyes on the first announcement of the College Football Playoff rankings, the immediate concern is Navy. While we can spend the next five weeks worrying about the view from 30,000 feet, credit Brian Kelly for understanding that the Midshipmen present the most clear and present danger.
Oct 28, 2014, 8:44 PM EDT
The first College Football Playoff rankings were released Tuesday evening. And Notre Dame has some work to do. The selection committee’s first ballot has the Irish slotted in at 10th in the country, a middle-of-the-pack one-loss team according to the 12-person voting panel.
Oct 28, 2014, 4:33 PM EDT
With a week off between Florida State and Navy, Brian Kelly and his coaching staff had an extra week of preparation for Ken Niumatalolo’s triple-option attack. Allowing his team to leave campus during the university’s fall break, Kelly afforded his players a chance to recharge their batteries after being on campus since June.
Oct 27, 2014, 2:09 PM EDT
Among the many reasons Charlie Weis lost his dream job coaching Notre Dame was the Irish’s stumbles in November. Even with a guaranteed 10-year contract, Jack Swarbrick couldn’t watch Notre Dame melt down in November for another year, with Weis’ final two seasons ending with Notre Dame going 1-9 after Halloween. That’s a scary movie franchise that needed killing, no matter the expense.
Oct 25, 2014, 2:31 PM EDT
Before we have an Irish-free Saturday, let’s get to some questions. For those of you wondering what you should do on a day usually committed to football, the world is your oyster. Or you could watch some of Notre Dame’s opponents do battle.
Oct 24, 2014, 1:09 PM EDT
When Brian VanGorder’s name surfaced as Notre Dame looked for a new defensive coordinator, there wasn’t necessarily a lot of buzz behind the hire. While VanGorder fit many of the criteria that went along with a Brian Kelly hire, the big-picture reaction wasn’t one of universal support.
Oct 23, 2014, 1:28 PM EDT
There is no football game this weekend. For a Notre Dame football team that just played three-straight tight games, that’s a good thing. (For Irish fans, it’s a victory as well. Go buy a pumpkin and get outside in the fall weather.) As promised, let’s look back at the first eight weeks of the season. Notre Dame sits at 6-1, with a place in the College Football Playoff still very much in play.
Oct 23, 2014, 10:41 AM EDT
For the second time in a week, Notre Dame’s recruiting class landed a playmaking linebacker. During a press conference streamed live on ESPN.com, Florida’s Tevon Coney pledged his commitment to the Irish, picking Notre Dame over finalists Miami and Florida.
Oct 23, 2014, 12:07 AM EDT
Drop your questions below. Or on Twitter @KeithArnold.
Oct 22, 2014, 11:43 AM EDT
With Notre Dame’s scheduling agreement in place with the ACC, Jack Swarbrick and the Irish athletic department can find some certainty in their future slates. That certainty was announced Tuesday, with dates for five ACC games in place through 2019 and matchups set through 2025.
Oct 21, 2014, 7:28 PM EDT
After eight weeks, the forecast for the first College Football Playoff is coming into focus. After falling to Florida State last weekend, the Irish lost pole position. But as a one-loss team now likely competing for one of the final spots in the four-team event, Notre Dame remains one of the top dark horse candidates.
Oct 21, 2014, 12:14 PM EDT
At this point, it doesn’t matter that the ACC has reversed course, deciding that the pass interference penalty was on C.J. Prosise after all. And that they’ve acknowledged that the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty they missed for P.J. Williams removing his helmet should’ve set up Notre Dame with a 1st-and-goal at the 9-yard line.
We’re moving on. (I promise.)
Oct 20, 2014, 1:33 PM EDT
Usually, Brian Kelly gives his team 24 hours to celebrate a win or get over a loss. That rule was likely tested — and you couldn’t blame him if it was slightly relaxed — after Saturday night’s 31-27 loss.
“We need to give our kids a break. They’ve been going since June,” Kelly said on Sunday. “Our first bye week we kept them here to stay on top of their academics. We’re going to give them a little time off. But we’ll come back recharged, ready to go.”
Oct 19, 2014, 3:56 PM EDT
Upon second inspection, Brian Kelly hasn’t gained any clarity on the offensive pass interference call that took a game-winning touchdown off the board. While the head coach has moved on, with the Irish getting some much-needed time off during fall break, Kelly’s opinion on the play — now that he’s realized the penalty was on Will Fuller, not C.J. Prosise — is even more muddled.
Oct 19, 2014, 2:37 AM EDT
With 13 seconds left, Corey Robinson caught the 4th-down pass from Everett Golson and walked into the end zone, all but uncovered. And for a moment, it looked like Notre Dame pulled off a win for the ages.
Oct 18, 2014, 7:30 PM EDT
It’s finally here. Not just the biggest game of the year, but the ultimate test for this Notre Dame football team. Entering Doak Campbell Stadium against the defending national champs and Heisman Trophy winner, we’ll see if the Irish have what it takes to upset the Seminoles.
Oct 18, 2014, 6:08 PM EDT
With the big showdown just a few hours away, let’s get to the mailbag questions.