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.