Irish junior Danny Spond fought for two full years to earn a starting job as the Dog outside linebacker. Now that he’s there, he’ll have to work twice as hard to keep it.
Junior Danny Spond lines up with the first team defense during spring practice last week.
Spond’s competitors have him surrounded. Sophomore Ben Councell is clawing his way up the depth chart with the long arms and athleticism that Irish coach Brian Kelly scours the country for each year in recruiting. From the other angle, the evolving Notre Dame defense and a faster set of hybrid safeties are threatening to make the Dog position obsolete. He said he knows that he’ll have to battle on a daily basis to stay on the field, but that’s nothing new for Spond.
Experience is Spond’s strength. He’s the only outside linebacker on the roster that has stayed in the same position since he and Kelly both arrived in 2010. That year he played in eight games, mostly on special teams. Last season he got off to a promising start before a hamstring injury against Michigan significantly slowed his pace.
“That was tough,” Spond said. “That was definitely tough. But every game and every season has its adversity. I just had to work through it and had to learn as I was injured.”
He finished the year with 13 tackles, six of which came late in the season against Maryland. In the weeks that followed Spond and his fellow Dogs found themselves on the field less and less. The Irish started using safety Jamoris Slaughter instead to help defend against the spread passing attack and speedy wide receivers.
The impetus to add an extra defensive back isn’t going away this season. Spond said dropping into pass coverage is one of his better assets. He can read the play well and understands where he needs to be in his zone. But matching up against a speedy 180-pound slot receiver in man-to-man coverage is a mismatch that will always give headaches to a bigger linebacker.
“It takes a very special player to stay on the field when you’re in space and you’re playing skill out there,” Kelly said. “We put a lot more pressure on that position. You really have to be a combination of a guy that can win on the line of scrimmage and then go in space.”
Spond said he has started each of his three seasons in South Bend with very high expectations for himself. This year he hopes to be quick enough to stay on the field in passing situations. He’ll also have to balance that with staying strong enough at the point of attack to hold off the fast-approaching Councell.
Kelly compared that duo to the Will linebacker spot with Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox, where the coaching staff feels comfortable with either player on the field as their No. 1 option. The coach said he thinks Councell has all the tools to become dangerous player at the Dog. He just needs to get more comfortable in the defense after just one season of watching from the sideline.
“He can get his hands on you and control you. He’s hard to block in space. He’s long. …I think it’s just really for him getting more comfortable with the defense every single day, and as he does we feel like we’ve got two really good ones out there,” Kelly said.
As the group’s grizzled veteran with 18 games of sparse action under his belt, Spond has taken it upon himself to help get Councell ready to share the field with him. He said he enjoys being able to take on more of a leadership role and hold his younger counterparts accountable while helping them along. The new responsibilities are helping Spond get more comfortable as well, teaching him how to react without hesitation whether he’s taking on a pulling guard at the line of scrimmage or chasing down a wide receiver on a curl route.
“I’ve definitely been there for a while,” he said. “That’s the first position I started at so I have a real good feel for it. I know all the coverages and I’m real comfortable with the system itself. Now it’s just time to shine.”