Notre Dame Football: Danny Spond

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Last year's Arizona State game served as a coming-out party of sorts for Jaylon Smith, as the then-freshman tallied a then-career high nine tackles, forced a fumble and began to resemble the five-star stud Notre Dame had signed out of high school.

Fast-forward to this Saturday's trip to ASU, and the Irish defense could sure use a similar performance from a much-hyped prep linebacker.

Nyles Morgan, Notre Dame's highest-rated recruit from this past cycle, ascends into the starting Mike linebacker role as the No. 10 Irish look to keep their playoff hopes alive and score their second win in as many years against the No. 9 Sun Devils. Ahead of his team's biggest remaining game, Morgan, a former four-star prospect out of Crete-Monee, Illinois, is tasked with manning the most important position on a defense that lost its leader, Joe Schmidt, for the rest of the season.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's Joe Schmidt
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsWith defensive leader Joe Schmidt lost for the season, Notre Dame will turn to young Nyles Morgan to fill his shoes at middle linebacker.
"Very exciting player," Smith said of Morgan. "Reminds me a lot like myself as a freshman. Really not knowing much but having great athletic traits and really coachable, so he's a great guy."

Schmidt, who suffered a broken left ankle this past weekend against Navy, was somewhat of a traffic cop in the middle of first-year coordinator Brian VanGorder's defense, signaling in the plays and making sure his 10 teammates were properly aligned. Coaches had referred to him as a unique extension of themselves on the field, and fellow defenders had deemed him indispensable.

But Smith said nothing will be reduced or simplified without Schmidt, as the Irish defense still looks to play on its own terms. Out goes the former walk-on-turned-leader, in comes the ballyhooed-but-green rookie, a trade-off Notre Dame has no choice but to live with as it heads to Tempe.

"Um, maybe athletic traits, or a bit more aggressive as far as God-given," Smith said when asked what Morgan could possibly bring to the table that Schmidt did not. "So you talk about tackle-for-loss and things like that, I guess. But from a communication standpoint, he's definitely far from Joe. So am I. But we'll work together."

Morgan, whom Notre Dame has not made available for interviews this season, will still be charged with making the calls, Smith said. If anything looks askew, Smith and defensive lineman Sheldon Day will set on correcting matters.

"Everybody's stepped up their communication a lot, especially coming from me and Jaylon and the safeties," said Day, a captain. "Everybody's making sure we understand what's going on when the play is called and everybody's on the same page."

Morgan was ESPN's No. 2 player out of Illinois, its No. 5 inside linebacker recruit nationally and its No. 72 player overall from the class of 2014. He has eight tackles, including one for loss, in limited action this season.

The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Morgan saw extended playing time in Saturday's 49-39 win against Navy after Schmidt went down in the third quarter, but coach Brian Kelly said the Irish were reduced to one defensive call when faced with Schmidt's absence. The call sheet has thickened with practice time, players said, and distancing themselves from the Midshipmen's triple-option attack is a welcome reprieve.

"It's expanded tremendously," Smith said. "We're back to playing what we call regular football. Navy is a whole different offense, so we're going to be good."

An old sophomore if ever there were one, Smith has started all 21 games through nearly two years at Notre Dame, assuming the starting Dog linebacker role in old coordinator Bob Diaco's 3-4 defense last season after starter Danny Spond (hemiplegic migraines) was forced to retire during fall camp. Spond served as a mentor to Smith throughout last season, and Smith said Schmidt can do the same for Morgan and the unit as a whole down the stretch here.

The staff has plenty of faith in Morgan's ability to rise to the occasion.

"He's been unbelievable," Kelly said. "Look, we have been so hard on him. I think we said to him about three weeks in: 'You're either going to quit or you're going to be one of the best players that's ever played here.'

"Because we're hard on him, really hard on him, and he just keeps coming back asking for more, and that's the kind of kid he is. From Day 1, he's been in there asking questions, learning the defense, watching film. So no, there's not any more (film work), it's just that he's going to be out there now instead of watching, he's going to be playing."
Notre Dame walked away from NFL draft weekend with eight of its former players getting picked, tied with Alabama for the second most of any school in the country, behind LSU's nine. The eight picks also marked the most in a single draft for the Irish in 20 years, as they had 10 draftees in 1994.

In addition, six former Notre Dame players signed with NFL clubs after the draft, with five of those players coming from last season's team.

Seven of Notre Dame's defensive starters from the Discover BCS National Championship following the 2012 season have now been drafted as well: Kapron Lewis-Moore (Ravens, 200th), Manti Te'o (Chargers, 38th) and Zeke Motta (Falcons, 244th) last year; Stephon Tuitt (Steelers, 46th), Louis Nix (Texans, 83rd), Prince Shembo (Falcons, 139th) and Bennett Jackson (Giants, 187th) this year.

It's not a stretch to say that linebacker Danny Spond, who also started against Alabama in the title game, was on track to be drafted prior to retiring before last season because of hemiplegic migraines. It's also worth noting that safety Jamoris Slaughter, who was drafted 175th overall by the Browns last year, started on the Irish's 2012 defense before suffering a season-ending Achilles' tear in Week 3. Two defensive starters from that title game, KeiVarae Russell and Matthias Farley, still have two years of eligibility left at Notre Dame.

Here's a recap of Notre Dame's 2014 draft weekend. Irish transfers Shaquelle Evans (fourth round, 114th overall) and Aaron Lynch (fifth, 150th) were both drafted as well.

DRAFTED

LT Zack Martin, Dallas Cowboys (first round, 16th overall)

DE Stephon Tuitt, Pittsburgh Steelers (second, 46th)

TE Troy Niklas, Arizona Cardinals (second, 52nd)

NG Louis Nix, Houston Texans (third, 83rd)

LG Chris Watt, San Diego Chargers (third, 89th)

LB Prince Shembo, Atlanta Falcons (fourth, 139th)

CB Bennett Jackson, New York Giants (sixth, 187th)

WR TJ Jones, Detroit Lions (sixth, 189th)

UNDRAFTED FREE AGENT SIGNINGS

RB George Atkinson III, Oakland Raiders

LB Dan Fox, New York Giants

LB Carlo Calabrese, Cleveland Browns

QB Tommy Rees, Washington Redskins

NG Kona Schwenke, Kansas City Chiefs

C/G Mike Golic Jr., New Orleans Saints

Smith growing up fast for Irish

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Jaylon Smith jokes that he's 19-going-on-30, the whirlwind of a rapid rise up the depth chart and standout rookie campaign giving way now to the burden of being a bedrock on a Notre Dame defense short on upperclassmen but not potential.

Then the realization that Smith has upward of three more years in an Irish uniform washes over him, and the 6-foot-2.5, 230-pounder can't help but sound as eager as all who anointed him a can't-miss talent upon his pledge not even two years ago.

[+] EnlargeJaylon Smith
AP Photo/Scott BoehmNotre Dame's Jaylon Smith showcased his potential as a freshman and should only get better this fall.
"Taking it day by day, trying to get better," Smith said of balancing the conflicting emotions. "That's really just the motto, not only for me but for us as a unit. We have to count on each other and hold each other accountable. I feel like the way we all approach the game, and improve, we're going to do anything [we can] to make us better."

Change is upon the Notre Dame defense, which has a new coordinator and, as of right now, significantly different strengths from its last time around.

Brian VanGorder is in for Bob Diaco as defensive coordinator, the secondary has replaced the defensive line as the known quantity and Smith, last seen tallying 67 tackles in the months following his arrival to campus, is now being relied upon more than ever, ready to show that the promise displayed last season was just a sliver of what's to come.

The former five-star recruit has moved from the dog outside linebacker spot to a position he describes as "Sam linebacker-slash-Mike," an integral piece to a defense that he says is now "definitely a 4-3."

"We don't want offenses to know where he is," head coach Brian Kelly said. "We're going to play him in a number of different positions. He could be inside, outside -- but we're moving him all over the place."

One of just two defensive returnees to start all 13 games last season (along with KeiVarae Russell), Smith's biggest challenge is expanding his football IQ, mastering not only his new position but also developing a better awareness of the responsibilities of the 10 others around him.

"That's always been a goal, that's how I view things," he said. "I'm wanting to potentially be the best and to be able to lead, and I think this year I'm going to get that chance, to take the next step up, of being more vocal in the locker room and being around the defense and learning the defense."

For all of his talent, Smith never forgets that his opportunity last summer to ascend from third to first on the depth chart came at the misfortune of Danny Spond, whose hemiplegic migraines forced the incumbent into early retirement during camp.

Smith was sure to make mention of his newest mentor at every turn last season, and the absence of Spond around the team this spring has not let Smith off the hook so easily.

From Spond to Smith, from Carlo Calabrese to Joe Schmidt, linebackers old and new have made sure to keep the conversation going through a group text message they started at the break of camp last August, back in Marion, Ind.

"Basically all the linebackers from last year," Smith said. "We speak almost every day, to be honest. Everyone's just seeing new information and those guys are old and moving on and actually getting ready to live life, and a couple of us are still here, grinding, just trying to have success for Notre Dame."

Still here -- sounding like anything but a guy going through his first college spring, and hoping to play like that's the case, too.

"I feel like I'm more experienced, I feel like I've been here forever," Smith said. "Time goes by so fast. I'm cherishing every moment of it."

Previewing 'The Echoes'

December, 13, 2013
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A dozen or so Notre Dame players will take home hardware Friday night at the team's awards banquet, which, for the second year in a row, is going by the name "The Echoes." (Just like the Grammys, or Emmys, or something.)

With that on the docket, we figure we can get a headstart here and take a peek into our magic crystal ball to look at who may be some of the lucky winners.

This is my third year on the Irish beat. The first awards show I covered had 12 awards, while the second had 17.

[+] EnlargeTJ Jones
AP Photo/Michael ConroyThe Irish host their team awards banquet -- "The Echoes" -- on Friday night and TJ Jones would be our vote for the MVP award.
Among the constants: MVP, scout team players of the year (O and D), newcomers of the year (O and D), special teamer of the year, linemen of the year (O and D) and Next Man In, which Tommy Rees could receive for the third time in four years.

Zack Martin has won the offensive lineman award three years running, so I think that is likely the safest bet of the night. Unless, perhaps, he wins team MVP, in which case the lineman honor could go to one of his teammates, with Chris Watt probably having the best chances then. My pick for MVP would be TJ Jones.

Scout team honors are anyone's guess, considering we in the media have not seen a single minute of practice since the season started. Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt shared the defensive lineman award last year, something that could happen again. And you have to think Kyle Brindza repeating as special teamer of the year is a very real possibility as well.

Newcomers will also be interesting, though Jaylon Smith and Tarean Folston may have gained some breathing room in those races with their performances down the stretch.

There seem to be new awards every year, so there will be plenty of props to go around throughout the night. And I would be absolutely shocked if Danny Spond does not get some kind of honor, given the model that he has become for the program after all he had been through and given back to Notre Dame.

We have probably seen the last of Bob Diaco at these events, which is a shame, since, as many saw during his introductory press conference Thursday at UConn, he is usually the best-dressed man in the room. Matthias Farley rarely disappoints in that department, either. (Hey, there's a new award idea right there.)

What do you guys think? Shoot me your suggestions in the mailbag or on Twitter on those you believe are most deserving of credit at Notre Dame this year.

Irish lunch links

December, 9, 2013
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New York it is.

Irish lunch links

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Badger at home at BYU, happy to return

November, 19, 2013
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The irony of the whole situation had yet to dawn upon Chris Badger early this week.

Here the BYU safety was readying for the Cougars' trip to Notre Dame Stadium for Senior Day, a celebration that very well could have included him in it had he chosen a different path. He will still be there Saturday; he just won't be honored. But he will be playing in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus for the first time -- albeit against the Irish, not for them.

"To be honest, that's funny you brought that up," Badger told ESPN.com of the Senior Day scenario. "I hadn't thought of that."

Badger's wild ride has taken him from Provo, Utah, to Notre Dame and back, with a two-year mission in Ecuador in between. Four years after committing to the Irish as a three-star prospect, Badger, who turns 22 Wednesday, is a redshirt freshman thrust into playing time for the Cougars, a squad he joined a mere two months ago.

"Obviously going back that could've been a path I could've taken," Badger said. "But just looking back, I'm so happy with my choice to join a mission. Being able to help the people in Ecuador was the greatest thing I'll ever do in my life. I learned so much about it and grew so much as a person and now I still have three more years of football after this year, and I'm excited to do some great things."

Badger has played mostly on kickoff coverage and on both return teams, appearing at safety in two game, including this past Saturday's rout of Idaho State. He has six total tackles and half of a tackle for a loss.

After enrolling early in 2010, Badger had put off school and football for a two-year Mormon mission. He redshirted last season with the Irish upon his return, and coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday that the Irish's defensive system not exactly being tailored to the strengths of Badger played a role in him not seeing the field. Badger was recruited to Notre Dame by former coach Charlie Weis.

"They were looking for more of a middle of the field safety that could run the alley from the middle of the field," Kelly said. "We're a two-deep safety team that we like to play off the hash a lot more. So I think that it was probably a better fit from that standpoint because that's how they play, BYU. They're not a huge Cover-2 team."

Kelly was the first of two factors to fall in Badger's favor this season, with the fourth-year Irish coach clearing Badger to leave for an opponent on Notre Dame's schedule. The NCAA then approved a waiver in the middle of September for Badger to play immediately since he was returning home to tend to a family situation. Badger now commutes to school from home.

"More than being a really great, smart coach, he's a great person and he cares about his players," Badger said of Kelly. "He's easy to talk to, and he wants the best for everybody. I just have the utmost respect for coach Kelly. He's a class act. I'm really grateful for him to release me so I can be here closer to home and be able to make this transition here."

Kelly said his defense has taken measures to ensure that Badger will not be able to share any of the family secrets with his new teammates this weekend, adding that he was not really concerned about it.

Badger is not so sure he can be of much help anyway, saying he has little to add that is not already available on film.

He is looking forward to seeing some old friends like Danny Spond, Joe Romano and Joe Schmidt, and he knows this visit will present different challenges, ones that come with making his debut on his old home field.

"I love to play football, and what better place than Notre Dame, where there's so much tradition?" Badger said. "And being there, knowing what it's like, it just makes it that much better, especially being able to see people and visit with them and all the relationships that I built when there with people from school, or the football team, or from my local church congregation. Being able to visit with them Friday night or Saturday before the game and then being able to play on that stage, it's exciting. It's going to be a really great experience."
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- As Brian Kelly was finishing up his postgame press conference Saturday, an unexpected visitor made an appearance during the penultimate question.

"Jaylon, we'll be done in a second," Kelly said to Jaylon Smith, who had entered prematurely. "I know it's your press conference, but I'll be done in a second, and we'll let you get going. Is that all right?"

"Sorry," Smith said to the room of reporters. "I'm new to everything."

Within 24 hours, it turned out the freshman linebacker would be a seasoned veteran by Notre Dame's defense's standards. The Irish are hurting on that side of the ball -- just trying to get by, in a sense, with this weekend's game at Pitt preceding a much-needed bye before a two-game stretch against BYU and at Stanford.

[+] EnlargeEilar Hardy
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesSafety Eliar Hardy (left) is one of several Notre Dame reserves that were pressed into action due to injuries.
BCS dreams have essentially taken a backseat to figuring out just who is going to play and where, and how the remaining available guy will get ready for when their time comes.

"I think this is probably close to the pinnacle," Kelly said during Sunday's teleconference when asked if this defense has been hit as hard as any he's had in 23 years as a head coach. He added: "They don't give you any points for complaining about it. If they did, I'd complain every minute. So we just take care of it internally and get the next guy ready."

Ben Councell, the man behind Smith most of the season at the dog linebacker spot, was ruled out for the season Sunday after suffering a significant knee injury in the 38-34 win over Navy. Smith and Councell, of course, waged a preseason battle for a starting spot only after senior Danny Spond, last season's starter, was forced to retire because of hemiplegic migraines. And the linebacking corp is less than a month removed from its other big hit, when Jarrett Grace broke his leg in the Oct. 5 Arizona State game, costing the Mike linebacker the rest of his redshirt sophomore season.

It only gets worse up front, where Kona Schwenke is lost for at least this Saturday's game at Pitt because of a high-ankle sprain suffered on the Midshipmen's final drive. And Schwenke was only starting these last two games in place of nose guard Louis Nix III, who at first was ruled to have a shoulder injury suffered in the USC game, and then knee tendinitis, and now tendinitis and a small meniscus tear, though the school says he will practice this week after undergoing an MRI Sunday. Before that, Schwenke filled in for end Sheldon Day, who missed most of a three-game stretch after leaving a Sept. 14 game against Purdue with a high ankle sprain, and then re-aggravated said ankle sprain against Navy.

And no, it is not a coincidence that most of these injuries have come during this two-game stretch against Air Force and Navy, teams that often cut-block.

"It's unfortunate," Kelly said. "It's the style of offense that the academies play. It is what it is."

Kelly said it will make sense to possibly avoid scheduling multiple option teams in a single season, but that is a bridge he will cross when he gets to it. For now, his next-man-in philosophy is being tested by, well, a lack of next-men-in.

He said he guards against that by putting those who saw 15 or fewer plays in a game through extra conditioning that following Monday, while reserves get roughly half the work of the starters during 11-on-11 and scout team work in a given week.

"I think that we're so close that you don't really think about it in terms of, Oh, I've never seen you out here," redshirt senior linebacker Dan Fox said. "We get a lot of guys in at practice, there's a lot of reps to go around, so next man in and next man in."

Underclassmen such as Jarron Jones, Isaac Rochell and Romeo Okwara have been thrust into more meaningful time than most could have reasonably expected entering the season, while names unfamiliar to all but the closest of program observers -- Tyler Stockton, Justin Utupo and Eilar Hardy, to name a few -- saw extended action.

The last of those names, Hardy, helped set Smith up for the game-clinching tackle on Navy's Shawn Lynch during the visitors' final fourth-and-4 try. And he was only there because Austin Collinsworth suffered a neck strain that will require an MRI Monday.

Fellow safety Elijah Shumate, meanwhile, is expected to play against the Panthers after being sidelined the last three games with a hamstring injury, though Kelly had said the sophomore would play going into the Navy game, too.

There are also the knee injuries to left guard Chris Watt (PCL) and cat linebacker Ishaq Williams (ACL), both of whom left the Air Force game a week ago but only one of whom, Watt, could possibly return this week, depending on how quickly the redshirt senior can acclimate to the knee, which will not require surgery. Williams was in an immobilizer this week and could possibly return for the Nov. 23 BYU game.

The return of Watt would give Notre Dame four of its five starters back on the offensive line, as it lost right guard Christian Lombard for the season because of back surgery after the USC game. Still, the bruises have taken their biggest tolls on the other line, which during the spring and summer lost reserves Chase Hounshell (shoulder) and Tony Springmann (knee) for the season, in addition to seeing freshman signee Eddie Vanderdoes leave for UCLA.

All of it leaves the Irish, winners of four in a row, crawling to the finish line, every last piece of Kelly's three straight top-10 recruiting classes fitting into the plan for his push toward a second straight BCS-bowl berth.

"We are running out of next men. We're at that point where from a defensive standpoint, and particularly the defensive line, we're left with very few options," Kelly said, adding, "We'll figure something out. We'll get 11 guys out there. It's just not going to be one of those things where we're going to have the same group of guys out there all the time. As you know, we're going to have to find a way to stop a big, physical offensive line at Pittsburgh, and that is the thing that concerns you the most."

Irish lunch links

October, 31, 2013
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Congrats, Boston. And Happy Halloween to all!

Helmet stickers: Week 9

October, 27, 2013
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Three players who stood out in Notre Dame's 45-10 win at Air Force:

Tommy Rees, QB: What neck injury? The senior threw a career-best five touchdown passes, completing 17 of 22 passes for 284 yards after leaving last weekend's game early with a neck injury. Rees has played extremely well in the last two games, and he connected with a different player for each score, a Notre Dame first.

TJ Jones, WR: Seven catches, 104 yards and a touchdown. Just another day at the office for the senior captain, who again continued to impress after getting burdened with lofty preseason expectations from the staff.

Jaylon Smith/Danny Spond, LBs: The dog linebackers will share this honor. The freshman Smith tied for the team lead with eight tackles, including one for loss, and recovered a fumble that should have been a touchdown return if not for a blown call on the field. The senior Spond, meanwhile, earned captain and game-ball honors in a bittersweet homecoming after hemiplegic migraines forced him to retire and help as a coach this season. His impact can be seen through Smith, who aced his first test against the option.

Five things: Notre Dame-Air Force

October, 26, 2013
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Notre Dame looks to make it three in a row today as the Irish take on Air Force at 5 p.m. ET at Falcon Stadium. Here are five things to watch when the two teams square off in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Quarterback play. Tommy Rees practiced all week and is ready to go, but if Notre Dame learned anything from its tight win last week over USC, it is that the Irish need some insurance at the position. The best way to get that would be to give Andrew Hendrix more meaningful action, and not just in zone-read packages. Couple that need with the possibility that the Irish are cruising to a win by the third or fourth quarter, and it would not be surprising at all to see Hendrix running the show more than he has at any point this season.

Steve Elmer's time to shine. The highly touted freshman was the first man from the class of 2013 to initially commit to the Irish way back when, and now he finds himself with more responsibility than any other rookie on the roster. Elmer is the Irish's starting right guard moving forward, as Christian Lombard was shut down for the season after having an operation to remove a herniated disk from his back. It is an obvious blow on a line that had two first-year starters, but Elmer had already been the next man in at virtually every other position on the offensive line, and he will now get some useful early experience in what most are expecting to be a highly successful college career. Still, Notre Dame must toe the line of predictably in the ground game now, as it has two fifth-year seniors on the left side of its line and a true and a redshirt freshman on the right side.

Defensive line without Louis Nix. Nix took a tough shot into the shoulder last week that remained sore, but coach Brian Kelly said that knee tendinitis is what kept the redshirt junior from traveling for this contest. Nix is the Irish's best defensive player, despite option football not being, in Kelly's words, "his cup of tea." Kona Schwenke will get another start, this time at nose guard, in what has been a bit of a wild campaign for him after he started three games at end in place of Sheldon Day. Day, by the way, appeared to cross the last major hurdle of his return from an ankle sprain last week and should be ready to go. Perhaps we will see more of Isaac Rochell as well, which could mean he finally gets to go 1-on-1 with his brother, Falcons left tackle Matt.

Early start. This is worth keeping an eye on considering that the Irish have given up the first points in five of their last six games. They are also adjusting to the high altitude of Colorado and are coming off their first home win over their archrival USC in 12 years. They also were off from classes this week because of the school's fall break. Air Force, meanwhile, has lost six in a row and has not taken the field in a whopping 16 days after losing to San Diego State on Oct. 10.

Discipline, especially on the edges. It is worth repeating, especially with Navy on the schedule next week: The Irish must stay disciplined on defense, and especially on the edges. Most of the upperclassmen on defense have had more than their fair share of games against option offenses so far, but this is a new kind of test for freshman Dog linebacker Jaylon Smith, and the kind of test that Danny Spond would thrive in. This was supposed to be a homecoming of sorts for Spond, a Littleton, Colo., native who was forced to retire during camp because of hemiplegic migraines. His impact has not been lost, however, as he has been in Smith's ear as a coach every step of the way, something that should pay dividends in a game like this one against Air Force.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Don Spond has often recited that familiar parental saying, the one about only being as happy as your least happy child. The idiom hit home a couple of weeks ago. Don had just written a note to his son, Danny, telling him how proud he was of the way he was handling his senior year at Notre Dame, and how his parents would never quit on him. Upon reading the letter, Danny called his dad and, in a bit of a role reversal, the son comforted the father.

"He said, 'Well Dad, you know when you tell me that when your kids are good, you're good? It works the other way, too,'" an emotional Don told ESPN.com.

The Sponds will never "get over" the fact that Danny's days as a football player are over because of hemiplegic migraines. Not after a breakout junior season that ended in the national title game. Not when there was a promising final campaign and potentially much more on the horizon, with the 6-foot-1½, 248-pound Danny primed to have an even larger role as one of eight returning starters on Notre Dame's defense.

[+] EnlargeDanny Spond
AP Photo/Wilfredo LeeDanny Spond says he's trying to give back to Notre Dame, since the team and university have given him so much.
But the family has accepted the cards they have been dealt, which have an otherwise healthy Danny playing out his last season as an Irish assistant coach, attending every practice and traveling to every game while rarely letting up in his fellow Dog linebackers' ears.

All of it has hit home this week, as the Littleton, Colo., native readies for Notre Dame's trip Saturday to Colorado Springs to play Air Force, a date that had been circled on Sponds' calendar long before they knew Danny would not be taking the field.

"Back in May when I went down to Colorado Springs just to have dinner with my family, I remember tweeting something about 'Can't wait to play here in October,'" Danny Spond said Wednesday, his first meeting with the media since announcing his retirement in August.

"So this has definitely been a hallmark game in my mind since even when I was a freshman and the schedules projected us to play in Colorado. It's definitely something I've been looking forward to. Playing or coaching, it's just going to be fun to go back to Colorado with Notre Dame."

Coaching has been the calling this season, and whether that eventually turns into a career is a thought that Spond is not ready to table. He is set to graduate in December with a degree in political science and, based on job interviews and even pep rally speeches so far, the corporate world figures to welcome him with open arms.

His duties now include getting Jaylon Smith ready for what lies ahead, with the five-star freshman having been thrown into the fire early at the starting Dog spot after Spond went down.

"Jaylon's a tremendous athlete, it's been fun to work with him this year," Spond said. "He's twice the athlete I ever was, that's for sure. So now my main goal is to make him reach his potential, just get that mental side of the game. He's just a freshman, and it takes a couple years of experience to really learn the system, so I'm hoping to kind of shave off some of that time with him, teach him the ins and outs, the shortcuts of the game to really be the best player he can."

Said Smith: "Danny's been the best. He knows the position like no one else. Other than [defensive coordinator Bob] Diaco, no one knows it better. He's really just been there for me, just helping me out any way he can so that I can be successful."

Spond is on a regular medicine schedule now and is not limited in his daily duties. He was walking with a cane early in fall camp after a third episode in the past year partially numbed the left side of his body, which ultimately forced him to announce his decision to retire after an early August practice.

[+] EnlargeDanny Spond
AP Photo/David DurochikSpond was poised for a big role as one of Notre Dame's returning defensive starters.
Contact is likely a trigger point for the migraines, but tests upon tests have offered little in the way of clarity. He joked he will leave the skis at home this winter regardless, just to err on the side of caution.

Still, Notre Dame has played seven games this season, and Spond, who missed the first two games last year in the aftermath of a migraine, said each kickoff has seemingly been more difficult to watch without pads on.

"I would say initially it was very difficult, as anyone could imagine," Spond said. "Very emotional time, very hard time on me and my family. But I told myself I had two options in this: I can either give in and let this beat me and let it define me, or I can beat it and overcome it, and the way that I was going to do that was to give all I have for this team.

"The team gave me so much, this university's given me so much; it was my job to give back in any way I could."

The families of Daniel Smith, DaVaris Daniels and several other teammates will be staying with the Sponds this weekend for the homecoming of sorts, some 60 miles away from Falcon Stadium.

The occasion is bittersweet for the Sponds, who credit Danny in helping them move forward despite having his career ripped away when he was so close to the pinnacle of his football life.

The conversation between father and son after Don's note a few weeks ago helped drive that point further home.

"We talked on the phone for about an hour," Don Spond said. "He had already come to grips with it for a long time. He had called and said, 'Dad, I'm still a part of this team, and you need to accept it. You need to accept it, Dad.' And that was just a real intense phone conversation. I learned a lot from my son that night about what a strong man he's grown to be. He's very mature, and I don't think I would've handled it the way he did. But his faith is so strong, that's what helped get him through this. He firmly believes it, it's just not words. He believes in his faith and it's what's helping him get through.

"It was a good conversation. I walked away and it was just, I'll do anything for my kid."

Bye week evaluations: Defense

October, 9, 2013
10/09/13
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Our series continues today with the defense, which brought back seven starters from a unit that finished second nationally in scoring defense in 2012.

DEFENSE

Grade: C

Summary: Notre Dame's defense has been the team's biggest disappointment this season, as it has allowed 34 or more points in three of six contests so far. Of course, some of that is on the offense, too, particularly in the Oklahoma game. But this was a unit that was expected to continue the dominant tone set last season, when the Irish never gave up more than 26 points in a regular-season game. (And Pitt even needed three overtimes to reach that total).

The pass rush was virtually non-existent for five games, until Prince Shembo and company turned it up a notch against Arizona State and tallied six sacks (three by Shembo). The defensive line has been negated for much of the early going, with offenses doing everything they can to get away from Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt.

Depth among the front seven has taken a hit, too: First with the Eddie Vanderdoes transfer to UCLA this summer, then with the retirement of Danny Spond and season-ending knee injury suffered by Tony Springmann in camp. Sheldon Day's ankle sprain has essentially kept him out of the past three games, while Jarrett Grace's season-ending knee injury against ASU is another big blow, especially to a thin inside linebacker corps.

Tackling, though, especially in the secondary, was less than great at Michigan and at Purdue, a sign of some of the ordinary things that Brian Kelly said his team needed to do better after the Oklahoma loss. Perhaps the defense turned a corner against the Sun Devils — Kelly said he's not doing jumping jacks just yet — but the overall body of work through six games has been mediocre, not particularly great or bad.

Notre Dame is 50th nationally in total defense (374.5 yards per game) and is 58th in scoring defense (25.5 ppg). And the Irish are tied for 86th in turnovers forced, with just seven takeaways on the season. They will be tested by skilled (USC) and complex offenses (Air Force and Navy) in the next three weeks so they need to become more reliable as the season progresses. That includes limiting big plays or forcing more turnovers to put the offense in a better position to succeed.

Spond sheds light on migraines

September, 27, 2013
9/27/13
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Senior linebacker Danny Spond opened up about his early retirement this week to Notre Dame's official athletic website, detailing hemiplegic migraines in both the spring and in preseason camp that ultimately forced him to give up his football career.

From UND:
"I would have rather just had my head torn off than have it attached during those moments," Spond said. "I couldn't see. My whole left side of my body was completely numb. I can't open my eyes. My speech gets slurred. When I smile, only half of my face smiles. I lose control of my left arm. I lose control of my left leg. I wouldn't wish any of it on my worst enemy."

Spond has remained with the Irish as a student-coach, and he is set to graduate this spring with a degree in political science.

The Littleton, Colo., native started 11 games last year for the 12-1 Fighting Irish, notching 39 total tackles, including one for a loss, to go with an interception, three break-ups and four passes defended. The 6-foot-2, 248-pound Spond had missed Notre Dame's first two games last season after the left side of his body went numb during a preseason practice in August.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Word was that Jaylon Smith clocked in a 4.4 40-time at the Best of the Midwest camp two winters ago in Indianapolis. By the time he completes his freshman year at Notre Dame, that number might very well be re-told as a 4.2 or 4.3. By the time he finishes his college career, presumably to fulfill expectations at the next level, his legend might just reach comical proportions.

[+] EnlargeJaylon Smith
AP Photo/Scott BoehmFormer five-star recruit Jaylon Smith has lived up to the hype thus far, starting immediately as a freshman.
"I'm not sure how accurate it was," Mike Ledo, Smith's trainer at AWP Sports Performance in Fort Wayne, Ind., said with a laugh. "Then he went out to face a top lineman there and was rushing off the edge and killing the lineman. Then he ran over to 1-on-1s with receivers and defensive backs, and he was shutting down the top receivers there as a corner.

"It was pretty evident there: To dominate bigs, and then go over and play cornerbacks at his size, was impressive."

For the record, Smith, ESPN's No. 7 overall prospect last year, was credited with a 4.59 40-time upon completing his prep work at Bishop Luers. And he has since started all four games for the Fighting Irish this season at Dog linebacker, perhaps the most complicated position in coordinator Bob Diaco's 3-4 scheme.

The precocious 6-foot-3, 230-pounder has tallied 11 total tackles, including one for loss, to go with a pass breakup and a pass defended, illustrating downfield skills that helped him rally from No. 3 to No. 1 on the depth chart over the course of preseason camp.

"He always trained with my DBs, so I helped him develop great cover skills," Ledo said. "He texted me in camp thanking me so much for helping him cover; apparently that was the difference to get on field: His ability, at 6-3, to cover in space, kind of like a safety. That was the expectation."

Starter Danny Spond's early retirement because of migraines left Smith battling 6-foot-5, 254-pound redshirt sophomore Ben Councell. Ledo, apparently, was the one who informed Smith that he was No. 1 on Notre Dame's initial depth chart heading into the opener against Temple.

Smith, meeting the media for the first time on Wednesday, said any butterflies he had disappeared after the first series against the Owls.

"After the first series, really," Smith said. "I was really pumped up. I knew all the fighting songs and things like that. I went to about every home game last year, so I was really just anticipating everything and it was fun."

The football part has, in some ways, been the easiest part of Smith's transition. He did not enroll until June, and he said that learning how to balance his time off the field has been the biggest adjustment.

"He's impressive. He can come in and do all the things he's done, obviously as a freshman, and he's a very mature guy, very physically mature guy," safety Matthias Farley said. "So I think he's gotten a lot more comfortable in his role throughout the last couple weeks and he's continued to improve each and every week, so the sky's the limit for him and he's obviously playing very well."

Spond, who has remained with the Irish as a student-coach, announced his retirement to the team after an Aug. 17 practice. Smith said the only thoughts that hit him at that time were for Spond and his long-term health. Exactly two weeks later, Smith was taking the field with the Irish for their first defensive snap of the season.

Mistakes have followed since, Smith said, but thoughts of the future and its promise have helped him put minimal gaffes behind and allowed the freshman to press on toward a career as promising as any of the Brian Kelly era.

"I have a long way to go but I think I'm on the right track, and really just worried abut tomorrow and just getting out on the field, continuing to stay healthy," Smith said. "It's a 12-13 week season, so it's something that I've been quite used to, winning four state championships. But it's a different level. You have to go hard every play here."

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