Perseverance pays off for Spond with championship bid


Perseverance pays off for Spond with championship bid

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Four months ago, Danny Spond was battling the worst pain he ever felt. The junior linebacker missed the end of fall camp and the start of Notre Dame's season while dealing with migraines so severe a rumor circulated that he had a stroke.

Now, Spond is just over a week away from starting for the Irish in the BCS Championship.

"If someone wouldve told me back in August that Id be starting for the National Championship game, I may have gave them a little smile," Spond said. "But I took it one day at a time, prepared how I needed to and all of us did that on this team. And its taken us to where we wanted to go."

Spond has been an under-the-radar key of Notre Dame's defensive success, playing the dog linebacker role in Bob Diaco's 3-4 alignment. He's been good enough in that role to stay on the field on third down, when a defensive back would generally sub in for nickel packages.

"Kid has been tremendous," coach Brian Kelly said earlier. "He's been an unsung player on our defense and we appreciate him. "

It's been a successful transition for Spond into Notre Dame's starting lineup after seeing sporadic playing time outside special teams his freshman and sophomore years. Spond said he's made it a point to be more physical in addition to improving his pass-defense abilities, and his season has been made more impressive given how it started -- in a hospital bed instead of the practice field.

"Its unbelievable," Spond said. "To think back just a couple of months ago to where I was, to where I am now, its amazing. Its such a blessing to have this opportunity to play in this game."

Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick tells ESPN Brian Kelly will be back in 2017

Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick tells ESPN Brian Kelly will be back in 2017

Brian Kelly's job at Notre Dame apparently is not in jeopardy despite the team's 2-5 start to the 2016 season. 

Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick told that Kelly "will lead this team out of the tunnel opening day next year."

Kelly has come under fire for his perceived penchant for criticizing players before himself as well as his behavior on the sidelines as Notre Dame's chances of becoming bowl eligible have slipped this season. The seventh-year Irish coach, though, was praised for his relationship with his team by Swarbrick, who told ESPN it's "probably as strong as any that I've seen with him at Notre Dame." Multiple players said after Notre Dame's loss to Stanford last weekend that they didn't believe Kelly had lost the team

Kelly and Notre Dame agreed to a six-year contract extension in January that runs through the 2021 season. 

Notre Dame grades: Highs and lows on special teams

Notre Dame grades: Highs and lows on special teams

With Notre Dame in its bye week, we’re grading each unit on the 2-5 Irish. We’ve covered the coaching staff, offense and defense, so today we’re closing out the midterm report card with special teams. 

Placekicking: C

Justin Yoon already has more misses (three) on nine kicks than he had last year (two) on 17 attempts. A blocked attempt at Texas and a miss against Duke hurt in three-point losses, though his grade gets boosted a bit given he managed to connect on a field goal at N.C. State, which looked akin to kicking a bag of wet rags from a puddle (full credit to long snapper Scott Daly and holder Montgomery VanGorder, too, for successfully getting the ball down for Yoon in those awful conditions). 

Punting: C

It’s been a boom-or-bust season for Tyler Newsome, who’s blasted some bombs, like a 69-yarder at N.C. State, but also has had a few shanks, like his 24-yarder that gave Texas the ball at its own 32-yard line before the Longhorns drove to briefly take the lead in the fourth quarter of Notre Dame’s season-opening loss in Austin. Newsome ranks 29th in FBS with an average of 43.69 yards per punt, though this unit’s grade is dinged thanks to allowing that blocked punt/touchdown at N.C. State that wound up being the difference in Hurricane Matthew. 

Kick/punt returns: B+

C.J. Sanders remains an explosive returning weapon, taking a kick back 93 yards for a touchdown against Syracuse and nothing 40- and 24-yard punt returns in Notre Dame’s first two games of the season. A few points are taken off the grade here for a Michigan State punt bouncing off Miles Boykin’s calf and being recovered by the Spartans, which sparked their 36-point surge in mid-September. 

Kick/punt coverage: D+

Yoon has done a good job kicking directionally on kickoffs — he deftly placed a pair of kicks into the back corner of the end zone against Stanford, which would’ve been huge had Christian McCaffrey played — which is probably the biggest positive here. Shaun Wilson's 96-yard kickoff return took the shine off Notre Dame’s 14-0 early lead against Duke and helped propel the Blue Devils to a 38-35 win; on punt returns, the Irish rank 122nd in FBS, allowing 15.77 yards per return. 

Jarron Jones: A+

Jones gets his own grade here for his unique and, quite frankly, incredible knack for blocking kicks. The graduate student blocked a pair of PAT attempts against Texas and Syracuse that were each returned for two-point scores, with the one against Texas tying the game at 37. Jones has six blocked field goals/PATs in his career, earning himself a special distinction here in the special teams category.