This Dog's Day

Irish head coach Brian Kelly offered today that the battle between Danny Spond and Prince Shembo at Dog linebacker has a definitive leader.

Though competition defines August camp and has been a welcomed highlight of the 20-month Brian Kelly era in South Bend, in reality, there aren't many starting positions readily available for second string Irish hopefuls.

One role that appeared neck-and-neck, or had at least broached 1A and 1B status, was that of Dog linebacker, the challenging position manned last season by senior Kerry Neal.

Sophomore Prince Shembo – predominantly a pass-rushing specialist last fall as a true freshman – moved into competition with classmate Danny Spond for the position during the spring.

Saturday, Kelly offered a status update on the position following eight days and nine training camp practices.

"I would say that Shembo is one and Spond is two," Kelly said. "It's still a competitive battle, but Prince has been really strong. Danny had a lot of good things going, but Prince has been really a solid, solid player for us in the past week."

Shembo noted at the conclusion of the spring session that the most difficult aspect of the position is that he could not trust his instincts – the natural football inclination for a linebacker to attack.

When the Dog (also referred to as "Drop") linebacker attacks without reading the play, he leaves his pass coverage responsibility – generally a gaping whole in the flat or down the seam – open to a streaking tight end, slot receiver, or running back.

"You build some patience quickly," Shembo admitted Saturday, "If not you're going to bite on play-action every time. It's more natural now (than in the spring) but I have to read my keys every time."

Shembo's weakness is Spond's strength, and vice versa. The two work tirelessly to improve the necessary skill sets of the position that call for pass coverage – generally vs. a quicker opponent – as well as the ability to stuff the run and attack the quarterback off the edge.

"Danny played safety in high school so he's really good at coverage, and I played defensive end," Shembo offered. "So I can learn from him and try to better my coverage, and he can learn from me with the run fits and pass rush. We can compliment each other."

After a summer practice session that features more coverage than contact, Spond has used Week One of August camp to work on his weaknesses.

"Oh yeah, camp is a great time to work on your weaknesses and in the spring those definitely came out," he reflected. "Learning in the spring that I was pretty comfortable with my pass drops but that I had to focus on my physicality at the point of attack has continued to be a major emphasis.

"Putting on the pads lets us get up close and personal," Spond deadpanned.

Conversely, Shembo offered he finally feels more comfortable taking his first step backward, rather than bursting forward, after each snap.

"Spring ball helped me a lot. I used that time to drop back a lot," Shembo noted. "Coach (Bob Diaco) helped me and Danny, and I tried to use my athleticism, but it was a one day at a time process.

"I was dropping in different zones, all over the place," Shembo admitted. "And now it feels natural."

Less natural in form at the position, but apparently not in function, is Irisheyes.com's choice as the most promising freshman of early August, Troy Niklas.

"He's a guy that can play both the Cat and the Dog," said Kelly following Saturday's scrimmage. "His ability to play in space is extraordinary. Whatever adjective you'd use, you can throw it on that kid," he continued of the nearly 6'7" 250-pound Niklas. "His nickname is ‘Hercules'. He's a pretty special kid."

Spond, (who offered of Niklas: "He's a big kid, that's for sure") feels better prepared for his second season because of time spent on special teams as a true freshman last fall.

"You can understand the speed of the game," said Spond of the benefit of a season running under and blocking after punts and kicks. "The game experience is huge. I had butterflies last year just running out of the tunnel and now I know what to expect.

As for the likelihood of additional butterflies on September 3, 2011?

"Yeah, I know they'll be back," Spond joked.


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