By mid-season, safety Jamoris Slaughter began to replace then-Dog starter Prince Shembo in relative passing situations. It was out of necessity, as the forward-charging Shembo, a promising pass-rusher, was miscast in an extensive coverage role.
"The game is played right now by 53-and-1/3 yards, in other words, the field is spread (horizontally)," said head coach Brian Kelly last fall. "Because of that you have to make substitutions based on how offenses want to play. If they want to play three, four wide receiver you have to make some situational substitutions and play more nickel (coverages).
"I think what you're seeing is we had to match up, we can't play a 245-pound guy out on skilled wide receiver every down," Kelly continued. "We have to make those situational substitutions."
Junior Danny Spond would like to change his coach's mind. Or at least mitigate the need for continuous personnel change at the position.
"Absolutely…I've definitely adopted the goal and role of having that be my spot, whether it's a man coverage or zone coverage," said Spond of what was a devalued spot on the defense last fall. "Do what I can to win that spot. This is the position I started out when I came in. I have a real good feel for it; I know all the coverages, and feel comfortable with the system so now its time to shine."
Spond began 2011 as Shembo's backup, playing extensively vs. South Florida in the opener and in the first half of the Week Two loss at Michigan. The fleet-footed former safety pulled his hamstring chasing Wolverines QB Denard Robinson to the sidelines in the second quarter, suffering an injury that would keep him from the field for the next three games.
By the time he returned, Slaughter had turned the position into a personnel showcase, dominating in his debut at the spot vs. Air Force and showing well vs. USC, Navy, and Wake Forest in subsequent weeks.
"That was definitely tough, every season will have (challenges) though," said Spond of returning from injury. "I had to learn as I was injured, rehab it back, and now its healthy."
Performance-Based Playing TimeSlaughter is doubtless the team's best player for the nickel role. But the Irish defense could benefit from improved play, consistent play, at the Dog spot. Slaughter could then roam the backline at his safety position and the Irish run defense would benefit from a 6'2" 248-pound presence on the edge. Especially one that can turn and run like Spond.
"I have to keep my quickness up. That spot is really speed-oriented," said Spond. "Coming off the edge on the line, but being able to keep up with the slots and still be able to press on the tight ends is the key. I feel really strong in pass coverage, but I work at everything to be well-rounded at the position."
With Shembo working at his more natural Cat (Boundary) linebacker position, pressing Spond for the role at Dog is redshirt-freshman linebacker Ben Councell. The 6'5" 240-pound Councell has yet to make his field debut, and his best chance to earn more time will likely be in the 2013 season (Spond will be a senior) but until then, the pair pushes each other every rep.
"Ben's been doing great. Last year seeing him as a freshman, then to where he is now, he's made tremendous strides," offered Spond. "He's fun to play with and we work pretty well together; I teach him and I learn from him."
Whether it's Spond, Councell, a combination of the two, or both simply keep the spot warm on first down for Slaughter to do the heavy lifting on second and/or third, Spond finally has a chance to let loose and play.
Two-plus years at the position have given him that opportunity.
"Now for me there's just no hesitation. I'm real comfortable with all my jobs so now I can react and play football how we've all grown up and learned the game," said Spond. "I'm really comfortable, so now I can have fun."
That fun will again include a spot on the Irish "Run Teams," where Spond's skill set is a natural fit for the coverage and return units.
"It's the third aspect of the game," he said of the specialty units. "It's not any more or less important than offense or defense. We need to win on special teams as well so if I'm best cut for a position there, I'll be (back) out there."
Spond will be out there when the defense does battle from scrimmage, too. His ability to perform at the defense's vexing position will determine how often.