Living on the Edge: Cats and Dogs

After providing head coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's their best Cat and Dog tandem through the staff's first three seasons in South Bend, senior starters Prince Shembo and Danny Spond return for their final seasons of eligibility.

Neither of the team's senior starters at outside linebacker fits the desired profile of the program's head coach.

Notre Dame's Brian Kelly and his defensive coordinator Bob Diaco seek length on the edge of their defense. Approximately 6'5" 250-plus is the prototype, a player that can move well in space, but also put his hand down and get after opposing quarterbacks. Most important, the Irish "Cat" and "Dog" 'backers must fulfill the task set forth for every outside linebacker in the history of football:

Secure the edge, or in Kelly parlance, "set the edge."

Prince Shembo and Danny Spond do all of the above to varying degrees. They just happen to stand 6'2" and 260 (Shembo) and 243 (Spond), respectively.

"Dog is a drop, that's what it is," said Shembo of a position he struggled to play in 2011. "It's not being good at so many different things, its playing in space, keeping up with receivers and at the same time coming up to hit the running back. If you watch, you see everyone in the box and then you see the Dog out by himself. Its different. You make a wrong decision, its sayanora."

Shembo wasn't faced with spacial decision-making in 2012. He instead played the Cat -- the boundary linebacker operating on a short field. And most of the time, he had one hand on the ground, a defensive end with Notre Dame's defensive front shifted to its more often featured 4-3 alignment.

And despite his squat build, he shined. Earning a spot on the top 10 players list despite a fall from grace vs. Alabama.

Also shining was his classmate Spond, whose two previous seasons as a backup Dog/Drop prepared him well for his first heavy dose of football Saturdays.

"We don't even take him off in nickel-- I don't know if you guys know it, he plays corner," said Kelly following a standout game by Spond vs. Brigham Young last fall. "Here is a guy that's playing corner is our nickel package and running with the No. 2 (receiver) in bracket.   

"He has been physical at the point of attack.  Teams that have wanted to get outside-- I could go on and on. Kid has been tremendous.  He's been an unsung player on our defense and we appreciate him. I'm not saying you guys don't, but he's just played really, really well for us and he's not even coming off the field."

Its apparent Notre Dame's outside 'backer positions are in good hands entering 2013.

What's not as obvious is the future of the positions when both Shembo and Spond move on.

Pecking Order

The Irish have a well-tiered collection of talent on the edge of their front seven, with two players in each class with the exception of Okwara's solo recruitment in 2012.

Position Coach: Bob Diaco -- Enters his fourth season as the program's defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. Co-defensive coordinator Kerry Cooks technically coached the outside linebackers in 2010 but Cooks was more involved with the cornerbacks that season despite his official designation.

Spring Combatants: Seniors Prince Shembo (Cat) and Danny Spond (Dog), junior Ishaq Williams (Cat), redshirt-sophomores Anthony Rabasa (Cat) and Ben Councell (Dog), sophomore Romeo Okwara (Cat/Dog).

Incoming Talent: Five-star prospect Jaylon Smith (Fort Wayne, Ind.) and three-star prospect Doug Randolph (Woodberry Forest, Va.)

Returning Starters: Shembo (Cat) and Spond (Dog)

While Spond and Shembo are guaranteed to be among Notre Dame's "Best 11" as the program's leader is fond of saying, so too could be Spond's successor at the position, incoming freshman do-everything 'backer, Jaylon Smith.

Smith's eventual role (he's pegged by this site -- you heard it hear first -- as the starting nickel on August 31 vs. Temple) will be discussed at length over the summer.

Tell-Tale Spring?

Backup Cat 'backer. Backup defensive end in the 4-3. Backup nickel linebacker. Backup dime linebacker.

Junior Ishaq Williams proved his versatility last season. Now he needs to prove he belongs on the field in crunch time.

The prototype for the Cat position at 6'5" 250 pounds, Williams last season ran with a slot receiver in crucial third-down nickel coverage (Oklahoma), made a crucial hit on the quarterback in overtime (Pittsburgh), and successfully set the edge on a team hell-bent on running at him (Michigan State).

And then there were the maddening mistakes. Weak showings on the edge of the defense vs Stanford and Alabama. Pass rushes that ended in the middle of the offensive tackles' chest. Coverage errors (Oklahoma) much more mental than physical on the boundary.

Williams has the tools, and with his unique ability to both run and cover and go get the quarterback, is guaranteed a shot at a meaningful role (or roles). But the laid-back former five-star prospect has yet to play with a fury to match his athletic gifts.

Spring practice is rarely the time for such a player to prove his wares -- it likely has to be for Williams, now entering his third season and third spring session at the program.

Said Kelly of Williams to the South Bend Tribune earlier this month: "Our plans aren't to move him down to play four-technique. Does that mean that he won't get his hand down when we go four down? No, that's what the cat (linebacker) does. So there are a lot of ways to get him involved. Do you play more four down?

"He's not a four-technique. He's not been recruited to play that inside position. That's a guy who needs to be 285 to 300 pounds. He's not going to morph into that, nor do we want him to.

"He's still in a competitive situation in terms of playing time. We think the combination of those two guys (Shembo) gives us the best chance at that position. And so what I think you'll see, across the board with this team, is the sum of this team is going to be greater than any one of its parts. If you stand back and look at it, that's this kind of football team that's coming together — a lot of guys playing, a lot of guys contributing. And the strength of us will be Ishaq and Shembo playing that position."

Varsity Blues?

Junior Ben Councell and Anthony Rabasa have endured different trials over their first two seasons. Both toiled on the scout team as true freshman in 2011, Councell at his present position of Dog; Rabasa as an inside 'backer, that despite his high school past as an edge rusher.

In 2012, Councell fought Spond through spring and the summer months -- and purportedly through fall camp, though that seems difficult to believe today -- for the starting role. His biggest contributions came in mop-up time vs. Wake Forest when the 6'4" 240-pounder starred in space albeit vs. dispirited competition.

Rabasa played sparingly, first appearing vs. Miami, then finding time vs. Boston College and Rutgers. His third-team status at Cat 'backer afforded precious little opportunity.

Both have three seasons of eligibility remaining. Both will have two seasons left when Shembo and Spond move in January 2014. Both have a super star prospect in Smith to consider for future competition.

Spring 2013 is the first step toward closing the gap toward playing time and fighting off Smith for the near future.

Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou? Cat? He can certainly get to the quarterback and defend the boundary. Dog? He was moved there following two weeks of August camp for a reason. Defensive end? That's what his 17-year-old 6'4" 240-pound (as of August 2012) frame suggests.

Sophomore Romeo Okwara's spring -- and likely his off-season to date -- will be about finding a position for him in 2013, then beyond. Because if early indications are accurate, the best spot for Okwara, at least by 2014, is "on the field."

Final Thought

While Kelly often notes the team will put its "best 11" on the field, its relevant to note the head coach's philosophy, and that of defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's as well, is to put all of their best players on the field, whenever they can help.

As Diaco is fond of saying, "We're going to need them all..."

Regarding the Cats and Dogs, that might be true.

Look for Shembo, Spond, Williams, and potentially the freshman Smith to rank among the team's top 15 in defensive snaps, and for one of Councell, Okwara, or even Rabasa to earn a viable backup role as well.

Note: Previews of each unit in our spring series can be found at the links below:

The Next Wave: Running Backs

Searching for Six: Wide Receivers

Lather, Rinse, Repeat? Tight Ends

The Elephant Has Left the Room: Quarterback

Links Remain: Offensive Line

Power of the Program: Defensive Line

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