In some ways, Danny Spond's 2012 season was a microcosm of Notre Dame's undefeated run to the BCS Championship Game.
Leading up to the start of last season, Spond was struggling with headaches, which were eventually diagnosed as severe migraines after such causes as a concussion or stroke were discussed but dismissed. His season, his career and his chance to be a starter were in jeopardy.
A month later, however, Spond had seemingly recovered. He was back in the starting lineup by Week 3.
The Irish used their 20-3 road upset of Michigan State as their national coming-out party, and Spond did as well, making his first of 11 straight starts to end last season in Notre Dame's win over the rival Spartans. He finished the season with 39 tackles and an interception, and the Irish finished 12-1.
As the Irish began formal preparations for the 2013 season earlier this month, Spond was penciled as the starter at Dog linebacker. Sadly, Spond's headaches returned, and the Littleton, Colo., native was again left to ponder his future in football.
"Danny announced today to the team that he will no longer be playing football," Kelly said. "I am not going to get into the specifics. Danny and his family will release a statement relative to his reasons for not playing, which are medical, and get into the specifics with that release early next week."
Instead of the expected eight returning defensive starters, Notre Dame will have just seven. However, if there's a position at which the Irish defense can afford some attrition, it's Dog linebacker. Junior Ben Councell returns, but most of the attention of both coaches and fans now focuses on true freshman Jaylon Smith.
Smith was a consensus 5-star prospect when he signed with Notre Dame in February. Kelly recently described Smith's commitment to Notre Dame over Ohio State to Yahoo! Sports columnist Dan Wetzel as a significant moment in his four-year tenure with the Irish.
Coaches must often temper expectations for true freshmen, but Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco now must rely on Smith's immense talent sooner than they had hoped.
"[Smith and Councell are] both gonna play," Kelly said Saturday. "They're both gonna play a lot. When it comes to coaching, if we make it that complicated that we can't get Jaylon Smith on the field, then we're not very good coaches. Yeah, there's some complexities to it but I think we can make it such that we can get talented players like Jaylon Smith on the field."
After redshirting in 2011, Councell played in 12 games last season, primarily in a reserve role and on special teams. He finished with 10 tackles.
Even with Spond, Smith likely would have seen the field at least on passing downs, where his ability to both rush the passer and drop into coverage would have been an ideal fit.
Now, he'll have to become more than just a specialist. He'll likely be a co-starter at the Dog position in the early portion of the season, which begins next Saturday at home against Temple. He's added size to his frame, but he must show he can excel against the run as well as the pass.
Smith will also benefit from Spond's tutelage, as Spond will remain with the team while completing his degree.
"He's gonna stay with us," Kelly said. "He's gonna help us coach the drop (linebackers). Who's better qualified to give his experience? Our teammates were excited to hear that he's gonna be with us every day. He'll travel with us. He'll help coach. I think they see in one sense they're not gonna have a teammate but they're gonna have somebody that's gonna be with them every day and he will truly be seen every day."
It's impossible to go through an entire fall camp without injuries, both minor and serious. Unfortunately for Spond and Notre Dame, they must now overcome the worst kind of injuries—those that end careers.
If there's a silver lining, it's the opportunity for Smith to shine earlier than expected. For those of us who followed Smith's recruitment, it's something we've all come to expect. That's why Kelly singled out that Saturday in June 2012 when Smith committed some 14 months after it happened.