The offseason is often a time for looking back and today we’re going to look back at some guys who played football for Notre Dame in the last decade-plus who deserved more attention. I’ve picked three of my favorite unsung Irish heroes - there are no doubt more, so leave your favorites in the comments.
Williams was well known to Notre Dame fans during his impressive career, which straddled the Weis and Kelly eras. However, he remained relatively unknown on the national stage because he played for some truly terrible Irish defenses, with only the 2010 defense of his senior year even rising to the level of respectability. But in those struggling units Williams was a constant bright spot, a motor and an emotional leader who often kept his team in the game. He found ways to make plays from his nose tackle spot - not only tackles for loss and sacks, but also a pair of interceptions in his last two seasons.
Williams more than proved himself, and did the Irish fans who loved him proud when he went to the next level. After racking up nearly 161 tackles in four years on the interior, Williams went undrafted in the 2011 NFL Draft. Williams turned that inauspicious start into a five-year career with the San Francisco 49ers, becoming a key contributor and then starter in his final two seasons before an ankle injury put an end to his career.
The charismatic Williams retains an entertaining media presence in the football world, working as a TV analyst for NFL games.
The 2012 defense may have been headlined by highly-recruited stars like Manti Te’o and Stephon Tuitt, but there were also key cogs who came from less-conventional backgrounds. One of the most fun to follow was Spond, an outside linebacker in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme who played with an infectious energy and was seemingly always around the ball - whether it was at the line of scrimmage or thirty yards downfield. A quarterback in high school as well as a linebacker, Spond worked hard to find a role in Diaco’s system and was one of many players who brought great intangibles to that veteran defense.
An emblematic Spond performance came in the 2012 tilt with the BYU Cougars, in which Spond only recorded 6 tackles but was nonetheless omnipresent around the ball, recording both a TFL and three passes defensed, including a game-sealing interception with five seconds remaining. Spond’s athleticism and versatility as both a defender and run-stopper combined with Te’o to give the Irish one of college football’s strongest linebacking corps in pass coverage that season.
Unfortunately, Spond’s career was cut short by an acute migraine issue that flared up heading into his senior season, making it impossible for him to play not only in 2013 but in perpetuity. In the eyes of Irish fans, he will always be remembered for his crucial-if-quieter efforts in that special 2012 season.
Similar to Williams, Cage was a defensive tackle who played with fire and aggressiveness in some truly difficult defensive circumstances, in his case the entirety of the Brian Van Gorder era. Over the course of the 2015 and 2016 seasons, Cage emerged as one of the most reliable players on the Irish defensive front, though his impact was often not tracked on the stat sheet. A 310-pound wrecking ball in the middle of the line, Cage was consistently able to command multiple blockers, gain penetration, and pressure both runners and quarterbacks away from the center of the backfield. When given the opportunity, Cage also proved a sure tackler with a surprising level of athleticism for a man of his size.
During the 2016 season Cage also overcame an interesting obstacle - sleep apnea, which had limited his rest and his playing potential prior to his addressing it with a specialist. Persevering through that challenge and identifying new ways to make sure he was getting enough rest, Cage played his best football in 2016.
Unfortunately Cage also had his career cut short by injuries - a combination of offseason knee surgery and multiple concussions forced him to retire from the game of football prior to his senior season. Although he never got the chance to prove himself at the next level, he deserves to be remembered by Irish fans for his commitment and competitiveness against a myriad of difficulties.