Chicago Colleges: Jarrett Grace

Status of Grace unknown for another week

May, 15, 2014
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OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. -- Brian Kelly will not know the status of injured linebacker Jarrett Grace for another week, as the Notre Dame coach said he will meet with the Irish's training staff next Thursday.

Kelly said he is hopeful that Grace's right leg will be further stabilized after the redshirt junior underwent a second surgery on March 28 to insert a rod into the leg. There had been an estimated six-week timetable following that surgery to measure Grace's progress, as he is recovering from a broken tibia and fibula suffered during an Oct. 5 win over Arizona State.

If all of the healing comes back clean, Grace is expected to be ready this fall, which would provide the Irish linebacker corps a big boost inside. Grace, a Cincinnati native, had a team-best 41 tackles last season before suffering the injury.

Kelly also said that safety Nicky Baratti had suffered a dislocated right shoulder during last month's Blue-Gold spring game but would not need surgery. Baratti had missed all of last season after suffering a more serious shoulder dislocation during fall camp, that time in his left shoulder.

"There are different grades of dislocation. It wasn't one that needed to be surgically repaired," Kelly said of Baratti's most recent injury. "He will play like Bennett Jackson played the year before. He'll play with a harness, and we'll see where that goes."

Schmidt emerges as leader during spring

April, 25, 2014
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Joe Schmidt has gone from paying his own way in college to becoming the leader of Notre Dame's defense in less than a year. The inside linebacker from USC country was the talk of this spring for the Fighting Irish's revamped unit, adapting to new coordinator Brian VanGorder's scheme and unofficially carrying the mantle for the rest of the group, at least based on comments from his coaches.

Considering this one from VanGorder on the difference in the knowledge base between Schmidt and the rest of the linebackers: "There's a significant difference. Very bright player."

Or this, from head coach Brian Kelly, on defensive leaders: "Joe Schmidt is the leader on our defense. There's no one probably that has the kind of leadership and understanding of our defense than Joe has right now. Right now he can't come off the field. His knowledge base in terms of getting people lined up and having them execute what we do defensively -- he's absolutely integral to what we're doing."

So how did a player who was a walk-on until last June become an irreplaceable piece so quickly? Football Intelligence -- or FBI, as Kelly calls it -- is a phrase thrown around regularly by those describing Schmidt, who credits his history of playing a bevy of positions in his advance understanding of the game's intricacies.

A Pop Warner and early prep path that saw the Orange, Calif., native go from lineman to quarterback to defensive back gave Schmidt a wealth of knowledge by the time he was just a sophomore at Santa Ana Mater Dei High.

"I think that at a young age I had a lot of good coaching, and then I think I learned to think about the game in the right ways so I think about it more -- instead of like memorizing things I think about how everything fits together," Schmidt said. "So if the safety's moving here, where I got to move in relation to that, that's just how I think, and I think it's really benefited me with going at different defenses from high school to college and here switching a little bit."

Opportunity presented itself last season, as Jarrett Grace and several other regulars went down with season-ending injuries. Schmidt ended up notching a game-clinching pass break-up to clinch a win over his hometown Trojans. He finished 2013 with 15 total tackles, playing in all 13 games but starting none.

With VanGorder arriving to Notre Dame, bringing a more aggressive approach with him, the 6-foot-½, 230-pound Schmidt served as a quick learner in March and April, looking more and more like a guy who has a starting job locked up going into 2014.

VanGorder, for his part, has said that Schmidt is the type of guy a coach easily gets attached to.

"He's just uniquely bright," VanGorder said. "I'm talking, to the professional league and all, he's a very bright player."

Notre Dame mailblog

April, 4, 2014
4/04/14
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Thanks for chiming in. As always, feel free to tweet any more questions you have here or drop 'em in the mailbag.

Away we go ...

Brendan Shaw from Raleigh, N.C. writes: Hi Matt, doing a great job as usual! This is a long shot, but is there any chance Kelly puts in a two-QB package to mess with the opposing defense? If you think about it, having two dual-threat QBs on the field simultaneously gives you a minimum of a quadruple threat in the backfield. Opposing d-coordinators may just quit football after trying to figure that out for a quarter or two. Regards, Brendan.

Matt Fortuna: Thanks for the kind words, Brendan. Having both quarterbacks on the field at the same time? That would be news to me, especially since I haven't seen either of these guys try their hands at something other than quarterback. That being said, I'd be surprised if Malik Zaire didn't see some meaningful action during the season, as I am sure Brian Kelly and the staff will do everything they can to keep him engaged. He seems to have another gear as a runner, and he could certainly be useful in some red-zone packages as well, as the Fighting Irish have struggled to punch it in down there so much in recent years. I wonder if throwing a lefty in in the middle of a game could prove to be a nice little wrinkle, too.

Mike S. from Chicago writes: Hi Matt, great work as always. Question: how is the schedule for ACC games determined each year? We know it's a rotation with up to five games, but how are the opponents determined each season and how are home-and-aways done?

Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Mike. It is, by all accounts, a collaborative effort. And the ACC has shown some flexibility so far to accommodate the Irish, allowing them to play four conference games in 2014 and six in 2015 because of previous schedule arrangements. Both parties plan on keeping things that way, hoping to blend a balance so that a) Notre Dame isn't facing a death row of Florida State/Clemson/Miami in a given season (just using those teams as an example) b) the Irish can fill their 6-5-1 scheduling arrangement (six at home, five on road, one Shamrock Series) and c) so that they play all 14 ACC teams over a three-year span. As you can see, it takes a lot of legwork from all sides, which explains why we didn't know the Irish's 2014 schedule until December of this year (and why the school released three years of schedules at once).

Michael Fry writes: Hi Matt, I have 3 questions for you: 1. Since he arrived on campus last year, und.com has made a point of showing spectacular catches from No. 88. Having seen some live practice, can you comment on how he is doing overall in terms of route-running and consistency in catching the ball? Right now, he is presented as a catch-everything kind of guy 2. Footage of Zaire looks great but, coming back to the theme of No. 1, what kind of a QB competition would this be if Brian Kelly had not called it already in Golson's favor? Would it be close or are we talking different stratospheres? 3. Defense -- just looking for some thoughts on who was off the radar last year but who fits well into the new DC's system well. Thanks for the great blog -- keeps the off-season interesting.

Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Michael. Corey Robinson seems to dominate every time us media folks are at practice, too. He has natural size and athletic ability, giving the quarterback a wider margin of error when matching up with smaller corners. Part of that, of course, is also because Notre Dame's corners are relatively green outside of KeiVarae Russell. That said, Robinson needs to put on more strength so he can win some battles along the line of scrimmage and gain some more separation downfield. But last spring's transfers, and this spring's absence of DaVaris Daniels, has given Robinson more opportunities to make an impression. Kelly has stated that he absolutely loves coaching him because of his willingness to accept coaching and not make the same mistake twice. As for the quarterback question, I'm not sure it's still close, but that shouldn't negate from the progress that Zaire has made this spring.

I don't think anyone seriously expects someone other than Everett Golson to be starting come Week 1, but I do think Zaire will see meaningful snaps this season, and the fact there are only two scholarship quarterbacks this spring will prove to be beneficial for the lefty in the long run. Kelly was right to publicly open things up.

Lastly, everyone has been raving about Sheldon Day, who is not exactly off the radar but who was limited last season because of an ankle injury. I'd expect to see a breakout campaign from him along the line, and I wouldn't be surprised if Jarron Jones took his game up another level as well, as the redshirt sophomore has said to us how much more fun he is having in the new system.

Thomas Witty from Northbrook, Ill. writes: Hey Matt! Thanks for answering all of these questions. I know I enjoy reading your answers. My question today is focused on the linebackers. It seems like they are set at outside, but who's going to play middle? Will Nyles Morgan come in and make an impact right away? Could they move Jaylon Smith? Thanks!

Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Thomas. I'd say the only sure things at linebacker across the board right now are Joe Schmidt and Smith. Brian VanGorder absolutely raved about Schmidt when asked last week, and we all know what kind of potential Smith flashed during his strong rookie campaign in 2013. Smith has described his position as sort of a hybrid between the Mike and Sam. I'm curious to see the fallout of Jarrett Grace's second operation. He seemed to come along better than anyone over the first half of last season before breaking his leg, and Kelly said the Irish won't know his exact prognosis now until about six weeks after the operation, which took place March 28. If he can come back to camp in full-force, I think that will be huge. If not, I think Morgan could certainly make an impact upon his arrival this summer, probably not unlike the one we saw last year from Smith before he started every game in the fall.

Irish optimistic about Grace's return

March, 29, 2014
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace had surgery Friday to insert a rod into his injured leg, with the hope that the rod will further stabilize the leg, coach Brian Kelly said Saturday. Grace's progress will be measured in six weeks, and if all looks well, he is expected to be ready to play this fall.

[+] EnlargeJarrett Grace
Zach Bolinger/Icon SMINotre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace had surgery to stabilize his broken leg. He is expected to be ready to play this fall.
"If he went in there and there was instability in the four breaks, I'd think there'd have been some concern as to whether he could make it back for the fall," Kelly said. "But the indication is that he had great growth there. The rod is for stabilization, and we'll know in six weeks. If he heals the way he did prior to [the surgery], there is great optimism that in six weeks we'll see on the X-rays and scans that he'll be ready for the fall."

Grace, a redshirt junior, played in seven games last season before breaking both the tibia and fibula in his right leg during an Oct. 5 victory over Arizona State, costing him the rest of the season. The Cincinnati native was enjoying the most productive stretch of his career before the injury, as he had started in three consecutive games and had a team-best 41 tackles.

Kelly also told ESPN.com that sophomore walk-on cornerback Jesse Bongiovi, the son of rock star Jon Bon Jovi, tore an anterior cruciate ligament and will miss the 2014 season.

VanGorder knows D won't click overnight

March, 26, 2014
3/26/14
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- It would probably be easier to list the players Brian VanGorder wasn't asked about Wednesday during his first spring meeting with the media. And though few of the guys he discussed outside of Joe Schmidt drew heavy praise of note, it is clear that Notre Dame's new defensive coordinator is a fan of all he has in front of him.

He just knows not everything is going to click overnight.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly, Brian VanGorder
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsNew Fighting Irish coordinator Brian VanGorder (center) will coach a talented but young defense.
"There's a lot of mistakes out there right now, which is not unexpected," VanGorder said. "We get a lot of looks from our offense, and we're in the middle of installs, some players are getting a lot of looks being thrown at them right now. We're moving some guys around, trying to evaluate — it's an evaluation period for us, too. We're trying to find a comfort zone with respects to our players' ability and where he's going to fit best for us as we build our scheme. So a long ways to go, but I really like the players. Hard-working, they come ready each and every day. They're just a good group of players and mentally, they're fun to deal with. Good culture."

Being a veteran of 11 other college and pro stops has helped VanGorder fine-tune the installation blueprint, and he joked that he didn't know what the word "resistance" meant when asked if there had been any from his players in the early going.

But combating the coach's experience is the more versatile offense that his unit is facing every day, along with the overall greenness of a group that features just five total scholarship players entering their final seasons of eligibility (Josh Atkinson, Austin Collinsworth, Kendall Moore, Justin Utupo and Ishaq Williams).

"It's a little bit typical of some places that I've gone into," VanGorder said of the installation process, "but I guess the thing that probably stands out here is our youth, we're so young. Really young in the front seven especially. Young players. Again, so we've got to speed the process up and bring them along. That's the objective."

The 4-3 vs. 3-4 debate, meanwhile, will have to die another day, as VanGorder said he wants to be multiple and that the 4-3 base the Irish have often used through six spring practices is more a product of early installation. And he said there's no getting around the fact that it will be an uphill battle for some of the injured regulars (Jarrett Grace and Tony Springmann, among them) to become acclimated with the new system upon their expected full returns in August camp.

Still, the defensive differences from last year to this year have been enough for offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock to notice, beyond the predictably stout play from names such as Jaylon Smith and KeiVarae Russell.

"I think our defensive line as a whole has gotten more aggressive with what they’re doing," Denbrock said. "They’re playing more into the gaps and playing more up the field. Those guys kind of flash on me. I think secondary wise, there’s probably five or six or seven guys I could say, ‘Wow, I like seeing that. I like what this guy is doing. This guy is challenging the heck out of my guys and making them work.’ From Max Redfield to Matthias Farley. You guys have had the chance to see a couple practices, but even the practices you guys haven’t seen, a lot of the characters remain the same. A lot of the guys that are kind of flashing at you in the practices you’ve gotten a chance to see are doing that day in and day out and that’s obviously a tremendous thing for our football team."

Notes: VanGorder joked that his son, prep quarterback Montgomery VanGorder, joining the Irish as a preferred walk-on this summer is "great for Notre Dame." Asked if he wishes he could coach him, VanGorder said: "I learned a long time ago with my five kids, don’t coach them. They’re all athletes. It didn’t work well so I kind of backed off. Gave them things here and there but kind of let their coaches coach them and let me be dad." ... Asked for his philosophy of man coverage and pressing at the line of scrimmage, VanGorder said: "I’d love to do that. I think my mindset is to, especially in today’s game, is to take more and more control on defense by being aggressive and it starts out there. That’s where you start your decisions as a coach."

Notre Dame spring predictions: No. 5

February, 24, 2014
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Notre Dame opens spring practice one week from today, so we will take a guess at five potential happenings during the next month-and-a-half in South Bend, Ind.

Prediction No. 5: Kendall Moore will step up

The light seemed to finally click on late in the season for Moore, who, like many players on last season's defense, was forced into extended action because of injury. Moore finished with a career high 17 tackles, a tackle for loss, an interception and a pass defended.

The 6-foot-1, 251-pound linebacker showed enough promise and maturity to warrant an invite back for a fifth season. With Jarrett Grace still recovering from a broken leg, there is now a big opportunity for the redshirt senior to make an impact under new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and possibly take the first big step to shoring up a starting spot for 2014.

Notre Dame loses its top two tacklers from last season in Dan Fox (95) and Carlo Calabrese (93). And if Moore continues to build off his ascent from late last season, he can help fill the void and become another veteran leader for a linebacker corps that is lacking in healthy bodies on the inside.

Position battles to watch: No. 1

February, 21, 2014
2/21/14
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Our series looking at the top positions battles concludes with an area that will feature plenty of new faces in the middle of the Irish defense.

Inside linebacker

[+] EnlargeSchmidt
Chris Williams/Icon SMIFormer walk-on Joe Schmidt played significant action inside for the Irish last season.
No Manti Te'o in 2013 was a bigger adjustment than most expected. The veteran presence of Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese kept things familiar, with Fox moving to the Mike, losing his job to Jarrett Grace, then bouncing back to play some of the best football of his career to close the 2013 season.

Now both are gone, and while the Irish lose Prince Shembo at the starting Cat linebacker spot as well, it is presumed that Ishaq Williams will step in with the chance to fill those shoes. (Jaylon Smith was a freshman sensation as the starting Dog linebacker.)

Grace figured to be the starting Mike, but his recovery from a broken leg means that the doors are open this spring for others to step up and make their marks. Kendall Moore is back for a fifth season and figures to play a big role this spring. So does redshirt junior Joe Schmidt, the former walk-on who earned a scholarship entering last season and played significant action inside in 2013.

One other thing to consider is that there is a new defensive coordinator in Brian VanGorder. And although Brian Kelly said that the Irish will still operate out of a 3-4 base and go 4-3 about half the time, it remains to be seen how much more aggressive, if at all, VanGorder is with the personnel at hand.

There will probably be plenty of mixing and matching this spring, as the Irish try to find where some of their young guys are most effective -- notably, Michael Deeb and Doug Randolph, a pair of players who redshirted last season as freshmen.

Outside linebacker has a bit more depth, with Romeo Okwara and Ben Councell, who will likely miss the spring after tearing an ACL late last season. And a major reinforcement inside could be on the way this summer in Nyles Morgan, the No. 5 inside linebacker in the nation and Notre Dame's top recruit from the 2014 class.

But that's a topic for fall practice. In the spring, the Irish need to work on replenishing the position unit that takes the biggest hit from 2013 to 2014 in linebacker, and in particular, at inside linebacker. Several players have opportunities to cement significant roles for the 2014 season.

Notre Dame mailblog

January, 24, 2014
1/24/14
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It has been a while. What's on your minds?

Scott from St. Joseph, Mich., writes: Matt, disagree about Michigan State easily being the highlight of the season. The game was marred with questionable penalties and calling by MSU's staff. To me the highlight of the season was the second-half defense against USC. Being able to beat your biggest rival basically without a functional QB and on the hands of a defensive performance remnant of '12 was the highlight of the year for me.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame Celebration
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesPulling out a victory over Rose Bowl champion Michigan State was the biggest achievement for Notre Dame in 2013.
Matt Fortuna: I think both performances, to be fair, were far from aesthetically pleasing. And yes, we have to give Notre Dame's defense plenty of credit for its play in both games. But the circumstances are too big to ignore here. By beating Michigan State, Notre Dame helped reshape the national title picture. It was the only team to beat a very good Spartans squad, one that ended up winning the Rose Bowl. While it's always big to beat your archrival, let's also remember that USC was without Marqise Lee for the second half, committed 11 penalties and missed two field goals (from 40 and 46 yards), too. And I just can't erase the memory of the Fighting Irish offense coming to a standstill once Tommy Rees went down. No points from either team in the final 30 minutes of a primetime game? No thank you.

Matt from Pittsburgh writes: Matt, O-line starting 5 from LT-RT: Elmer, Hanratty, Martin, Lombard, Stanley? Also how do you see the D-line and linebackers forming out?

Matt Fortuna: That would probably be my early guess, though I'll keep a close eye on that group this spring since Martin will still be out. Matt Hegarty started at center in his place but provides plenty of flexibility, too, so it will be interesting to see where he fits into the picture next fall. My guess for defensive line would be Sheldon Day, Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, only because I don't know how ready Tony Springmann (ACL, infection) is. If he's 100 percent, it's easy to see him starting. And I'm anxious to watch Chase Hounshell, who saw the field as a true freshman in 2011 but has missed the last two seasons with shoulder injuries. Same with Jarrett Grace at the mike linebacker position (probably not this spring), with possibly Kendall Moore starting next to him. Jaylon Smith (dog) and Ishaq Williams (cat) will be expected to start if and when Brian VanGorder employs a 3-4 scheme, though he said last week he had not delved into schematics yet. Could we see Williams and/or Romeo Okwara play on the line some more? And where will Ben Councell fit into the picture once he's back from his ACL tear?

Jim from Chicago writes: Matt, What role do you see Torii Hunter Jr. having next year? Seemed to be the most athletic freshman WR before the injury. Can he work his way into the rotation with Daniels out in spring ball?

Matt Fortuna: He's the guy on offense, outside of Everett Golson, whom I most want to see this spring. The opportunities will be there for the taking with Daniels gone until the fall, and Hunter was able to battle back from that nasty leg injury to win offensive scout team player of the year. I'm also curious to see what kind of improvements Corey Robinson can make, given his size and potential. In limited practice viewings he seemed to be always making plays, but in games this season there were times where he looked like he could've used a couple of extra pounds.

Chris Kosiak (@C_K_42) writes: Justin Brent going to push for playing time next year? Or does he RS?

Matt Fortuna: It's probably too early to say, though, like Hunter, he'll have a great opportunity to showcase himself this spring with Daniels out. Last year Robinson and James Onwualu enrolled early and ended up taking advantage of the spring transfers of Davonte Neal and Justin Ferguson, resulting in playing time during the 2013 season. Notre Dame's receiving corps was young then and is young again now, so playing time will likely be there for the taking.

Michael Hughes (@designwithmike) writes: More important to ND success in '14: Red-zone execution or finding good to great defensive leadership?

Matt Fortuna: Good question. I'll go with red-zone execution, since I expect this Notre Dame team to rely much more on its offense than it has so far in the Brian Kelly era. And that means the Irish will have to capitalize on more red-zone opportunities and score more points. With Golson back at the helm after a semester spent training with quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr. and an improving backfield, I think you'll see the Irish take more chances offensively. None of this is to minimize the importance of defensive leadership, but that's just such an unknown factor at this point, especially since we have yet to see these players get coached by and respond to VanGorder, who seems nothing like Bob Diaco from a personality standpoint.

Recapping Friday's 'The Echoes'

December, 16, 2013
12/16/13
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Brian Kelly's bigger workload was on display already Friday night, when the Notre Dame head coach presented not one, not two, not three, but four different awards during the Irish's awards banquet, named "The Echoes" for the second straight year.

He did say on Saturday, however, that he does not expect any more of his assistants to leave, and that was seemingly confirmed shortly afterward by defensive line coach Mike Elston, whose first-ever tweet was the announcement he's staying at Notre Dame. (There had been some chatter that he could follow Bob Diaco to UConn to become the Huskies' defensive coordinator.)

As for the awards show, TJ Jones took home team MVP honors in a team vote that Kelly said wasn't even close. (Yours truly had predicted Jones as the winner beforehand, just as he had predicted the correct final score of the Stanford game.)

Jones easily took home best-dressed honors on the night, wearing a burgundy suit with a bowtie and some hipster glasses. Corey Robinson and Chris Watt were among the bowtie-wearers as well.

The biggest news, or non-news, of the night came when Stephon Tuitt met with the media afterward, saying he remains undecided on his future.

As for the big winners on Friday...
There was also in-show fan voting for best hit and best catch honors, which went to Tuitt and Jones for their plays against USC.

It's next-man-in, and then some, for Irish

November, 4, 2013
11/04/13
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- As Brian Kelly was finishing up his postgame press conference Saturday, an unexpected visitor made an appearance during the penultimate question.

"Jaylon, we'll be done in a second," Kelly said to Jaylon Smith, who had entered prematurely. "I know it's your press conference, but I'll be done in a second, and we'll let you get going. Is that all right?"

"Sorry," Smith said to the room of reporters. "I'm new to everything."

Within 24 hours, it turned out the freshman linebacker would be a seasoned veteran by Notre Dame's defense's standards. The Irish are hurting on that side of the ball -- just trying to get by, in a sense, with this weekend's game at Pitt preceding a much-needed bye before a two-game stretch against BYU and at Stanford.

[+] EnlargeEilar Hardy
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesSafety Eliar Hardy (left) is one of several Notre Dame reserves that were pressed into action due to injuries.
BCS dreams have essentially taken a backseat to figuring out just who is going to play and where, and how the remaining available guy will get ready for when their time comes.

"I think this is probably close to the pinnacle," Kelly said during Sunday's teleconference when asked if this defense has been hit as hard as any he's had in 23 years as a head coach. He added: "They don't give you any points for complaining about it. If they did, I'd complain every minute. So we just take care of it internally and get the next guy ready."

Ben Councell, the man behind Smith most of the season at the dog linebacker spot, was ruled out for the season Sunday after suffering a significant knee injury in the 38-34 win over Navy. Smith and Councell, of course, waged a preseason battle for a starting spot only after senior Danny Spond, last season's starter, was forced to retire because of hemiplegic migraines. And the linebacking corp is less than a month removed from its other big hit, when Jarrett Grace broke his leg in the Oct. 5 Arizona State game, costing the Mike linebacker the rest of his redshirt sophomore season.

It only gets worse up front, where Kona Schwenke is lost for at least this Saturday's game at Pitt because of a high-ankle sprain suffered on the Midshipmen's final drive. And Schwenke was only starting these last two games in place of nose guard Louis Nix III, who at first was ruled to have a shoulder injury suffered in the USC game, and then knee tendinitis, and now tendinitis and a small meniscus tear, though the school says he will practice this week after undergoing an MRI Sunday. Before that, Schwenke filled in for end Sheldon Day, who missed most of a three-game stretch after leaving a Sept. 14 game against Purdue with a high ankle sprain, and then re-aggravated said ankle sprain against Navy.

And no, it is not a coincidence that most of these injuries have come during this two-game stretch against Air Force and Navy, teams that often cut-block.

"It's unfortunate," Kelly said. "It's the style of offense that the academies play. It is what it is."

Kelly said it will make sense to possibly avoid scheduling multiple option teams in a single season, but that is a bridge he will cross when he gets to it. For now, his next-man-in philosophy is being tested by, well, a lack of next-men-in.

He said he guards against that by putting those who saw 15 or fewer plays in a game through extra conditioning that following Monday, while reserves get roughly half the work of the starters during 11-on-11 and scout team work in a given week.

"I think that we're so close that you don't really think about it in terms of, Oh, I've never seen you out here," redshirt senior linebacker Dan Fox said. "We get a lot of guys in at practice, there's a lot of reps to go around, so next man in and next man in."

Underclassmen such as Jarron Jones, Isaac Rochell and Romeo Okwara have been thrust into more meaningful time than most could have reasonably expected entering the season, while names unfamiliar to all but the closest of program observers -- Tyler Stockton, Justin Utupo and Eilar Hardy, to name a few -- saw extended action.

The last of those names, Hardy, helped set Smith up for the game-clinching tackle on Navy's Shawn Lynch during the visitors' final fourth-and-4 try. And he was only there because Austin Collinsworth suffered a neck strain that will require an MRI Monday.

Fellow safety Elijah Shumate, meanwhile, is expected to play against the Panthers after being sidelined the last three games with a hamstring injury, though Kelly had said the sophomore would play going into the Navy game, too.

There are also the knee injuries to left guard Chris Watt (PCL) and cat linebacker Ishaq Williams (ACL), both of whom left the Air Force game a week ago but only one of whom, Watt, could possibly return this week, depending on how quickly the redshirt senior can acclimate to the knee, which will not require surgery. Williams was in an immobilizer this week and could possibly return for the Nov. 23 BYU game.

The return of Watt would give Notre Dame four of its five starters back on the offensive line, as it lost right guard Christian Lombard for the season because of back surgery after the USC game. Still, the bruises have taken their biggest tolls on the other line, which during the spring and summer lost reserves Chase Hounshell (shoulder) and Tony Springmann (knee) for the season, in addition to seeing freshman signee Eddie Vanderdoes leave for UCLA.

All of it leaves the Irish, winners of four in a row, crawling to the finish line, every last piece of Kelly's three straight top-10 recruiting classes fitting into the plan for his push toward a second straight BCS-bowl berth.

"We are running out of next men. We're at that point where from a defensive standpoint, and particularly the defensive line, we're left with very few options," Kelly said, adding, "We'll figure something out. We'll get 11 guys out there. It's just not going to be one of those things where we're going to have the same group of guys out there all the time. As you know, we're going to have to find a way to stop a big, physical offensive line at Pittsburgh, and that is the thing that concerns you the most."

Bye week evaluations: Defense

October, 9, 2013
10/09/13
4:30
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Our series continues today with the defense, which brought back seven starters from a unit that finished second nationally in scoring defense in 2012.

DEFENSE
Grade: C


Summary: Notre Dame's defense has been the team's biggest disappointment this season, as it has allowed 34 or more points in three of six contests so far. Of course, some of that is on the offense, too, particularly in the Oklahoma game. But this was a unit that was expected to continue the dominant tone set last season, when the Irish never gave up more than 26 points in a regular-season game. (And Pitt even needed three overtimes to reach that total).

The pass rush was virtually non-existent for five games, until Prince Shembo and company turned it up a notch against Arizona State and tallied five sacks (three by Shembo). The defensive line has been negated for much of the early going, with offenses doing everything they can to get away from Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt.

Depth among the front seven has taken a hit, too: First with the Eddie Vanderdoes transfer to UCLA this summer, then with the retirement of Danny Spond and season-ending knee injury suffered by Tony Springmann in camp. Sheldon Day's ankle sprain has essentially kept him out of the past three games, while Jarrett Grace's season-ending knee injury against ASU is another big blow, especially to a thin inside linebacker corps.

Tackling, though, especially in the secondary, was less than great at Michigan and at Purdue, a sign of some of the ordinary things that Brian Kelly said his team needed to do better after the Oklahoma loss. Perhaps the defense turned a corner against the Sun Devils — Kelly said he's not doing jumping jacks just yet — but the overall body of work through six games has been mediocre, not particularly great or bad.

Notre Dame is 50th nationally in total defense (374.5 yards per game) and is 58th in scoring defense (25.5 ppg). And the Irish are tied for 86th in turnovers forced, with just seven takeaways on the season. They will be tested by skilled (USC) and complex offenses (Air Force and Navy) in the next three weeks so they need to become more reliable as the season progresses. That includes limiting big plays or forcing more turnovers to put the offense in a better position to succeed.

What we learned: Week 6

October, 6, 2013
10/06/13
10:00
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Here is what we learned about Notre Dame after its 37-34 win over Arizona State:

1. This season is far from over. The Irish got the win Saturday that they needed in the worst way and head into the bye week 4-2. As of now, Notre Dame will probably be favored in every game until the regular-season finale at Stanford. Its BCS hopes are fragile, but they are alive, as the Irish have something to shoot for when they return to the field in two weeks against USC.

2. Jones is having quite a season. Many of us scratched our heads when Brian Kelly said during camp that TJ Jones could be a first-round pick. But it's hard to imagine where the Irish would be without the captain. Jones had eight catches for 135 yards and a touchdown. He returned a punt 27 yards. And he recovered an onside kick late to seal the win. (He was also credited with a sack after the game, though something tells me that may have been Stephon Tuitt.)

3. Loss of Grace a big blow to D. Jarrett Grace was just starting to come into his own when he went down with what is likely a season-ending knee injury. The linebackers played well Saturday, but depth is increasingly becoming an issue among the front seven as the group has absorbed a number of injuries since the start of camp. Receiver Daniel Smith may be lost for the year with an ankle injury, too.

Irish prepare for another mobile QB

September, 24, 2013
9/24/13
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Oklahoma had a 356-yard passer and a 181-yard receiver in last year's game against Notre Dame. The Sooners put the ball in the end zone just once, though, and they lost by 17.

Call it keeping the points down or bending but not breaking. Whatever it is, it has worked well for the Irish in the past, and they are cognizant of that as they ready for a rematch Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

"A lot of it has to do with our ability to not give up big plays — keeping the ball in front of us has been one of our mainstays defensively ," coach Brian Kelly said during his Tuesday news conference, adding: "You've got to be sound and fundamental and contain. You can't give up easy runs. I think that's really what it comes down to. When the quarterback's running the football, you've got to make sure you're minimizing their ability to get big plays."

New Sooners quarterback Blake Bell was used in short-yardage situations last year, as he accounted for the first rushing score against the Irish in 2012.

Will Cronin and Rashad Kinlaw, both of whom stand 5-foot-11, have mimicked the 6-6, 252-pound Bell on the scout team this week.

The challenge is different from facing drop-back passer Landry Jones last season, though the Irish have become familiar with mobile signal-callers in different parts of each of their first four games.

"I think from a chemistry standpoint they put you in a position where you have to cover a lot of different scenarios," Kelly said. "You're put in a very difficult position when you can be running the football and have options to throw as well. That constant bind that the running quarterback gives you is a stress on your defense, and we've had that for the last couple of weeks. Our staff and [defensive coordinator Bob] Diaco have done a great job of formulating a plan, and we're going to have to have another great one this weekend."

Notes: Matthias Farley and Austin Collinsworth were listed as co-starters at one safety spot, with Elijah Shumate holding down the other. The inside linebacker depth chart showed similar structure, with Jarrett Grace and Dan Fox as co-starters at one spot while Carlo Calabrese was the lone starter at the other spot. All five running backs were listed as co-starters. … Notre Dame Stadium is calling for a "green out" but the team will not wear green jerseys. Upward of 40,000 pom-poms will be given out.

Notre Dame defense responds to challenge

September, 23, 2013
9/23/13
4:00
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brian Kelly challenged his defense last week. The message got through as clear as any through four games.

Notre Dame trotted out three new defensive starters for Saturday's game against Michigan State. The Irish then bottled up the Spartans better than they had any opponent in 2013.

"It wasn't just at one position," Kelly said Sunday. "It was really at three levels: the defensive line, linebacker and and defensive backs. We saw on Saturday all three of those things show themselves. We'll now need to see that on a consistent basis."

That is the main question moving forward for this unit after holding Michigan State to just 254 yards of total offense. Oklahoma, on-deck this week for a rematch of last year's Irish upset, is not exactly the Spartans, though just how lethal the Sooners' offense is remains unclear through three games.

Oklahoma averages 490.3 yards 33.7 points per game, albeit against opponents with a combined 2-6 record against FCS opponents this season. The Sooners have already made a quarterback change, as Blake Bell replaced Trevor Knight in Week 3 after losing the battle to Knight in camp.

"Who is going to show up now is really going to be what we're asking," Kelly said of his defense. "Are we going to see the group that showed itself against Michigan State consistently or the group that we saw the last couple weeks that played hot and cold? We're going to look for that consistency now from our defense."

Elijah Shumate and Austin Collinsworth started together Saturday at safety. Matthias Farley, who normally starts alongside either of the two, ended up grabbing the game's lone takeaway with his third-quarter interception. Jarrett Grace got the start over fifth-year senior Dan Fox and tied for a team-high with eight tackles. Senior Kona Schwenke, meanwhile, started with Sheldon Day sidelined because of an ankle sprain.

Stephon Tuitt looked like his old self, too, tallying six tackles, one sack and one hurry.

Day is expected back this week. Whether this unit has finally turned a corner after struggling early to live up to the standards of last year's defense remains to be seen, though Saturday was certainly a start.

"I think we responded tremendously our energy was up as a defensive unit," captain Bennett Jackson said. "Guys were flying around to the ball. And we pride ourselves on having high energy, and thats something that Coach was pushing throughout the week of practice, and we came out and executed well."

Tuitt looking forward to challenge

September, 6, 2013
9/06/13
3:59
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Stephon TuittChris Williams/Icon SMIStephon Tuitt is looking forward to making memories at the Big House on Saturday.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Stephon Tuitt's memories of Notre Dame's last trip to Michigan are, well, colorful.

"I just remember it was a big ol' stadium with a lot of yellow pompoms," Tuitt said. "That's it."

Tuitt traveled to the Big House in 2011, but he never played a snap. Both he and Aaron Lynch, prized freshmen ends with one college game under their belts at the time, were held out of the 35-31 loss to the Wolverines as coach Brian Kelly deemed them not ready.

Tuitt's role has ballooned in the two years since, as the 6-foot-6, 322-pounder will stand eye-to-eye this Saturday with a fellow All-American, left tackle Taylor Lewan.

Well, almost eye to eye.

"He's 6-8 and can move really good," Tuitt said. "We watch his film. He's a great tackle. He backs up well. He has great strength. … Me going against that is a great matchup and a great opportunity for me to really showcase the things that I worked on this summer, and a great opportunity for him to showcase what he worked on this summer, and I'm expecting a great matchup between me and him."

It is a showdown of probable first-round draft picks next spring. Lewan passed on that opportunity for a fifth and final season with the Wolverines, much like the other measuring stick Tuitt gets to see every day in practice in Zack Martin, who has helped with the preparation for the challenge that awaits this weekend.

"That's the thing about it," Tuitt said. "You've got one of the best tackles on our team, one of the best tackles in the country. It makes you better. It makes your confidence way higher, too."

Tuitt will inevitably have a decision of his own at the end of this season as the prized junior looks to build off a 12-sack 2012 campaign that he had previously deemed a "learning year." Playing in just his seventh year of organized football, the behemoth from Monroe, Ga., has learned to harness his big frame and become more than just a quarterback hunter.

Or, as linebacker Jarrett Grace described it: "He doesn't just have to be Godzilla out there throwing everyone around. He can be Godzilla focused in one area taking everyone out, because we've got other great guys on the defensive line that are also working their technique."

So Tuitt's only chance in Ann Arbor might also serve as his last chance against the Wolverines, with the attention surrounding the Big House's second night game only raising the stakes as he faces his stiffest individual test.

"No more going back, so I've got to leave it all," Tuitt said. "Leave it all out there."

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