NCF Nation: Romeo Okwara

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."
1. This ground game is good: And it's going to be even better when Cierre Wood returns. Of course, not every defense will be as easy to run on as Navy's was, but there are several valuable options -- don't forget about USC transfer Amir Carlisle, either -- that will help alleviate the pressure on Everett Golson.

2. Golson has poise: Yes, that's a vague, cliche term coaches and writers alike love to throw around. But give the redshirt freshman credit: First start, overseas, the pressure of playing quarterback for Notre Dame and Brian Kelly -- and he was never rattled. Golson was an efficient game manager, which was more than enough against the Midshipmen.

3. There may be a punt-return game: Notre Dame averaged 3.7 yards per punt return in 2011 -- and that was after Michael Floyd's 41-yard return in the Champs Sports Bowl. Davonte Neal returned one punt 11 yards. Earth-shattering? No. But after last season's opening-week fiasco, it's enough reason to think this could be a source of production for the Irish, with the true freshman leading the charge.

4. Freshmen will contribute: Neal had the punt return (and a negative-5-yard catch), Justin Ferguson had a 9-yard reception. Ferguson, Elijah Shumate and Nicky Baratti were special teams regulars. KeiVarae Russell became Notre Dame's first true freshman starting corner. Chris Brown, Romeo Okwara and Sheldon Day saw some time. And even Ronnie Stanley played with the second-team line, a rarity for a freshman offensive lineman.

Roster breakdown: Defense

March, 29, 2012
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Our breakdown of Notre Dame's 2012 roster continues today with the defensive side of the ball.

DEFENSIVE LINE

The players: Aaron Lynch, Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Tony Springmann, Chase Hounshell, Sheldon Day, Tyler Stockton, Kona Schwenke

The incoming: Jarron Jones, Romeo Okwara

[+] EnlargeLouis Nix
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesTackle Louis Nix is a key cog in what should be a strong, experienced defensive line for Notre Dame.
The breakdown: Injuries forced all three current starters — Lynch, Nix and Tuitt — to play much more than expected last season, and none disappointed. They are all second-year players now, and their pass-rushing ability should have opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks on their heels. Lewis-Moore has been cleared for spring following a season-ending knee injury in 2011 but might not start, though he will likely see plenty of playing time as the line rotates. Hounshell (shoulder surgery) is not cleared yet, but he will likely see significant time this fall after playing as a true freshman last year as well.

LINEBACKERS

The players: Danny Spond, Manti Te'o, Dan Fox, Prince Shembo, Kendall Moore, Ishaq Williams, Anthony Rabasa, Carlo Calabrese, Jarrett Grace, Justin Utopo, Connor Little, Ben Councell, Joe Schmidt

The incoming: None

The breakdown: As we said with Tyler Eifert yesterday, everyone knows what Te'o is capable of, as he likely would have been a first-round NFL draft pick had he left school following his junior year. Fox and Calabrese shared the other inside role last year, and their experience should prove valuable. Shembo has been working at the cat spot this spring, and up-and-coming talents like Williams and Spond figure to see extensive playing time.

SECONDARY

The players: Bennett Jackson, Jamoris Slaughter, Zeke Motta, Lo Wood, Josh Atkinson, Austin Collinsworth, Dan McCarthy, Jalen Brown, Cam McDaniel, Eilar Hardy, Chris Salvi, Joe Romano, Will Salvi, Connor Cavalaris, Matthias Farley, Blake Breslau

The incoming: Elijah Shumate, Nicky Baratti, C.J. Prosise, John Turner

The breakdown: The loss of Tee Shepard really stings this group, which is down to four scholarship corners with a combined zero career starts. Jackson and Wood are in position to take over as the new starters, and playing time last season should help with the transition. At safety, Slaughter and Motta saw plenty of time the last two seasons, and Slaughter in particular has shown a nose for the ball and the capability of providing a leadership force that Harrison Smith is leaving behind. Collinsworth will likely also see plenty of snaps after playing last year.
John Turner kicked things off for Notre Dame's 2012 recruiting class shortly after 7 a.m. today, becoming the first of what is expected to be 14 high schoolers to fax in his signed letter of intent.

The names trickled in after — Romeo Okwara, Mark Harrell, Justin Ferguson, C.J. Prosise, Chris Brown, William Mahone, Scott Daly, Jarron Jones, Nicky Baratti and Elijah Shumate.


Gunner Kiel, Tee Shepard and Sheldon Day have already enrolled.

We'll speak to coach Brian Kelly in less than two hours, by which time the Irish hope their three verbal pledges from the West Coast -- Deontay Greenberry, Ronnie Stanleyand KeiVarae Russell -- make their new homes official.

Where ND stands on signing day

February, 1, 2012
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Happy New Year?! Well, not quite. But it is national signing day, a chance for fans of every team to celebrate the promise of the future.

For Notre Dame, that future is brighter than most. The Irish are expected to sign the No. 9 recruiting class for the Class of 2012, according to ESPNU. And barring anything unforeseen, the class might just stand at 17 prospects when the day is done.

Brian Kelly will hold a news conference at 1 p.m. today, but until then, here's a recap of who you should expect to see in a Notre Dame uniform next season. (*indicates early enrollee already on campus)

OFFENSE
*Four-star QB Gunner Kiel (Columbus, Ind./Columbus East)
  • 6'3", 215, No. 3 QB, No. 52 overall, 82 Scout Grade, Signed Jan. 17, 2012

Four-star WR Justin Ferguson (Pembroke Pikes, Fla./Flanagan)
  • 6'1", 205, No. 14 WR, No. 85 overall, 81 Scout Grade, Committed May 2, 2011

Four-star OT Jarron Jones (Rochester, N.Y./Aquinas)
  • 6'6", 295, No. 11 OT, No. 102 overall, 80 Scout Grade, Committed April 12, 2011

Four-star WR Deontay Greenberry (Fresno, Calif./Washington Union)
  • 6'2", 185, No. 17 WR, No. 106 overall, 80 Scout Grade, Committed May 27, 2011

Four-star OT Ronnie Stanley (Las Vegas/Bishop Gorman)
  • 6'6", 285, No. 34 OT, 79 Scout Grade, Committed Dec. 15, 2011

Four-star RB William Mahone (Youngstown, Ohio/Austintown Fitch)
  • 5'10", 206, No. 16 RB, 79 Scout Grade, Committed Sept. 30, 2011

Four-star OT Mark Harrell (Charlotte, N.C./Charlotte Catholic)
  • 6'5", 260, No. 41 OT, 79 Scout Grade, Committed May 19, 2011

Three-star RB KeiVarae Russell (Everett, Wash./Mariner)
  • 6'0", 175, No. 26 RB, 79 Scout Grade, Committed Dec. 29, 2011

Three-star WR Chris Brown (Hanahan, S.C./Hanahan)
  • 6'2", 170, No. 66 WR, 78 Scout Grade, Committed Sept. 18, 2011

Two-star LS Scott Daly (Downers Grove, Ill./Downers Grove South)
  • 6'3", 228, No. 3 LS, 73 Scout Grade, Committed April 16, 2011
DEFENSE
*Four-star CB Tee Shepard (Fresno, Calif./Washington Union)
  • 6'0", 180, No. 9 CB, No. 90 overall, 80 Scout Grade, Committed March 2, 2011

*Four-star DT Sheldon Day (Indianapolis/Warren Central)
  • 6'2", 280, No. 14 DT, No. 143 overall, 80 Scout Grade, Committed Aug. 3, 2011

Four-star S Elijah Shumate (Ramsey, N.J./Don Bosco)
  • 6'0", 205, No. 14 S, 80 Scout Grade, Committed Jan. 7, 2012

Three-star S C.J. Prosise (Woodberry Forest, Va./Woodberry Forest)
  • 6'1", 190, No. 22 S, 79 Scout Grade, Committed May 27, 2011

Three-star DE Romeo Okwara (Charlotte, N.C./Ardrey Kell)
  • 6'4", 223, No. 96 DE, 77 Scout Grade, Committed July 10, 2011

Three-star ATH Nicky Baratti (Spring, Texas/Klein Oak)
  • 6'1", 190, No. 87 ATH, 77 Scout Grade, Committed April 16, 2011

Three-star S John Turner (Indianapolis/Cathedral)
  • 6'0", 194, No. 62 S, 76 Scout Grade, Committed June 28, 2011
Note: Amir Carlisle (Sunnyvale, Calif./Kings Academy) has also enrolled this spring after a semester at USC. He was a four-star recruit, ESPNU's No. 17 athlete, and the 114th-best player overall in the Class of 2011. The 5-foot-10, 180-pounder rushed for 118 yards on 19 carries and caught seven passes for 41 yards and a touchdown with the Trojans in 2011.

Irish make presence felt in Carolinas

November, 4, 2011
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — What's one implication of playing Wake Forest inside 31,500-seat BB&T Field, almost 50,000 seats fewer than Notre Dame Stadium? How about exposure.

No, Notre Dame doesn't lack for drama or attention, but maybe the Carolinas do. And the Irish have made it a point of making their presence felt in that area.

Just take a look at these numbers:
  • Seven current Notre Dame players hail from North Carolina or South Carolina.
  • Three more, Mark Harrell and Romeo Okwara (both North Carolina) and Chris Brown (South Carolina), have committed to play for the Irish next season.
  • Eight ESPNU 150 players hail from either North Carolina or South Carolina, which, together, puts the area sixth behind Florida, Texas, California, Georgia and Alabama.

"It's started to grow in terms of its significance in the recruiting grand scheme of things — even when I was at Cincinnati we started to get in there because the high school football was growing and that population growth in that area, as you know, made that the reason for it," Brian Kelly said Sunday. "So it's been on our radar. We've just really worked hard at it, and we've obviously got some players from that area that have allowed us to continue to build those relationships."

"Yeah, North Carolina, South Carolina has been an area now that we've had a number of coaches on our staff, it's not just one coach, that are in there recruiting it hard. So getting down and playing Wake Forest, you know, obviously we're gonna be able to have a number of kids come up — they won't be our guests obviously, but they're certainly gonna check us out."

Irish cornerback Robert Blanton, from Matthews, N.C., said he will have a dozen family members in attendance.

"It's about an hour and 15 minutes [northeast] of Charlotte, and it takes about 45 minutes if you drive fast," Blanton said of his hometown, laughing.

Linebacker Prince Shembo, from Charlotte, will get to see his father, Maurice, in the stands for just the second time since the elder Shembo suffered a brain aneurysm Sept. 16.

On Tuesday, Kelly again cited population growth for the number of recruitable football players in the Carolinas, a place he said he recruited wide receivers and defensive backs from while at Central Michigan from 2004-06.

In addition to Blanton, Kelly's other starting cornerback Saturday, Gary Gray, hails from the area, having played high school ball at Richland Northeast in Columbia, S.C.

"Just have always felt that that's been — when I was at Central and Cincinnati — kind of an under-the-radar state or states," Kelly said. "It's not that anymore. So I've always felt the importance of it because it was a big growth area demographically. And then I think Notre Dame has always been in that area, and we've just kind of carried that on from my beliefs that it's a very good football state."

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