Notre Dame Football: Ben Councell

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — If Everett Golson thought his whirlwind experience from his lone season of playing at Notre Dame was enough to earn back his starting job, he was sadly mistaken.

"I would argue that Everett rode the bus to the championship," a smiling Brian Kelly said of Golson and the Irish's 12-1 campaign in 2012, serving caution to the idea that this is a quarterback competition in name only.

Kelly, who unofficially kicked off the 2014 preseason Friday for the Irish with his pre-camp news conference, addressed several pressing topics, though none as frequent as the battle between Golson and Malik Zaire to start under center Aug. 30 against Rice.

[+] EnlargeEverett Golson
Joel Auerbach/Getty ImagesEverett Golson still has a fight on his hands to return as the starting quarterback at Notre Dame.
"I think in an ideal world, I think every coach would want one quarterback that has clearly demonstrated a consistency, great leadership, and the ability to take you to a championship," Kelly said. "And so if that guy shows himself, I'm ready to name him the quarterback on that day. So I'm not playing a game where we are trying to create artificial competition within the ranks. I think we still have competition for that particular role to show itself.

"I think it can show itself and when it does, we'll be ready to make that declaration. It just has not shown itself yet, but I'm confident that it will, and when it does, we'll be ready to make that call."

The last time Kelly entered camp with a quarterback conundrum, two years ago, he ultimately chose Golson over three others nine days before the season opener. The fifth-year Notre Dame coach said he would likely name a starter by that time period once again this year, adding that having two quarterbacks with similar skill sets has made life much easier for all offensively.

"This is the first time that we don't have to have two scripts for two quarterbacks," Kelly said. "They are running the same plays and that is a huge advantage in terms of building that consistency throughout the ranks for everybody, from the offensive line, for the receivers, to the quarterback."

Notre Dame's run to the national title game in the 2012 season was led, of course, by its defense, with Golson, then a redshirt freshman, managing the offense. But his return to the program this spring following an academic-related suspension last fall has been met by a stiff challenge from Zaire, a left-handed redshirt freshman who has said and done all of the right things up to this point.

With fall camp commencing Monday at Culver Military Academy — where Notre Dame will hold its first week of practices — the race between the two will resume.

Not that Kelly minds the competition.

"I'm not in here complaining about our quarterback position," Kelly said. "I'm actually pretty excited that I have two guys that are moving in a very good direction."

Injury items: Defensive lineman Tony Springmann's football career is over because of a back issue. The redshirt junior had been rehabbing from an ACL tear and an ensuing infection initially suffered during last year's preseason camp, and he will go on a medical scholarship. … In better news, linebacker Jarrett Grace is "close" to being ready for the season after a pair of right leg surgeries following the breaking of his tibia and fibula in an Oct. 5 victory over Arizona State. … Tight end Mike Heuerman (hernia) is out for a month. … Kelly was pleased with the recoveries of Nick Martin (MCL), Christian Lombard (wrist) and Ben Councell (ACL) following season-ending injuries last season, as each appear to be fine. Kelly said that Martin, like his brother Zack before him, is now the clear leader of the offensive line. … Tight end Ben Koyack underwent offseason shoulder surgery, but Kelly said he is fine.

Other notes: Kelly said freshman linebacker Nile Sykes, who transferred to Indiana shortly after enrolling at Notre Dame, "wasn't the right fit," though he did nothing wrong with the Irish and was given a recommendation upon his departure. … Kelly praised DaVaris Daniels' physical and mental maturity following the receiver's spring exile for academic reasons, adding: "I think we saw some really good signs and we want to be able to see that every day." … Florida cornerback transfer Cody Riggs has rounded into better shape physically since he arrived this summer, with Kelly praising his approach: "He's a Notre Dame man." … Kelly also praised Johnny Lujack, who is recovering from spinal surgery, saying he has been struck by the former Heisman winner's humor in all situations.

Grace status still uncertain

June, 10, 2014
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame is taking an aggressive approach with Jarrett Grace's comeback from multiple knee surgeries. As for whether that means Grace will compete for a starting linebacker spot, or even be ready for the Fighting Irish's Aug. 30 opener against Rice, clarity might not come until the end of the month.

"We’re going full-go for him to be ready for Rice," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. "He wants to do it that way. He’s very encouraged. I think it’s the best I’ve seen him mentally. He was in a tough spot there for a little bit before the surgery. It was good to see him in very good spirits today. We’re going to be very aggressive with him, let him go and I think if we really went slow with him, it would probably put him in jeopardy for being ready for the first three, four weeks. That’s not what he wants. We’re going to go at it and go for the best."

[+] EnlargeJarrett Grace
Zach Bolinger/Icon SMIJarrett Grace is on track to return by the opener, but there are still hurdles to clear for the Notre Dame linebacker.
Speaking before Football 101, a charity event put on by Kelly Cares, the fifth-year Notre Dame coach said that Grace rode a bike during Tuesday's summer workouts, the Irish's first of the season. All other ailing players from the spring were able to participate in conditioning drills, Kelly said, with center Nick Martin (MCL) and linebacker Ben Councell (ACL) fully cleared.

Receiver Will Mahone (ankle) did some running, while tackle Ronnie Stanley was limited following a minor knee procedure to clear up "some loose impediments." Kelly added that defensive lineman Tony Springmann (ACL, infection) was good to go.

It will take some more time before the Irish know if the same can be said of Grace, who had a rod inserted into his right knee on March 28, more than five months after he had surgery to repair a broken tibia and fibula suffered during an Oct. 5 victory over Arizona State.

Grace, a Cincinnati native, had a team-high 41 tackles last season before suffering the injury.

"Right now we would take it, as we want him healthy to compete against Rice, and then whatever happens from there," Kelly said. "We were at a point where we didn't know where he was and whether he could play, and we're seeing some positive things. So I think we'll take it as, 'Let's get him back against Rice, and then if we hear better news over the next two, three weeks' -- I think by the end of June, we're going to know really whether we can answer that question as, 'Let's get him on the field against Rice,' or, 'Let's get him competing for a starting position.'"

New faces must step up as spring opens

February, 28, 2014
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brian Kelly got into his car on Friday morning and saw that the outside temperature was minus-8 degrees -- as if there was any doubt Notre Dame would be indoors on Monday when the Irish commence Kelly's fifth spring here.

What he will see, though, are more new faces in new places than he probably has during his Irish tenure. And he's anxious to see who rises up from a team that said early goodbyes to three juniors after the 2013 season and welcomes two new staff members.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsBrian Kelly is looking for some new faces to step forward in the spring.
"In an ideal world you'd want your best players to be your best leaders," Kelly said. "Sometimes that's not the case, so you observe daily and find out who those guys are and you try to cultivate those individuals. I think with this group in '14 our best players can be our best leaders and they may not all be seniors. I think we've got some great seniors, I think all of our seniors are committed, but we may have some great underclassmen who are great leaders, too."

The additions of assistants Matt LaFleur (quarterbacks) and Brian Van Gorder (defensive coordinator) have given the staff more flexibility as well, as Kelly said Friday that Kerry Cooks will now coach the entire secondary, not just the cornerbacks, while Bob Elliott will move from safeties coach to outside linebackers coach. Kelly also added graduate assistants in former NFL fullback Ryan Mahaffey (offense), former Irish safety Kyle McCarthy (defense) and Mike Hiestand (defense), son of current Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

As for switches on the field: Matthias Farley has moved from safety to corner, John Turner has gone from safety to outside linebacker, James Onwualu has moved from receiver to safety, Will Mahone has moved from running back to receiver, and Amir Carlisle is now a runner and a receiver. Everett Golson, meanwhile, has returned at a listed 200 pounds, 15 pounds heavier from his listed playing weight from 2012.

Personnel notes: Tony Springmann (ACL, infection) and Devin Butler (shoulder) are out for spring. … Nick Martin (MCL) and Ben Councell (ACL) will be limited to non-contact. … Nicky Baratti, Chase Hounshell and Doug Randolph (all shoulders) are good to go. … Receiver Luke Massa will not return for a fifth season after initially planning to come back. Kelly said Massa had received a job offer that was too good to pass up.

Kelly on Shembo: Kelly addressed Prince Shembo's comments during last weekend's NFL combine, when the former Irish linebacker said the coach told him not to talk in school about the the Lizzy Seeberg investigation.

"That was a collaborative decision," Kelly said Friday. "I don't make any decisions independent when it comes to major decisions at this university. The head football coach works in concert with our administration, so we made a decision based upon the information that we had that we felt it was in Prince's best interest that this was not a matter that needed to be discussed, but that was certainly something that he could've decided to discuss. We didn't threaten him with, he couldn't play or we were going to put him on the bench or throw him out of school. It was still his decision. But talking to his parents and talking to Prince we felt because of the information that we had in front of us that it was a matter that be left alone at the time."

Position battles to watch: No. 1

February, 21, 2014
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.
Brian Kelly reiterated Friday that he will again call plays next season. New quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur will have full autonomy over his signal callers in the meeting room. And new offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock will put it all together and oversee the entire offense.

That was the blueprint laid out during a joint news conference to announce Notre Dame's finalized staff for the 2014 season, with LaFleur coming over from the Washington Redskins and Denbrock adding more to his plate after coaching the Irish's outside receivers for the past two seasons (and tight ends in the two seasons before that).

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesHead coach Brian Kelly will call the plays this fall for Notre Dame.
"We're transitioning back to an offense that I feel is best suited for the personnel that we have, and I think it's important to really get that philosophy and influence back into the offense, and I know it the best," Kelly said. "And then, once we're able to lay that in there, I think it will give everyone a great visual look of what that offense will look like, and I think it starts with me. I think it's important that if I want that offense to have the look, it's important that I have the influence in some fashion, and this is the best way to do it."

Kelly also shed some light on personnel matters, saying that linebacker Doug Randolph (shoulder), end Chase Hounshell (shoulder) and offensive lineman John Montelus (shoulder) were all expected to be ready for spring ball come March 3. Safety Nicky Baratti, who, like the other three players, missed all of 2013 with a shoulder injury, will be cleared for contact this spring but might be held until the fall as a precautionary measure.

Defensive lineman Tony Springman (ACL, infection) is progressing but has not been cleared for spring ball just yet after missing all of 2013, nor has linebacker Jarrett Grace (broken leg), with Kelly saying that Grace's recovery is taking a bit more time because he broke a bone in four different places when he left the field Oct. 5 against Arizona State.

Kelly did add that linebacker Ben Councell (ACL) and center Nick Martin (MCL) are both exceeding expectations, though neither is expected to be available this spring after suffering their injuries late in the season.

Notes: Kelly said that Notre Dame will still operate out of a 3-4 base under new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, though it will again be about a 50-50 split based on personnel. … Fifth-year players will not be announced until after national signing day, following usual protocol, though Kelly said those players know where they stand. and other outlets have reported that Austin Collinsworth, Christian Lombard, Kendall Moore and Justin Utupo are the four fifth-year players who will be back for 2014. … Kelly said he still needs to fill out one more graduate assistant position. Former Irish and NFL safety Kyle McCarthy tweeted earlier Friday that he will be a GA this season.

Notre Dame mailblog

January, 24, 2014
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.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Brian Kelly's facial expression said it all.

Asked about Stephon Tuitt's ejection -- and not for the first or last time Tuesday -- the Notre Dame coach stood in bemusement trying to figure out why his defensive end was not even allowed to stay on the sideline for the rest of Saturday's game at Pitt after his second-quarter targeting penalty.

A follow-up question from another reporter about why Tuitt's penalty could not be for the next game, given the amount of reviewing, at least drew words out of Kelly. But the confusion from the Irish losing arguably their most talented player one play into the second quarter of an eventual loss had hardly subsided nearly 72 hours after the fact.

[+] EnlargeStephon Tuitt
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesStephon Tuitt was ejected from Saturday's loss to Pitt, something Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly still struggles to understand.
"Look, you're talking to somebody who's got two guys thrown out of games this year, so you know where I fall on this one," Kelly said. "I am for player safety. I am for making sure that in this game of football that we do everything to protect the integrity of the game.

"We don't have it right yet. We need to get it right. Hopefully we'll be able to get it right."

The ACC told the Chicago Tribune on Monday that coordinator of officials Doug Rhoads said the ejection of Tuitt -- who laid a seemingly unintentional helmet-to-helmet hit on Panthers quarterback Tom Savage during a scramble -- was warranted.

Kelly said that Tuitt was confused when the two spoke at halftime, though the 312-pounder will not miss any action Nov. 23 against BYU since the call came in the first half.

Notre Dame will continue to coach its players to be aggressive, Kelly said, though the staff never directs them to punish offensive players or lead with their helmets. He does not think the targeting rule was meant for plays like the one that cost Tuitt the final three quarters of Saturday's game.

"Clearly we're going to have to look at the rule in greater detail after the season because we don't want to take that out of the game," Kelly said. "We don't want to take that effort out of the game, we don't want to take guys selling out trying to make plays out of the game, so targeting as we all know it, is somebody dialing-in intentionally to try to injure somebody, and we clearly know that that wasn't the case in that instance. So we've got some work to do with the legislation and hopefully we'll be able to clean that up after the season."

The Irish had lost Ben Councell to the targeting call in the fourth quarter of a Sept. 28 loss to Oklahoma, which forced the linebacker to sit for the first half of the following week's game against Arizona State.

And, according to Irish Illustrated, the Irish lost more than a yard per play without Tuitt at Pitt, as it surrendered 3.7 yards per play with the junior in and 4.9 yards per play with him out.

"When you watch college football, one of the bigger problems that we have is that it's being interpreted differently, right?" Kelly said. "And one of the things that we've tried so hard to rectify in officiating is to be more universal in our interpretations. Now, we've got one out there that is looked at differently by conference. So we have a problem. We all recognize that. It's a real shame that a young man misses a game, and I think we all recognize it has to be dealt with, but we just can't deal with it until the end of the year."

Kelly said he hopes he can be among a group of reasonable people whose voices are heard on the matter this offseason, with intent being the key distinction that should be considered for clearer interpretation moving forward.

"I really didn't want him to get kicked out -- like the 15 yards, yeah, maybe, but going to the locker room, kicking him out of the game like he intentionally tried to kill a guy, I didn't like that," nose guard Louis Nix said. "But it's a rule, and we've got to stay by the rules and do better at tackling, I guess."

What we learned: Week 11

November, 10, 2013
Here is what we take away from Notre Dame's 28-21 loss at Pittsburgh on Saturday:

1. Bye-bye BCS. People cans top working out the BCS scenarios. The Irish suffered a third and brutal loss, with two games left in the regular season. It is too early to put into perspective what kind of season this is/was for Notre Dame, but we can safely say that it won't be going to a major bowl game for the second straight season. Destinations could be New York, Detroit or perhaps San Diego for the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl, which now has an available spot after Army lost Saturday to Western Kentucky to fall to 3-7.

2. Close-game magic disappears. Notre Dame entered Saturday having won 10 straight games decided by seven points or fewer. That streak has come to an end with a loss in which the Irish turned the ball over three times and could not make the big plays late to stave off the upset. The Irish get a week off for another bye week and must re-group, as the physicality BYU and Stanford will bring in the final two weeks scream tight games all over them.

3. Targeting call rears ugly head. Notre Dame fell victim to the targeting ejection rule for the second time this year, as Ben Councell was ejected late in the Oklahoma game, and Stephon Tuitt got tossed after a hit on Tom Savage on Saturday. The call will be debated endlessly, but the Irish are lucky it happened in the first half and that Tuitt will be available for the full game against BYU in two weeks. And the future first-round draft pick might just be the highest-profile player in the country to get tossed for the new rule, which surely will be discussed more this offseason.

Five things: Notre Dame-Pitt

November, 9, 2013
No. 23 Notre Dame visits Pitt tonight (8 ET/ABC) to renew a rivalry that has featured no shortage of close calls in recent years. Here are five things to watch when the two teams square off at Heinz Field.

Injured guys. Yes, we're starting here again. Warmups every week during a Notre Dame game have become all the more important for watching who lines up where, and next to whom. Chris Watt (PCL tear) practiced this week and is expected back at left guard. Sheldon Day (ankle) and Louis Nix III (knee tendinitis/small meniscus tear) are both expected to play again on the defensive line as well, though to what extent, we do not know. Then there is safety Austin Collinsworth, who is cleared to play after suffering a neck strain during last week's game against Navy. Brian Kelly says that Elijah Shumate is fine after a hamstring injury kept him out of the last three games.

Tarean Folston. Everyone had been waiting for a Notre Dame running back to break out the way Folston did last week against Navy. The freshman carried the ball 18 times for 140 yards and ran it in for the go-ahead, one-yard touchdown with less than four minutes to play. Pitt's defenses won't be as forgiving as Navy's, but it will be interesting to see if Folston can build off his career day or if this was just a flash in the pan, as the Irish certainly could use a consistent force in the backfield.

Tight end play. These guys have certainly risen to the occasion this year. No one is replacing Tyler Eifert's production -- nor were they expected to after the captain was drafted in the first round -- but Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack continue to improve every week. Niklas has 22 catches for 372 yards and five touchdowns and, as seen last week, has become much more aggressive as a blocker. Koyack, meanwhile, has seen the ball come his way much more in recent weeks, as he has scored three touchdowns in the Irish's last four games. They take plenty of pressure off a passing game that has often been too reliant on TJ Jones, and another strong outing can further stretch the defense.

Aaron Donald. The Pitt defensive tackle just might be the best interior lineman in the country this season. He leads the nation in tackles for loss (2.4 per game) and is third in sacks (1.1), in addition to forcing three fumbles. At 6-foot, 285-pounds, he is not overwhelming with his size, but he certainly can change the game, as evidenced by last week's performance at Georgia Tech -- 11 total tackles, six tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and one sack. The six TFLs were the most in a game by an FBS player this season. To put that into perspective, the Yellow Jackets ran 63 plays, meaning nearly 10 percent of their plays ended with Donald making a tackle in the backfield.

Defensive newcomers. Nix and Day should play, but we don't know how much. Jarron Jones, Tyler Stockton, Justin Utupo and Isaac Rochell all have seen more time lately because of the injuries across the line. Ben Councell is also done for the year (ACL tear), Ishaq Williams is out for at least this game with a different ACL injury, and there is the chance that Collinsworth and Shumate could be limited (or not play), as well. Romeo Okwara and Eilar Hardy are among the reserves who have seen much more action in recent weeks, and they will need to step up again in order to contain a dangerous Pitt passing attack.

What we learned: Week 10

November, 3, 2013
Here is what we take away from Notre Dame's 38-34 win over Navy.

1. Depth further tested. Ben Councell's left knee was wrapped as he was carted off the field at the end of the game. Sheldon Day and Kona Schwenke both left with undisclosed injuries. We should know more when coach Brian Kelly holds his day-after-game teleconference this afternoon, but for a defense that has been ravaged by injuries up front, this was the last thing the Irish needed to deal with.

2. Forget about this one and move on. Frankly, there's not much to take from a football perspective after two option-games since the Irish won't see anything like them again. They escaped with a win, albeit an ugly win, and their BCS goals are still in front of them with three games left to play. All of the defensive players sounded relieved to not have to face Air Force or Navy again, happy to have two more wins under their belts as they head to Pitt.

3. Tight end play improving. Ben Koyack caught two passes for 34 yards and scored a touchdown for the third time in four games. Troy Niklas had two catches for 44 yards and looks -- shall we say? -- more spirited as a blocker. Koyack's improvement, in particular, has been big, and he had a nice block on Cam McDaniel's touchdown as well.
Notre Dame escaped Air Force relatively unscathed, despite some close calls.

Chris Watt (knee) and Sheldon Day (ankle) are both probable for this Saturday's game against Navy, Brian Kelly said Sunday, while Ishaq Williams (knee) is doubtful.

Kelly also said Louis Nix III is questionable after not traveling to Saturday's game because of knee tendinitis.

[+] EnlargeTommy Rees
Andy Cross/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesNotre Dame's makeshift offensive line protected Tommy Rees well against Air Force.
"When you're playing an option team, as I said to you last week, it's really about getting out there and getting acclimated to what you're going to see," Kelly said during a teleconference. "If he has a few days of practice where we really like it, I could change that. But I would say it's questionable right now."

Ronnie Stanley also left Saturday's game, but Kelly said he was not concerned about his status moving forward.

Stanley and Watt were the latest injuries to an offensive line that was dealt a major blow earlier this week when right guard Christian Lombard was shut down for the season after having surgery to remove a herniated disc in his back. True freshman Steve Elmer started for Lombard but later found himself at right tackle in place of Stanley, with Matt Hegarty moving up to the right guard spot.

Conor Hanratty replaced Watt at left guard.

Romeo Okwara would appear to be the next man in at the No. 2 cat linebacker position in place of Williams, who actually started against the Falcons as a down lineman. But Kelly is keeping his options open.

"Well, we lost him really in the first couple drives. We played Romeo quite a bit," Kelly said. "We played Ben Councell. Justin Utupo played very well for us. We got a lot of guys involved."

Kelly sounded less worried about his team not being ranked in the latest AP poll, though the Irish are No. 25 in the coaches' poll.

"I think we're still in a pretty good position as long as we win," he said. "We've got to win more football games. We're only 6-2. I think if we take care of business and win week after week, we've got some quality teams in front of us, I think we're right where we need to be. Just keep winning football games. I really believe that as long as we just take care of week to week, we're going to be fine when it's all said and done."
Brian Kelly wants his team to do the ordinary things better. If Notre Dame did that through five games, the Irish may be 5-0, as they have a "razor thin" margin for error that they were able to tread successfully during their perfect 2012 regular season.

Kelly recently showed his players clips of last season's tight home wins against Purdue, BYU and Pitt -- three games decided by one possession -- in order to drive that point home.

He hopes they keep that in the back of their minds as they prepare this week and try to forget about the fact that there will be no repeat national title game run.

"We've been together. These guys have been together for four years and it's the constant day-in and day-out relationships," Kelly said during his Tuesday press conference. "Everybody knows what's expected. Everybody knows what to do on a day-to-day basis. Again, I think when you're talking about a program that has won a lot of football games over the last couple of years, they just want to go out and play better football, that's really their goal.

"It's interesting and we talked a little about this: They're not walking around campus flashing their 12-0 rings. They don't have a 12-0 ring. They're not wearing a conference champion ring. They have an immense amount of pride of what they accomplished, that's what drives them, is winning, and they want to win. They want to win football games. They can play good football week-in and week-out, so what drives them, what the goal is for them is to go out and prepare and play good football week-in and week-out. Not what the the destination is for one game, not whether they play in Florida or Texas. It's taking that week of preparation and going out on a Saturday and playing really well and the satisfaction of doing that."

Notes: Sheldon Day (ankle sprain) is expected to be ready Saturday after missing the last two games. … Ben Councell's targeting appeal was denied so he will miss the first half of the Arizona State game after his fourth-quarter ejection against Oklahoma. … Kelly did not know how the government shutdown could possibly affect the Irish's games at Air Force (Oct. 26) and against Navy (Nov. 2), but he did joke that he would love to replace one of those games with an FCS opponent if it came down to that: "I'd probably be one vote in a room of probably 'Nos.' " Notre Dame has never faced an FCS school.

Kelly: No alma mater after home losses

September, 29, 2013
No alma mater after a loss.

That's Notre Dame's new home-game policy, instituted two years ago and cleared up Sunday by coach Brian Kelly during his teleconference, a day after some postgame confusion ensued following the Irish's 35-21 home loss to Oklahoma, with some players leaving immediately before most bee-lined toward the student section to engage in song.

The Irish's 10-game home winning streak was snapped by the Sooners so the players were not exactly versed in this exercise.

"A lot of our players were confused because they hadn't lost, a lot of them had never lost at home, and they weren't sure what to do," Kelly said. "I didn't communicate it to them clearly, what the protocol was, but we changed that protocol two years ago after a loss.

"We don't stay out on the field to sing the alma mater. We come in. And that wasn't communicated clearly. I wasn't thinking about losing a football game; it wasn't on my to-do list to go over with my team. It's a protocol we changed a couple years ago that we do not stay out on the field after the alma mater to sing after a loss."

Former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis had started the routine in the 2006 season, his second with the Irish.

"I just don't think it's appropriate to put your players after a defeat in a situation where they're exposed," Kelly said Sunday. "I want to get them in the locker room. It's important to talk to them, and I just felt like in those situations, after a loss, there's a lot of emotions. It's important to get the team back into the locker room and get them under my guidance."

Notes: Kelly will talk to ACC officials about Ben Councell's second-half ejection Saturday for targeting. Councell, by rule, has to sit the first half this coming Saturday against Arizona State. Romeo Okwara will likely take his spot as the No. 2 Dog linebacker. … Sheldon Day "tweaked" his ankle during warmups against Oklahoma, causing Kelly to sit him after he missed last week with an ankle sprain. TJ Jones "rolled" his ankle Saturday but should be fine moving forward. … Greg Bryant did not play because of a knee injury suffered this past week. … Tommy Rees is "certainly" Notre Dame's starting quarterback, with Andrew Hendrix serving as a complementary piece. Kelly said that, barring an injury situation to either signal-caller, he'd prefer not to play freshman Malik Zaire this season.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Word was that Jaylon Smith clocked in a 4.4 40-time at the Best of the Midwest camp two winters ago in Indianapolis. By the time he completes his freshman year at Notre Dame, that number might very well be re-told as a 4.2 or 4.3. By the time he finishes his college career, presumably to fulfill expectations at the next level, his legend might just reach comical proportions.

[+] EnlargeJaylon Smith
AP Photo/Scott BoehmFormer five-star recruit Jaylon Smith has lived up to the hype thus far, starting immediately as a freshman.
"I'm not sure how accurate it was," Mike Ledo, Smith's trainer at AWP Sports Performance in Fort Wayne, Ind., said with a laugh. "Then he went out to face a top lineman there and was rushing off the edge and killing the lineman. Then he ran over to 1-on-1s with receivers and defensive backs, and he was shutting down the top receivers there as a corner.

"It was pretty evident there: To dominate bigs, and then go over and play cornerbacks at his size, was impressive."

For the record, Smith, ESPN's No. 7 overall prospect last year, was credited with a 4.59 40-time upon completing his prep work at Bishop Luers. And he has since started all four games for the Fighting Irish this season at Dog linebacker, perhaps the most complicated position in coordinator Bob Diaco's 3-4 scheme.

The precocious 6-foot-3, 230-pounder has tallied 11 total tackles, including one for loss, to go with a pass breakup and a pass defended, illustrating downfield skills that helped him rally from No. 3 to No. 1 on the depth chart over the course of preseason camp.

"He always trained with my DBs, so I helped him develop great cover skills," Ledo said. "He texted me in camp thanking me so much for helping him cover; apparently that was the difference to get on field: His ability, at 6-3, to cover in space, kind of like a safety. That was the expectation."

Starter Danny Spond's early retirement because of migraines left Smith battling 6-foot-5, 254-pound redshirt sophomore Ben Councell. Ledo, apparently, was the one who informed Smith that he was No. 1 on Notre Dame's initial depth chart heading into the opener against Temple.

Smith, meeting the media for the first time on Wednesday, said any butterflies he had disappeared after the first series against the Owls.

"After the first series, really," Smith said. "I was really pumped up. I knew all the fighting songs and things like that. I went to about every home game last year, so I was really just anticipating everything and it was fun."

The football part has, in some ways, been the easiest part of Smith's transition. He did not enroll until June, and he said that learning how to balance his time off the field has been the biggest adjustment.

"He's impressive. He can come in and do all the things he's done, obviously as a freshman, and he's a very mature guy, very physically mature guy," safety Matthias Farley said. "So I think he's gotten a lot more comfortable in his role throughout the last couple weeks and he's continued to improve each and every week, so the sky's the limit for him and he's obviously playing very well."

Spond, who has remained with the Irish as a student-coach, announced his retirement to the team after an Aug. 17 practice. Smith said the only thoughts that hit him at that time were for Spond and his long-term health. Exactly two weeks later, Smith was taking the field with the Irish for their first defensive snap of the season.

Mistakes have followed since, Smith said, but thoughts of the future and its promise have helped him put minimal gaffes behind and allowed the freshman to press on toward a career as promising as any of the Brian Kelly era.

"I have a long way to go but I think I'm on the right track, and really just worried abut tomorrow and just getting out on the field, continuing to stay healthy," Smith said. "It's a 12-13 week season, so it's something that I've been quite used to, winning four state championships. But it's a different level. You have to go hard every play here."
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brian Kelly has said in the past that he believed Manti Te'o should not have been starting as a freshman. Kelly got to coach Te'o, one of the most celebrated additions in Notre Dame history, for the linebacker's final three seasons with the Irish. Te'o, for the uninitiated, finished his career as the Heisman Trophy runner-up.

Tuesday's initial depth chart lists another celebrated freshman with the first team in five-star linebacker Jaylon Smith.

Kelly noted during his Tuesday news conference that Smith is asked to do different things at the dog linebacker than Te'o was at the mike, but Smith's name atop the depth chart nonetheless speaks volumes.

"Consistent performance," Kelly said of Smith. "It's a different position. Manti was in a four-down defense; we were going into three-down defense. Jaylon's playing on the edge of a defense, asked to do a lot of different things.

"Probably not a fair comparison, other than they're both great freshmen players. Jaylon's asked to do a different job, plays so well in space, very smart player, plays instinctively. I think the one thing that Jaylon has done as well as a lot freshmen that I've been around [is] he doesn't make the same mistake twice."

Smith is one of three first-time starters listed atop the defensive depth chart, joining end Sheldon Day and safety Austin Collinsworth, whom Kelly said was more of a "1A" to Elijah Shumate's "1B."

Offensive positions of note include Christian Lombard starting at right guard, with Ronnie Stanley at right tackle, a position Kelly deemed "fluid" while noting that true freshman Steve Elmer will also likely play Saturday and eventually could start.

The second-team running back is a three-way battle among Amir Carlisle, Cam McDaniel and true freshman Greg Bryant. Will Mahone is out Saturday because of a high ankle sprain.

Smith was able to ascend over Ben Councell for the No. 1 spot at drop linebacker after starter Danny Spond retired during camp because of hemiplegic migraines. And Kelly made it clear that nothing was handed to the No. 7-ranked player in the ESPN 300 upon his summer arrival.

"He had to work for it — it was Danny Spond, it was Councell and it was Jaylon Smith; it didn't start the other way around. So he was No. 3 on the depth chart when he ran out there," Kelly said, adding, "He went out and he did his job, so he comes from a good family, he comes from a great program where they obviously did a great job of teaching him how to go about and do his thing and he's been great and he's put himself in a position now to do some great things."


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