Notre Dame football: Success is hardly spoiling Nix

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- Leave it to Louis Nix to turn the trite “better, stronger faster” plot line into a money quote.

Are you faster?

“I hope so,” said the Notre Dame senior nose guard, the new face and voice of Irish football and one who never has been much for the company line.

How fast are you?

“Fast enough. I could beat coach (Brian) Kelly in a race.”

Will you challenge him this week?

“No, I don’t want to hurt him. That’s an old guy.”

Luckily for the 6-foot-3, 357-pound Nix, the 51-year-old Kelly’s sense-of-humor threshold is probably at its highest point of the next five months as 11th-ranked Notre Dame opens fall training camp Monday afternoon 100 miles away at the rustic Shiloh Park Retreat and Conference Center in Marion, Ind.

Rumors about spotty Wi-Fi on the four-day field trip have Nix, a serial tweeter on Twitter, a bit concerned. That’s where Louis Nix’s steady but steep ascent has taken him. This indeed might constitute the closest thing to a preseason crisis for him.

It’s a far cry from the seismic headaches he was dealing with three years ago at this juncture, not the least of which were the cumbersome self doubts about whether he could make it at Notre Dame either academically or athletically.

Culture shock consumed him. His admitted immaturity and short fuse didn’t help.

In fact, had it not been for Nix’s mom, Stephanie Wingfield, threatening Nix that she would not let him back in the house if he parachuted out of ND, the saga would very likely have ended then and there.

Instead, Nix has become the darling of the preseason award watch lists this summer, seemingly making every one of them save the Davey O’Brien (quarterbacks) lineup. Then again, neither did ND’s actual No. 1 quarterback, senior Tommy Rees.

Nix, who scored on a two-point conversion scramble as a QB in the Blue-Gold Game last April, is even more prevalent on the preseason All-America teams and NFL mock drafts for May of 2014.

The flood of attention is enough to make even the toughest-minded standouts go soft. With Nix, though, it actually seems to be pushing him in the opposite direction, toward an even higher level of play.

“I think when we gave him the opportunity to play quarterback in the spring game, I think it changed him,” Kelly said with a chuckle.

But seriously ...

“Here is a young man that knows, in his last season of competition, it's his chance to make his mark,” Kelly said. “It's his opportunity to help lead a football team back to a championship. He knows it can be done.

“So then it becomes on him to be that guy on the field every snap. ... When your best player is on the field every snap, you're a better football team. He committed to that. That's him making that conscious decision that he wanted to be that guy.”

Helping to drive him there was remembering those humble times three years ago.

“I talk to the freshmen about that,” Nix said. “Every time I see the freshmen, I ask them, ‘Are you missing home? Do you feel this type of way? Do you think the work is too hard?’

“And I’m always telling them, ‘You get what you put in.’ ”

In those darker times, Nix craved attention to the point he actually went to the sports information staff at ND and let them know he had plenty to say that the world wants to know about.

He was right. Nix’s lens on ND football is never choreographed, never too far off the mark and definitely never boring.

Nix, for instance, has nicknamed freshman running back and fellow Floridian Tarean Folston “Tarzan” for reasons even he can’t explain and has dubbed him one of the newcomers that have caught his attention.

He has no nickname for Rees, who replaces exiled 2012 starter Everett Golson as the No. 1 quarterback. But Nix does have a take on the senior going into his 19th career start against Temple on Aug. 31.

“I mean, Tommy is Tommy,” Nix said. “He does a lot of good things and, like any other human being, he does a lot of bad things. At the same time, Tommy is a leader. Tommy will put a team on his back. No matter what happens, Tommy just stays focused, and he’s one of those guys that he doesn’t get shaken at all.

“He’s one of those guys that we enjoy having on the team and can’t wait to see what he does in camp.”

Kelly, for one, knows what he’ll likely get out of Nix. He also knows that Nix and backups Kona Schwenke and Tyler Stockton will all likely exit the roster after this season.

So one of the more intriguing subplots of the season, as the Irish try to become a program that can sustain success, is finding the next Louis Nix.

If he’s not already on the roster at another position, then the Irish will try to land one in its 2014 recruiting class. So far Matt Dickerson (6-5, 260) of San Mateo, Calif., and Jay Hayes (6-5, 270) of Brooklyn, N.Y., are possibilities to develop into that kind of player.

Two turn-key solutions remain in play, in five-star prospects Matt Elam (6-6, 350) of Elizabethtown, Ky., and Thomas Holley (6-4, 295) of Brooklyn’s Abraham Lincoln High — the same school that produced Irish outside linebacker Ishaq Williams.

ND is perceived to be in Elam’s top three, though Alabama and home-state Kentucky probably have the inside track. The Irish figure to be in Holley’s top four, but again there’s work to be done to get to the top spot.

“You're not going to get that kind of guy every year, where he's got that frame, that first-step quickness that can dominate at the line of scrimmage,” Kelly said of Nix. “It's a hard position to find. “But you can project to that.

“You can find somebody that is maybe 260, 265 that can work into that kind of position if he has some of the other intangibles.

“It's hard to find that guy that's ready-made. A lot of times you have to develop them. We developed Louis in a sense, as well. He was big. He had some of those prototypical nose guard characteristics. We expect to do that with the next guy.”

SBT Photo/MIKE HARTMAN Caption: Notre Dame defensive lineman Louis Nix won't let celebrity go to his head.