Notre Dame football notebook: Growing pains, gains for frosh Smith

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- He spent the live scrimmage periods at Notre Dame football practice Thursday gelling with the likes of Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt and Prince Shembo.

Jaylon Smith was a 1, just as he was most of Saturday during a practice open to the media and Notre Dame faculty. That after the nation’s No. 3 recruit overall in the last cycle started August training camp in Marion, Ind., with a seemingly impeded path into the ND two-deeps.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly was even open to seeing him shift perhaps to inside linebacker or even situational running back to get the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Bishop Luers product on the field somehow, somewhere.

For such a high-pedigreed prospect — his recruiting profile sparkled more coming out of high school than preseason All-America defensive end Stephon Tuitt, more than program-transformer Manti Te’o, more than the handful of five-star phenoms who have in recent months

found the emergency exit door out of ND — the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Smith has moved up the drop (outside) linebacker depth chart rather inconspicuously.

And now?

Well, now his status and that of junior Ben Councell remain fluid, just barely a week before Notre Dame opens its 2013 season against Temple.

Incumbent starter Danny Spond ceded his spot less than a week ago, citing concerns over lingering and paralyzing hemiplegic migraines. But behind closed doors, Spond’s status had been in limbo since the end of camp’s first week. And Councell — by several accounts the most improved player on the defense last spring — and Smith started sharing reps them.

Kelly paints the picture of a time-share arrangement moving forward, asserting the 6-4, 255-pound Councell matches up better with smash-mouth power teams and Smith being the stronger option against teams that spread out the defense and force those players to play in space.

Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has a more colorful depiction.

“One’s a flat-head screwdriver and one’s a Phillips head screwdriver,” he said, “So when you have a screw that you need to screw in that has a Phillips head, you better grab the Phillips head screwdriver.”

The caveat with Smith is that his world changes on Monday, and Diaco needs to see how much he changes in relation to that.

“Classes are going to start,” Diaco pointed out. “It’s going to be the first day he’s got to go to class at Notre Dame AND football practice — and what’s that going to look like?”

Notre Dame’s player development model has room for freshmen, but Diaco sees accelerating the process as a slippery slope. He said he played Tuitt and former Irish defensive end Aaron Lynch as true freshmen in 2011 out of necessity, but wasn’t so sure some of that exposure didn’t set them back for a while.

That’s why he’ll be watching Smith closely the first part of next week, with White-Out handy to slide him up or down on the depth chart.

“I don’t like to talk too much on the negative side of the ledger or the positive side of the ledger as it relates to those guys,” Diaco said, “because I have an expectation that at some point in time, they’re going to conduct their business like freshmen, which is what they are, and that’s OK. That’s just what it is.”

Tuitt gets a scare

ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit’s “All-Herbie” team may have been the first of the plethora of preseason All-America teams not to include a single Notre Dame football player.

Junior Stephon Tuitt may qualify as the biggest snub, but for a brief few moments Thursday Herbstreit almost looked prophetic.

Toward the end of the wide media window at practice, Tuitt got tangled up with Irish linebacker Carlo Calabrese, with both players crumpling to the ground. Only Calabrese got up immediately.

Eventually Tuitt shook off the pain and walked off the field under his own power.

“We didn’t see anything major there,” Kelly said. “He just twisted his knee. (Team doctor) Brian Ratigan saw him after practice. We’re not concerned at all.”

More than a scare

As expected, an MRI revealed that junior defensive end Tony Springmann’s knee injury is serious enough to require season-ending surgery. Springmann had been battling to be the top reserve end behind starters Tuitt and Sheldon Day.

“He had a dislocation that also had severe ligament damage, “ Kelly said. “It alters our depth a little bit. We’re going to have to push (freshman) Isaac Rochell most likely into action this year.

“We were hoping that we could be a little more patient with Isaac, but we’re going to have to really accelerate that learning curve for Isaac this year.”

More personnel matters

*Sophomore Ronnie Stanley, pushing for the starting right tackle spot, was held out of practice Thursday while recovering from a concussion.

In Stanley’s place, Kelly elected to plug true freshman Steve Elmer in rather than going with junior guard Conor Hanratty and sliding senior Christian Lombard over to his old tackle spot.

“Steve Elmer has done a great job there,” said Kelly, who had the 6-6, 317-pounder from Midland, Mich. subbing in with the first unit at left guard Saturday with Chris Watt out that day. “I think everybody knows about his ability to go in there and compete .“

Kelly said if all goes according to plan, Stanley should be back on the practice field on Monday.

Backup guard Mark Harrell was held out of contact on Thursday.

**Junior Josh Atkinson, who had been sliding backward on the depth chart at cornerback recently, was auditioning at wide receiver Thursday.

The move is not necessarily permanent, Kelly said, though he hopes it works out to be so.

“He’s not getting a ton of reps at cornerback, so we’re going to look at him on offense and see if he can be another guy who can take the top off a defense,” he said. “We know he’s fast. We’ll see if he can catch.”

***Junior George Atkinson retained his job of lead kickoff returner, but the Irish have a semi-surprise at punt returns to try to raise their No. 116 national standing in that category (out of 120 FBS teams).

Senior wide receiver TJ Jones emerged from a group that included running backs Amir Carlisle, Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston.

“He wants to return punts,” Kelly said. “It’s important to him. He’s got the skill for it as well. Obviously, it’s going to build his résumé. That’s fine with me. But he’s got that passion for wanting to do it.

“And he’s immediately impacted that punt return team. They block a little different for guys that want to do it and can have some success with it. We’ve already seen an uptick in the guys that want to be on that team.”

****Freshman cornerback Devin Butler has changed uniform numbers from 36 to 12.

Follow the leaders

Kelly announced fifth-year senior offensive tackle Zack Martin, senior wide receiver TJ Jones and senior cornerback Bennett Jackson as captains for the 2013 season. Martin is a repeat captain from last year, becoming the 18th two-timer in school history.

“We measure greatness in so many different ways,” Kelly aid of Martin, “but I think one of those is to up the game of others around you. The stories that I’ve heard this summer are absolutely incredible.”

The stories are about how the veteran players generally finished their workouts in the summer an hour to hour and a half before the freshmen would show up to start theirs. However, Martin coaxed the veteran linemen to stick around so that they could work with the freshman linemates and help accelerate their growth.

“That just does not happen, but because of him he’s been able to up the play of all of our younger players exponentially,” Kelly said.

Alive and kicking

Nick Tausch may have finally caught a second wind.

A freshman sensation at place-kicking four years ago, Tausch suffered an injury, lost his mental edge and ultimately lost his job toward the end of the 2009 season.

He was a long shot to even be invited back for a fifth year, even with a career 16-of-19 accuracy (84.2 percent) on field goals, with a long of 46 yards. Fourteen of those field goals came in succession in 2009, setting a school record, which was later broken by his replacement, David Ruffer.

Kyle Brindza aced Tausch out of the job last year, and connected on 23-of-31 field goals (74.1 percent), but Tausch was the most accurate kicker in training camp and will get first crack at the job in the opener against Temple.

Brindza will kick off and share punting duties with Wake Forest transfer Alex Wulfeck.

Kelly said it’s not inconceivable, though, that Brindza could end up doing all three jobs eventually.

“I really think he can be an All American punter,” Kelly said of Brindza. “He may not be there yet, and we’re going to have some growing pains there. But we have a guy in Wulfeck that can get us out of some jams. He’s really consistent.

“Kyle’s been a bit distracted, because we’ve asked him to put all this time and energy in punting. So what we’re going to do is going into the first game, I’m going to give Nick an opportunity to kick. Kyle’s going to kick off, because he’s won that clearly. He’s going to punt, and we’re going to use the Temple game to get all three of them (including Wulfeck) some action,. And then we’ll make a decision in game two as to where we are.”

The plan for Golson

The deeper into former starting quarterback Everett Golson’s exile he gets, the more defined his fall plan becomes and the more certain his return to be the starter in 2014 appears to be.

Golson was suspended for summer term and fall semester from school and the football team for academic misconduct. The junior is on track to be reinstated in January.

“I talked to him (Wednesday),” Kelly said. “He’s been working out in Chicago. His plan right now is to spend some time with George Whitfield. George is an established quarterback coach out in San Diego. He’s planning on spending probably two months out there in San Diego to really work.

“I think that’s during most of the inclement weather time, and then he’ll be back in the Midwest probably around Thanksgiving and then settle back here in Notre Dame around the holidays.”

Golson will not be taking any classes.

One for the ages

Notre Dame Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lujack still has the magic touch — but on the golf course.

On Wednesday, the 88-year-old former Irish quarterback scored his eighth lifetime hole-in-one, this time playing at the Crow Valley Country Club in Davenport, Iowa, so reported by the Notre Dame Monogram Club.

Head coach Brian Kelly's best signing day haul came in the 2013 class which included five-star linebacker Jaylon Smith (right). Photo courtesy of The Fort Wayne News-Sentinel