Notre Dame football notebook: Irish face tough challenge in Bell

Eric Hansen

SOUTH BEND - Brian Kelly never really had the chance to size up what Blake Bell might look like in a Notre Dame uniform.

It will be no consolation to see him at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday.

That’s because Bell will be the starting quarterback for the other team – the 14th-ranked Oklahoma Sooners (3-0) – who will look to knock 22nd-ranked Notre Dame (3-1) out of the Top 25, snap the Irish home win streak at 10 and record just the second win for Oklahoma in the surprisingly lopsided series led by Notre Dame, 9-1.

The one-time Irish recruiting target will also be purportedly the fifth dual-threat quarterback the Irish defense will have to solve in as many games this season.

“You've got to minimize the big plays off of that attack,” said Kelly, Notre Dame’s fourth-year head football coach. “You've got to be sound and fundamental and contained. You can't give up easy runs. I think that's really what it comes down to: when the quarterback is running the football, you've got to make sure that you're minimizing their ability to get big plays.”

It’s a lesson that was easier in theory than in practice earlier in the season. In his first collegiate start, Temple’s Connor Reilly ran for 65 yards on 12 carries against the Irish in the season opener and threw for 228 yards without an interception. In the two games since, against Houston and Fordham, he’s rushed for 13 yards on 15 carries and has thrown two picks while passing for a combined 269 yards.

Michigan’s Devin Gardner, who shredded the Irish for 376 yards in total offense and five touchdowns in a 41-30 Wolverine win on Sept. 7, has been a turnover machine against everyone else on the Michigan schedule – and that’s against the Nos. 82 (UConn), 134 (Akron) and 144 (Central Michigan) Division I teams (FBS and FCS inclusive) in the country per the Sagarin computer ratings.

Rob Henry of Purdue didn’t run on the Irish (2 yards on 4 carries) or really anyone else, but he had a career passing day against ND (25-40-1 256 yards, 3 TDs) in the 31-24 Boilermaker near-miss. Only Michigan State’s Connor Cook (16-for-32 for 135 passing, 4 yards on 4 carries rushing) was shut down by the Irish in both dimensions when compared to what the other Spartan opponents did against him.

The difference between Bell and the others is that he plays for a top 25 offense (the Sooners are 24th). None of the other teams the Irish have faced are in the top 60 in total offense in the 123-team FBS. Purdue, in fact, is third from the bottom.

The Sooners, though untested by elite competition, also have a strong defense – 20th in total defense in the FBS, making them the most complete team, in the current statistical snapshot anyway, on the Irish schedule.

The 6-foot-6, 252-pound Bell is coming off a 413-yard passing performance with the first four TDs of his 23-game career against Tulsa on Sept. 14. That also happened to be the first career start for the redshirt junior, after finishing second to redshirt freshman Trevor Knight in an offseason quarterback audition to replace grad Landry Jones.

The Sooners had an open date last Saturday.

In his first two non-redshirt seasons, Bell was a red-zone specialist, rushing for 372 yards on 104 carries, with 24 of those carries going for touchdowns.

His pedigree, though, coming out of Bishop Carroll High School in Wichita, Kan., was that of an elite pro-style passer. rated him the No. 6 such player in the country in the 2010 recruiting class behind Jake Heaps (BYU), Phillip Sims (Alabama), Connor Wood (Texas), Brett Nottingham (Stanford) and Jesse Scroggins (USC).

Only Bell of that top six is still at the school with which he signed. Sims, in fact, has transferred twice.

Brian Kelly finished that recruiting cycle as Notre Dame’s coach, but Charlie Weis started it. Weis chased No. 1 prospect Heaps, Wood, Bell and Nick Montana, but fell out of those races early (Ironically, Heaps now plays for Weis at Kansas).

Weis eventually landed commitments from the Nos. 13 (Andrew Hendrix) and 31 (Tommy Rees) pro-style QBs. Kelly had to re-recruit Hendrix after Weis was purged in late November of 2009. Kelly also signed the No. 28 pro-style QB in the class – Luke Massa, who had been committed to Kelly at Cincinnati.

Simulating Bell in practice physically was a challenge for Kelly, who probably would have had to use one of his freshman tight ends to get a comparable look. Instead, two 5-11 guys imitated the 6-6 Bell on the scout team offense — walk-on QB Will Cronin and cornerback Rashad Kinlaw.

Personnel matters

•Kelly’s reference to a four-man running back rotation during his Sunday teleconference with the media was taken by some to mean that freshman Greg Bryant had separated from the pack – and not in a good way.

“I'd like to get to five,” Kelly said Tuesday when asked about the four-man rotation remark. “Greg certainly has a skill set that we just haven't gotten into the game yet. But again, we're trying to get him in on special teams. He's on kickoff right now. We're trying to get him involved in some of the other running teams. But we’ve got to four; we're trying to get to five.”

The 5-10, 204-pounder from Delray Beach, Fla., was the most highly recruited of the five running backs on the Irish roster, a five-star prospect who originally committed to Oklahoma in the spring of 2012 before flipping late in the cycle to the Irish.

Meanwhile, the running back with by far the most game experience coming into the season, junior George Atkinson III, is third among the five backs in carries (24) and yards (121).

“The next step in his development is he's got to continue to work on his ball skills,” Kelly said. “I thought he did a nice job on Saturday on a tough catch. (But) he's got to run through tackles.”

•Starting defensive end Sheldon Day was expected to practice Tuesday after sitting out two practices last week as well as the 17-13 win over Michigan State on Saturday with a sprained ankle.

“I think he's going to be gradual as the week progresses, that we're going to see more and more from him,” Kelly said. “The reports were pretty good (Monday). He went through all of our conditioning.

•Junior Matthias Farley, who did not start Saturday against Michigan State, finds himself now in a three-man rotation at the two safety sports with senior Austin Collinsworth and sophomore Elijah Shumate, the latter two of whom are expected to start against Oklahoma.

Upon further review

Kelly clarified (sort of) a confusing call — not involving pass interference — that occurred in the fourth quarter of ND’s 17-13 survival over Michigan State on Saturday.

The Irish bench was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. And, from the press box and the stands, few understood why. Nor did Kelly.

The penalty occurred with 5:31 left in the game following an MSU punt. Irish senior TJ Jones signaled for a fair catch at the Irish 20, but muffed the punt and jumped on it, leading to a pile-up. Players on both sides got a little chippy as the bodies untangled.

Meanwhile, the Irish offense started to come onto the field to take possession.

“(The official) felt like we were racing onto the field and that we were creating a larger altercation, and I was trying to explain that we were simply that was our offense in a transition coming out to the field,” Kelly said. “He didn't see it that way and felt like we were inciting, that it was kind of like coming off the bench in a fight, which wasn't the case.

“I was standing right there, so it wasn't like there was a situation where it was out of control. The guy that was running out was Tommy Rees, for crying out loud. I mean, really? He's hobbling out with a knee brace.”

Vann runs into ND interest

A strong senior season has rebooted some colleges’ interest in South Bend Adams High running back Shaq Vann — including Notre Dame.

The Irish haven’t offered the 5-10, 195-pounder a scholarship, but Vann told WSBT-TV that the staff visited him at school on Tuesday, and 247Sports’ Steve Wiltfong reported that Vann will make an unofficial visit to ND Saturday for the Oklahoma game.

Vann holds three Mid-American Conference offers (Eastern Michigan, Central Michigan and Miami of Ohio). He’s coming off a 414-yard, 5-TD performance against South Bend St. Joseph, and has amassed 1,074 yards and 12 TDs in five games for the Eagles (3-2).


•The Kelly Cares Foundation and Leprechaun Legion are urging fans to wear green to Saturday’s game again Oklahoma for a Green-out.

Roughly 40,000 pompoms will be handed out as well, but the green theme won’t carry over to the Irish sideline.

“No, we will not be wearing green jerseys,” Kelly said.

•Scott Wright of earlier this week released his first 2014 NFL mock draft. Irish nose guard Louis Nix is projected to go 10th to the Pittsburgh Steelers, while Stephon Tuitt is slated to go 11th to the Tennessee Titans.

•Getting an early lead may be telling in Saturday’s ND-Oklahoma matchup. In the last 36 games in which Oklahoma has led at the half, the Sooners have gone on to win. Kelly, meanwhile, is 25-3 at ND when his teams lead at halftime and 157-13 in his career.

•Oklahoma has won eight successive regular-season games since losing 30-13 to Notre Dame in Norman last season.

•Oklahoma is one of only two teams in the AP Top 25 that have yet to surrender a passing touchdown.

•Oklahoma is No. 1 and Notre Dame No. 2 for fewest losing seasons in FBS history, with 12 and 13, respectively.

•Sooners coach Bob Stoops (152-37-0) is six wins away from passing Barry Switzer as Oklahoma’s all-time wins leader.

FILE - In this Sept. 7, 2013 file photo, Oklahoma quarterback Blake Bell carries against West Virginia in the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game in Norman, Okla. Bell's career day gave Oklahoma a heavy duty dose of hope entering its bye week. Now the Sooners hope Bell is ready to take his show on the road this week at Notre Dame. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)