Notre Dame football: Players to watch in second half

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - Brian Kelly had just finished his whirlwind postgame postmortem of Notre Dame’s 37-34 upending of No. 22 Arizona State late Saturday night, stepping down from the podium at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, to rejoin an Irish locker room teeming with mixed emotions over a couple of season-ending injuries.

Moments later, Irish freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith sauntered in and let his instincts take over — taking the ND head coach’s place at the podium before a member of the school’s sports information office kindly and firmly let him know that was not the proper postgame protocol.

It may have been the only time the former five-star recruit was out of place all night.

After five weeks of flashes of potential, the fastest player in the Notre Dame defense’s front seven turned in the most dominant performance from the drop linebacker position since Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco introduced the position concept to ND in the fall of 2010.

It wasn’t just the team-high nine tackles, (the previous high from a starting drop linebacker since 2010 was six tackles), including 1.5 for loss, his forced fumble or the pass deflection, it was that Arizona State game-planned for Smith. And the 6-foot-2, 230-pounder from Fort Wayne, Ind., wickedly counterpunched.

“It's been his recognition and awareness week in and week out; he's learning. He learned a lot this week,” Kelly understated.

The next piece for Smith is consistency. And that process and what it could mean to an Irish defense that took some significant steps forward against the most prolific offense, past or future, on the 2013 ND schedule and decidedly the best passing offense the Irish will see, has the media-friendly freshman topping the list of Irish players to watch for the second half.

Notre Dame reached the midway point and the first of two bye weeks at 4-2 and out of the Top 25 but gaining traction to return.

The Irish will reopen for business Oct. 19 in the lone home night game of the season against a USC team (3-2) that may be enigmatic and is making its biggest headlines over a fake rep reportedly reaching out to Tony Dungy and Jack Del Rio about the school’s sudden head-coaching vacancy.

But the Trojans are still strong in areas (13th rush defense, 10th sacks) that match up well with ND’s lingering liabilities. And who knows what interim coach Ed Orgeron’s decision to reintroduce cookies to the USC training table could mean in terms of team chemistry?

Orgeron and the rest of the college football world should get some sort of gauge Thursday night, when the Trojans host Arizona (3-1).

Kelly, too, hopes to learn more about his team this week, even with an open date Saturday.

It will be a split agenda, with veterans like defensive end Stephon Tuitt, nose guard Louis Nix and wide receiver TJ Jones backing off and getting a chance to heal and catch a second wind. But ascending players where consistency and/or opportunity has been an issue — like Jaylon Smith, DaVaris Daniels, Tarean Folston, Will Fuller, Max Redfield — will get extra attention.

This is the also time to tweak scheme and re-evaluate personnel. That’s particularly applicable at inside linebacker with the loss of starting junior middle linebacker Jarrett Grace to a broken tibia, with a projected recovery time (four to six months) that could curtail his participation next spring.

For the record, Kelly is 13-2 (.867) coming off a bye week in his career, significantly better than his overall career winning percentage of .742. But one of those losses came at ND and it was to USC, in a night game, no less.

Kelly says his team’s focus is small-picture, simply getting better each week. But there is still a palatable big picture for the Irish if they can go 6-0 in the second half.

For the Irish to climb into BCS Bowl contention in the format’s last go-round, beyond Smith, here are the central figures that can make a difference in whether it happens.

2. Tommy Rees/Andrew Hendrix, QBs: Rees’ numbers suggest regression. His 128.8 pass-efficiency rating is slightly lower than when he started the final four games of 2010 as a freshman, as well as a 2011 season that saw him lose his starting job the following spring.

His 51.7 percent completion rate this season ranks 112th in the FBS.

But Rees has made enough big and timely plays to keep Kelly in his corner. His mental toughness can’t be measured in numbers, either. And favorable matchups that fit his skill set against Air Force, Navy and Pitt in the second half should move the needle in a positive direction statistically.

But USC, BYU and Stanford all pose problems for Rees’ skill set, and he has a rocky history against all three — a combined 62-of-101 for 516 yards and three TDs with five interceptions in four starts with four sacks.

And that’s why mixing and matching with fellow senior Hendrix makes some sense in those games if Kelly can get Hendrix up to speed this week. Hendrix got only one snap in the Arizona State win, but he converted a fourth down — ND’s first and only in five tries this season — on a two-yard keeper.

“The game was a hard game to put Andrew in, because there was very complex pressures coming from different locations,” Kelly explained. “We didn't want to get caught in a bad situation where we could potentially be in a blitz situation and expose Andrew.

“So it really was more of the way the game was going than it was anything Andrew Hendrix did, but I want to continue pushing that and keep working him and keep him as part of the game plan each and every week.”

3. Stephon Tuitt, DE: Tuitt’s sack and forced fumble Saturday night against Arizona State were credited to wide receiver TJ Jones, who shares jersey No. 7, in the official statistics. And there were games this year Tuitt’s critics have argued the preseason All-American has had as much impact in some games on defense as ND’s leading receiver and likely first-half MVP had in those games on defense.

But Tuitt is surging, and he has the talent to be ND’s second-half MVP. The big question is whether he’ll have the physical health to do so.

Kelly has gone more clandestine than ever with injuries, wanting to protect what he sees as a competitive advantage, but he made it clear Sunday that the sports hernia surgery Tuitt had way back in March is still in play for the 6-7, 322-pound junior.

“The surgery that he had has affected his back; it's affected his hip flexors.,” Kelly said. “He's really struggled. Some people dismiss it and say, ‘Well, you know, you just had minor surgery.’ Well, it's affected a lot of things.

“This is a big man. He really struggled (last) week with back tightness. He missed a day of practice because his back locked up. We've got to be careful with Stephon.”

4. Dan Fox, ILB: The fifth-year senior had been bumped from the starting lineup by Grace and now will have to reintegrate — not only as a starter, but playing more reps than he ever has in his career.

Fox did respond Saturday night with his best game of the season — seven tackles, a fumble recovery and a fourth-quarter pick-6. But he’ll have to have many encores if the Irish defense is going to continue to progress.

The alternative options at both inside linebacker spots are sparse — seldom-used senior Kendall Moore, former walk-on Joe Schmidt, and now true freshman Michael Deeb may come into play.

“I'm still kind of putting that together in my own mind,” Kelly said of the 6--2, 242-pound Deeb, who had been targeted for a redshirt year. “I'll talk to coach Diaco about it a little bit more in detail in the next day or so.”

For those who wonder how 11th-hour defector Alex Anzalone might have fit in the equation this fall at ND, the Florida freshman linebacker has exactly one more tackle this season than Deeb does, and it came on special teams. He has seen action in four games for the Gators.

And what about Jaylon Smith moving inside on certain packages?

“One of the things we won't do is we will not change his eyes in terms of where he's going to play,” Kelly said. “He's going to play on the perimeter of our defense.”

5. Nick Martin, C: Martin has had some moments of brilliance in taking over the starting center spot from New England Patriots practice squad rookie Braxston Cave, but he’s also a reason ND is 91st out of 123 FBS teams in the category of least-penalized.

In fact, of ND’s opponents only USC (100th) has drawn more penalty flags. Navy, incidentally, has the nation’s fewest.

“I think there's some things that we can help him with,” Kelly said of the flurry of illegal procedure penalties. “There's a lot going on out there in this ballgame that we just played on Saturday. I think we can take some of the pressure off. He's looking for linebacker alignments, there's movement. And a couple of times, (the penalty came from) just moving the ball in his hand as he was making some checks. So I think there a lot of the things we can clean up.”

If there’s a twisted silver lining to the penalties, Kelly actually has a much better record in his career in games in which his teams draw more penalties then their opponents (.801) than when his teams draw fewer flags (.610).

6. Tarean Folston RB: A revived running game would give the Irish offense the kind of balance that would theoretically optimize Rees’ skills as a passer, but even teams that come into their games against ND statistically poor in defending the run reconfigure their defenses to try to coax Kelly to go unbalanced and win the game with Rees’ arm.

Junior Cam McDaniel has become the Irish running back that the Irish coaches trust the most when the game is in the balance, but ND needs to be able to run to get the running game in motion early in the game and play with the lead.

Kelly is 157-13 (a Rockne-esque .924) when his teams lead at half, including 25-3 (.893) at ND.

Freshman Folston may be the wild card in the crowded backfield. The 5-10, 207-pounder has just 11 carries, but leads ND at 6.3 yards per carry and is a potential breakout player in the passing game as well.

There’s a reason Kelly never hesitated about redshirting Folston. Perhaps in the second half of the season, everyone else will see why.

Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith (9) tackles Michigan State wide receiver Aaron Burbridge (16) during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, at Notre Dame. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER