Notre Dame football notebook: Frosh Elmer steps in for Lombard

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- The report from Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly that top quarterback option Tommy Rees took every first-team rep in practice Thursday lost a little of its thunder moments later.

One of the players charged with protecting Rees, senior offensive guard Christian Lombard, has been lost for the season following season-ending back surgery on Wednesday.

Kelly said Thursday that true freshman Steve Elmer will move into the starting lineup at right guard on Saturday, when the Irish (5-2) visit Air Force (1-6) in Colorado Springs, Colo. (5 p.m. EDT, CBS Sports Network).

“He’s got a great motor,” Kelly said of Elmer, a 6-foot-6, 317-pounder from Midland, Mich., who has been a primary backup at all the offensive line positions other than center before making his first college start this weekend.

“He is a better game player than he is a practice player. He has a unique sense of the game for a young kid. He has a knack of sensing and feeling things in a game that you really can’t teach.

“(In) practice, sometimes, the best way I can put it (is) he knows enough to be dangerous. And then in the game, he belies that fact by doing some things, and he looks like a 10-year veteran. So he’s a really not a kid in that sense.”

Junior Conor Hanratty moves up into the No. 2 spot at right guard, and would climb a level higher if either Elmer was injured or got pulled into duty at either tackle or left guard.

Kelly said the 6-5, 315-pound Lombard herniated a disc while in conditioning.

“We had to go in (Wednesday), and he had a discectomy that they took out about a 4-centimeter herniation of his disc,” Kelly said.

Kelly himself had a similar operation in June of 2012.

Lombard retains a fifth-year option to return to Notre Dame for the 2014 season since he sat out as a freshman in 2010.

Nix stays home

Preseason All-America nose guard Louis Nix will miss the Air Force trip after being held out of practice this week.

Although Nix suffered a shoulder injury late in the game Saturday night against USC, Kelly said the larger culprit this week was some knee tendinitis and soreness.

“He just wasn’t able to take any reps,” Kelly said of the 6-3, 357-pound senior. “And we’re running against an option team. To throw him there without really being able to engage the way you need those guys to be engaged, it doesn’t make any sense to play him.”

Technically, senior Kona Schwenke moves up on the depth chart, but surging defensive end Stephon Tuitt is expected to plug the middle against Air Force’s offense, as he has done throughout his career against option and quasi-option teams.

“My job is to be in the middle, to be Louis Nix,” said the 6-6, 322-pound Tuitt, one of ND’s most adept and experienced players at defending option football.

Freshman Isaac Rochell, meanwhile. will be part of a rotation on the Irish defensive line that could pit him against older brother Matt, a sophomore and Air Force’s starting left offensive tackle.

“I think more than anything else, he’s excited about playing,” Kelly said of the younger but bigger Rochell. “Whether he’s playing against his brother or not, he knows he’s going to get in the game.”

Detour for Jones

Sophomore defensive end Jarron Jones flew home to Rochester, N.Y., Thursday, but is expected to meet the team in Colorado Springs and be available to play Saturday against Air Force, Kelly confirmed.

“There was a death in the family,” Kelly said. “He’ll attend a service and then he will be put on a flight to Colorado Springs.”

Quieting the QB quandary

Five days after a neck strain knocked him out of the 14-10 win over USC and threatened his availability for this week, Rees exuded normalcy Thursday at practice and is ready to start Saturday.

“Having that continuity at the quarterback position Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday is always good for the unit,” Kelly said. “Last year it was kind of an off-and-on situation with Everett (Golson) being injured at times. It was never a really good flow for our offense, so it’s good to have Tommy out there. He took all the first-team reps (Thursday) and looked really good.”

There was a gradual increase in Rees’ workload as the week went on. Kelly estimated Rees only took about 25 percent of the snaps with the first team on Tuesday. Fellow senior Andrew Hendrix, ND’s heretofore struggling second option, gobbled up the rest of them.

Freshman Malik Zaire, with the backups, “got a lot more reps then he’s taken all year,” Kelly said.

On Wednesday, Hendrix was still sharing some first-team reps before Rees took them all Thursday. Kelly said Zaire didn’t take any starter or backup reps Thursday.

“They’re all prepared,” Kelly said. “Andrew’s more prepared in terms of the rep work that he’s got than he’s ever been.”

Where’s Corey?

After freshman wide receiver Corey Robinson was so visible and effective during Notre Dame’s handful of August practices open to the media, it seemed to be only a matter of time before he’d have a breakthrough game.

On Sept. 21, that seemingly happened, when the 6-5, 205-pound San Antonio, Texas, product gathered in three pass receptions for 54 yards in a 17-13 win over Michigan State, giving him four for 66 at that point.

In the three games since, his only catch was overturned by instant replay, vs. Arizona State on Oct. 5.

“We’ve gotten a lot of man-to-man press coverage,” Kelly said of the apparent downshift in Robinson’s role. “He’s still finding his way physically. He can be rerouted a little bit, but in certain parts of the field he can be a weapon for us.

“We’ve got to obviously continue to have him part of the game plan. I think you’ll see him a little bit more this week. I think you’ll find him to be on the field a little bit more.”

Squibs

-- Late in ND’s 14-10 conquest of USC Saturday night, junior running back Cam McDaniel fumbled in a game for the first time in his career, with USC safety Su’a Cravens recovering at the 6:27 mark of the fourth quarter. Yet, Kelly had the confidence to give the ball right back to ND’s second-leading rusher on third down of the next offensive series.

“Just trust the kid,” Kelly explained. “His body of work, the way he comes to work every day, his relationships with us in terms of what we see from him.

“I think a lot of it is he’s a guy who does the things the right way, and when you have that, sometimes things just happen — helmet gets on the ball the right way and you can’t control it.

“So if he carried the ball sloppily in practice and was known as a guy who put the ball on the ground, then we probably wouldn’t have gone back to him. But he doesn’t have a history of it. (He) doesn’t carry himself that way, as a guy who doesn’t pay attention to detail.”

-- USC linebacker Lamar Dawson, the player whose blitzing hit knocked Rees out of the game with the Trojans, has been lost for the rest of the season with a knee injury.

EHansen@SBTinfo.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @hansenNDInsider

Notre Dame's Christian Lombard is out for the season.