Notre Dame football notebook: Smith keeps surging for Irish

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - Jaylon Smith stood in the end zone Saturday, clutching the football and refusing momentarily to give up on the notion that he had scored his first collegiate touchdown.

Only a severe botching of the original interpretation of Air Force quarterback Nate Romine’s fumble by the Big 12 officials working the game and a quick whistle that stopped everyone in their tracks, save the Notre Dame freshman outside linebacker, could stop Smith’s TD from happening.

But it ultimately didn’t stop Smith and Notre Dame from dominating in what turned out to be a 45-10 smackdown of Air Force.

Nor did some schematic flaws by the Irish early in the game, that put Smith on an island, which were ultimately corrected.

“Another weekend where you go, ‘The kid just has those things that are hard to teach,’ ” Irish head coach Brian Kelly marveled.

In his last four games, Smith has recorded 28 of his 39 tackles, the latter number ranking fifth on the team. A total of 3.5 of his 4.5 tackles for losses have also come during his four-game mid-season surge.

To put that in perspective, Danny Spond — a standout at the drop linebacker position last year — had 39 tackles and one tackle for loss over his entire 11-game season in 2012. With four more tackles, and five games to go (including a bowl) to get it, Smith will have reached the highest tackle total Kelly has gotten from a starting drop linebacker in his four seasons at ND. Smith also has an interception, a forced fumble and Saturday’s fumble recovery.

As it turned out, the Irish didn’t need Smith’s TD at the end of the fumble play. Six plays and 2:55 after ND was awarded the ball at its own 38, quarterback Tommy Rees found TJ Jones for a 30-yard scoring pass and a 31-10 Irish lead midway through the third quarter.

The officials originally ruled Romine had thrown an incomplete pass, a puzzling interpretation given that the freshman QB’s arm wasn’t in motion. Fellow outside linebacker Ben Councell stripped the ball, and Smith picked it up at the ND 38 and raced 62 yards for what should have been a score.

Smith and the Irish defense never let Air Force and its mostly option offense back in the game thereafter.

And now comes Navy (4-3), a more precise, high-octane version of Air Force’s offense. The Irish (6-2) host the Midshipmen Saturday (3:30 p.m. EDT; NBC-TV).

“Navy runs the triple option better than anybody in the country,” Kelly said. “I mean, it's what they do. And they have so many variations off of it, just little variations that make a huge difference — splits. The preciseness of how they run it may not, to the untrained eye, look like much, but it's a real big difference.”

For the first time since 2001, the Mids are not on a trajectory to finish in the top six nationally in rushing offense. They’re currently 10th. And while Navy does not have a prolific offense (77th nationally in total offense among the 123 FBS teams, 69th in scoring offense), they are remarkably efficient.

The Mids rank ninth nationally in fewest drives to end in a three-and-out (19 percent) and rank 12th in the highest percentage of drives to end in a TD (38.5 percent). When sophomore starter QB Keenan Reynolds is in the game, that percentage spikes to 43.3.

“In one respect, having gone against Air Force and having the principles of option already repped out is an advantage,” Kelly said. “But certainly they (Navy) have seen us and how we defend the option as well. So that gives them a week to do some things as well.”

Golson opens up

Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples recently caught up with exiled Irish quarterback Everett Golson in San Diego, where the junior has been working out with private QB coach George Whitfield, Jr.

Kelly acknowledged to the South Bend Tribune recently that Golson has completed his paperwork to return to Notre Dame for the spring semester, when his university-imposed suspension ends.

SI.com put up a video Tuesday to tease a longer story with Golson for the print version of the magazine. Here’s some excerpts from the video, which can be seen in its entirety here: bit.ly/1gYrWPC.

On what led to his suspension: “Basically I had poor judgment on a test,” Golson said. “It wasn’t due to poor grades or anything like that, but ...”

Staples: “Did you cheat on a test?”

Golson: “Something like that.”

Staples: “Did you look off somebody’s — what happened?”

Golson: “I mean, that’s what it was. I’m just going to leave it at poor judgment.”

On his reaction when he knew he was going to be in hot water for his cheating: “Immediately I started to think about my family. I had a lot of people around me, encouraging me, but I was more so concerned about how my family would take it and me disappointing them. It hurt me tremendously.”

On playing in the BCS National Championship Game last January: “That Miami game, it was good being there, but I felt completely embarrassed.”

On what it’s like to watch ND football from afar: “I’ve never had so many mixed emotions in my life. I’m constantly watching the game and getting excited, but there’s still that sense that you’re not there. And just seeing those guys battling out there each and every weekend and me not being a part of that, that really kind of hurt me.”

On training with Whitfield: “It’s been ridiculously good for me. I kind of changed up some of my mechanics.”

On why he chose to return to Notre Dame rather than going someplace else and starting over: “My heart was set on going back to Notre Dame, not necessarily to prove anything to anybody, but just doing it for me. I felt like it was something that I started, and I didn’t want to run away from it and go to juco or go to another school. I was going to face it.”

On who he’ll be after his return: “Just a more polished individual, really. That goes for on and off the field. I know a lot of people want to focus on me getting on the field. I’m more so focused on me getting back in the classroom, since that’s where it happened.”

Personnel matters

•Junior defensive end Chase Hounshell is back practicing with the team in pads, well ahead of what originally had been expected when he underwent shoulder surgery in April. Kelly originally toyed with the idea of activating Hounshell for the stretch run of the season, but now ...

“He's in pads. He's in drill work,” Kelly said. “But I don't believe we'll play him this year.”

What pushed Kelly away from the notion of playing Hounshell is that the junior could be a textbook candidate to eventually receive a sixth season of eligibility from the NCAA.

Hounshell’s last game action came during his freshman season in 2011. He missed all of 2012 because of an injury to the same shoulder.

Theoretically, Hounshell could play for the Irish in 2014, 2015 and 2016 if his health and petitioning with the NCAA both hold up.

•All-American nose guard Louis Nix could miss a second straight game with what Kelly termed as knee tendinitis and soreness.

“Depending on how he moves and what he can do,” Kelly said of the factors that will push Nix one way or another. “Again, we're not prepared to play anybody that can't get in there and practice and do the things necessary to prepare for the triple option.”

•Oustide linebacker Ishaq Williams (knee) has been ruled out of the Navy game. Williams, who plays end in ND’s 4-3 look against option offense, suffered the injury in the first half of the Air Force game.

•Sophomore defensive end Sheldon Day, on-and-mostly-off since spraining an ankle Sept. 14 vs. Purdue, is listed as probable for Saturday.

“We got an MRI on that ankle,” Kelly said. “We wanted to rule out any further high-ankle damage to the ligaments, and it was a bone bruise. So it was totally different. So we feel pretty good about that. He'll practice (Tuesday).”

•Starting offensive guard Chris Watt is listed as probable for Navy. He missed most of the second half of the Air Force game with a knee sprain.

•Offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley and wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, both of whom suffered minor injuries against Air Force, were expected back in full form this week. So too, is safety Elijah Shumate, who missed the past couple of games with a hamstring injury.

Squibs

•The fake Twitter account for suspended Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson has roughly only 3,000 fewer followers (7,204) than the real Twitter account of current Irish No. 1 QB Tommy Rees (10,042).

•Navy has a safety on its roster named “Wave Ryder” and yes he’s from Hawaii (Kaneohe). His aspirations beyond the military? Not surfing. He wants to be a commercial airline pilot for Hawaiian Airlines.

Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith (9) reacts to making a defensive stop during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, at Falcon Stadium in Air Force Academy, Colo. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER