Notre Dame football notebook: Injuries mount for Irish

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- Next man out?

Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly’s enduring “next man in” mantra got turned upside down the past couple of weeks with a swelling injury list for Saturday night’s prime-time clash at Pitt (4-4) that could exclude as many as four defensive players who started as recently as the Arizona State game less than a month ago and three others who have either started or played major minutes since.

Suddenly, style points aren’t the biggest challenge in ND’s hopeful climb to at least the No. 14 spot in the final BCS standings on Dec. 8, the minimum requisite spot to be included in the pool of teams considered for the four BCS bowls outside the BCS National Championship Game.

Health is.

“This is probably close to the pinnacle,” Kelly said when asked about how this run of injuries compared to those that occurred in his previous 22 seasons as a college head coach. “I think if you're in college football or at any level in the pros, you're going to have these times. They don't give you any points for complaining about it. If they did, I'd complain every minute. So we just take care of it internally and get the next guy ready.”

The most serious of the recent wave is a knee injury suffered by junior backup outside linebacker Ben Councell on Saturday in the 38-34 scorefest with Navy that will effectively end his season.

The most ominous is the lingering knee problem endured by preseason All-America senior nose guard Louis Nix, who was undergoing an MRI on Sunday to determine when and/or if he’ll be back on the field for the 24th-ranked Irish (7-2) this season.

The most grating aspect of the injury chat that dominated Kelly’s weekly Sunday teleconference is that it’s not just a run of bad luck. Kelly said that injuries to nose guard Kona Schwenke, outside linebacker Ishaq Williams and defensive end Sheldon Day are directly related to playing against Air Force and Navy the past two weeks, two teams that employ the rarely used technique of cut blocks that take out would-be tacklers’ legs.

Of that group, only Day has a chance to play against the Panthers on Saturday night.

“It's unfortunate,” Kelly said of the cut block-injury connection. “It's the style of offense that the academies play. It is what it is.”

Kelly admitted it would make sense if the Irish limited their scheduling to only one service academy a year, given the injury risk, but added, “I don't believe that both of them appear on our schedule for quite some time.”

Perhaps the injuries are a reason ND is a modest five-point favorite over a Pitt team that lost to Navy two games ago and who amassed minus-5 yards rushing Saturday in 21-10 defeat at Georgia Tech.

The Irish did move into the Harris poll, at No. 25, and remained 25th in the coaches poll — the two human elements that are blended with computer rankings to determine the BCS standings. Those newest set released Sunday night saw the Irish climb two spots to 23 on the strength of a No. 15 average from the computers.

Here’s the rundown of defensive injuries and what it could mean at each position:

*Schwenke suffered a high ankle sprain late in the Navy game. He has been filling in for both Day at defensive end and Nix at nose guard. If Nix and Schwenke are both out for Pitt, seldom-used fifth-year senior Tyler Stockton will move toward the top of the depth chart at the nose position, sharing time with sophomore end Jarron Jones, who will thin out the end ranks to move to a new position.

Stockton didn’t see any game action in three of the four seasons at ND heading into this year and collected one career tackle in the one season he did play (2010). He’s added one tackle to that total in the seven cameos he’s made this season.

Jones has seven tackles in eight games this season after redshirting as a freshman in 2012. Four of those came Saturday. Schwenke had a career-high 11 tackles Saturday against Navy before suffering the injury.

“We are running out of next men,” said Kelly, who lost ends Tony Sprignmann and Chase Hounshell to injuries before the season ever started as well as signed defensive line recruit Eddie Vanderdoes to UCLA to a change of heart.

“We're at that point where, from a defensive standpoint, and particularly the defensive line, we're left with very few options. It becomes an issue now where we have to be very creative in what we're doing and how we're doing it.”

*Nix’s availability, or lack thereof, very much affects just how creative the Irish coaches will have to be. You could make an argument that if Nix didn’t play in the second half and overtime periods — with the flu no less — of ND’s triple-OT survival of Pitt last season, the Irish would have lost that game and been derailed from their quest to reach the BCS title game. This season, he hasn’t played since the USC game on Oct. 19 because of knee tendinitis.

“We want to see where he's at, and we want to make sure that there is nothing there,” Kelly said of the reasoning for the MRI. “This is more for Lou to make a decision in terms of where he's at in terms of his health and making sure he feels he's capable of playing the rest of the season. So we're taking extra care to make sure that medically he's good to go.

“He's got a small meniscus tear, which is a very minimal issue relative to the knee (and) one that (in) normal situations would not be attended to until after the season. Tendinitis has been primarily the issue here.”

Later on Sunday, Kelly confirmed Nix would practice this week but didn’t indicate that would necessarily lead to him playing Saturday night against Pitt.

*Councell’s injury leaves freshman Jaylon Smith with no full-time backup at the drop linebacker position. Eighteen-year-old sophomore Romeo Okwara, who made his first collegiate start Saturday, is now the primary backup for not only Smith, but Prince Shembo at the Cat (outside) linebacker, and he is in the depth at the thinning end positions.

*Williams actually went down very early in ND’s 45-10 rout of Air Force on Oct. 26 with an ACL (knee) injury. Kelly paints the best-case scenario as a return to action Nov. 23 versus BYU. Williams started against the Falcons as a defensive end in ND’s 4-3 look against Air Force’s option-oriented offense.

Typically he rotates in for Shembo at the Cat linebacker but also plays end in ND’s passing-down defensive packages.

*Safety Austin Collinsworth suffered a neck strain, Kelly said, during the Navy game and will undergo an MRI on Monday, as the soreness level increased Sunday over what it was Saturday night.

The Irish used junior Eilar Hardy in Collinsworth’s absence. True freshman Max Redfield also saw his most meaningful reps of the season. Sophomore starter Elijah Shumate, held out the past three games with a hamstring, is set to return to action versus the Panthers, Kelly said.

*With starting middle linebacker Jarrett Grace lost for the season since the Arizona State game (broken leg), the Irish have four healthy scholarship players taking all the reps at the two inside linebacker spots, with redshirting freshman Michael Deeb a fifth option if the ranks get thinned any more.

Kelly said starting middle linebacker Dan Fox would cross train at the drop linebacker spot in case something happened to freshman sensation Smith. If Fox were to move, former walk-on Joe Schmidt could be elevated to a starting role.

On the offensive side of the ball, Kelly revealed starting left guard Chris Watt has a posterior cruciate ligament tear in his knee, an injury that won’t require surgery but will have to be managed.

Watt missed most of the second half of the Air Force game and all of Saturday’s Navy contest with the injury he suffered against the Falcons.

“With that PCL tear, you have to adjust a lot in terms of your movements,” Kelly said. “He just didn't feel right in pregame, didn't feel like he could do some of the things and didn't want to hurt his team. He wanted to go. He just couldn't go.

“I think he's going to feel a lot better this week, be able to make some of the compensations that he's going to have to make with that no PCL. I'm pretty confident that he's going to be able to get back in the lineup this week.”

Watt’s absence left the Irish with four first-year starters on the offensive line along with the guy who is on track to set the school record for starts at any position, fifth-year senior Zack Martin. Junior Conor Hanratty, in fact, was making his first collegiate start.

“Conor went in and battled,” Kelly said. “What you love about Hanratty is you've got a chance when a guy goes in there and battles, and he's an aggressive, tough kid. We'll clean up some of the mistakes that he made in there, but it was nice to watch him go in there and compete.”

Irish in primetime

ABC/ESPN finally set a kickoff time and televising network for Saturday’s Pitt-ND game. The Irish will kick off at 8 p.m. EST, and ABC will have the national telecast from Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

There were three possible scenarios heading into this past weekend — noon on ABC, 7 p.m. on ESPN or the spot that was decided upon. ND-Pitt was competing with Florida State-Wake Forest and Miami-Virginia Tech for the 8 p.m. slot.

The Pittsburgh Steelers can’t be overly happy. They play the Buffalo Bills at 1 p.m. Sunday, likely less than 14 hours after the conclusion of the ND game, on the same field.

Special teams changes?

In 2008, Notre Dame won the national statistical title in kickoff coverage. In Kelly’s first season as Irish head coach, the Irish were a still-impressive 17th. From there, they slipped to 77th for two consecutive seasons.

This season, they’re 117th among 123 FBS schools, and are nearly as bad (106th) in punt return coverage. Kelly’s Cincinnati and Central Michigan teams were largely average in both categories before he came to ND.

Saturday, the Irish allowed two long kickoff returns to Navy, which came in 104th nationally in returns but improved to 70th based on its performance vs. ND. Irish kicker Kyle Brindza made the tackle on both long returns, the second of which set the Mids up at the 50-yard line with 3:47 left in regulation with a chance to drive for the winning score.

Saturday’s opponent, Pitt, is 84th in kickoff returns, but following the Panthers are BYU (fourth) and Stanford (No. 1).

“I think kickoff coverage has a lot to do with being more physical than the return team,” Kelly said Sunday. “We're looking and feeling our way through it. We're going to go back to just being a little bit more physical on that team and getting guys on there. We maybe got caught up with having too much speed and not enough power on that team.

“So I'll take a good look at it over the next 24 hours, and we'll get some guys down there that are going to be a little bit more physical.”

Notre Dame outside linebacker Ben Councell, who suffered a knee injury against Navy, has been ruled out for the season.