Notre Dame football: Nix issue clouds ND plan

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - There was enough gray area floating around Notre Dame nose guard Louis Nix and his extended disappearance from the Irish football two-deeps that those who like to connect unconnected dots were evoking the name of Jadeveon Clowney.

And not in a flattering way.

Clowney, the junior defensive end for South Carolina, began the season as a Heisman Trophy contender and cinch to be the NFL’s No. 1 draft choice next May but has morphed into quasi-pariah, perhaps unfairly, because of how he and Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier have framed his injuries/playing time this season.

Enter Nix, a consensus top 12 pick next May if he cannonballs into the draft pool by discarding his fifth-year option at ND, and arguably ND’s top player at any position this season.

Five days before 24th-ranked Notre Dame (7-2) visits Pitt (4-4) in ABC’s nationally televised answer to CBS’ prime-time clash between No. 1 Alabama and 10th-ranked LSU, there was still nothing more substantive that Nix will play than strong hope that he will and the fact he was at least able to practice on Tuesday.

Even if the 6-foot-3, 357-pound senior does play, you could make the argument that the starting defensive line of Nix and ends Stephon Tuitt and Sheldon Day, that Phil Steele magazine among others painted as the elite unit going into the season, will be at less than 100 percent efficiency for the 10th game in a row. Nix’s absence from that mix the past two games, both against the cut-block-happy service academies, has been attributed to knee tendinitis.

“I think everybody at this time of the year isn't at 100 percent,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly offered on Tuesday, “but I think we're getting close where we may get all three of them on the field at one time.”

Here’s what we know about Nix’s situation, with the biggest takeaway being the ball is in his court, so to speak. Pair that with the fact Nix insisted on playing, and got his way, even when it wasn’t in his court in the past. Specifically, when the Irish played Pitt last season and Nix had spent Tuesday and Wednesday of that week in the infirmary, he came off the bench with the Irish down 20-6 and helped fuel a comeback that resulted in a 29-26 triple-overtime victory.

“I would never force a kid to play through an injury,” Kelly said after his Tuesday meeting with media. “That’s not the kind of culture we want to build here. Louis, or anyone else, has to be comfortable with their situation. We’re trying to give him the information he needs, so he can research things for himself and feel good about playing — or not playing.”

Nix underwent an MRI over the weekend to help clear up the picture.

“The tendinitis is real,” Kelly said during the press conference. “The tendinitis that he has will require the similar surgery that (ND freshman running back) Greg Bryant had, so this is something that is chronic and will require attention at some point.

“After the USC game (Oct. 19), he was in real pain, and it was a real situation for him, coupled with the fact that the worst thing is to get reinjured the next week or the week after.”

Kelly said team surgeon Brian Ratigan and head trainer Rob Hunt recommended platelet-rich plasma therapy for Nix, which he said sidelined Nix for two weeks.

“(It) mitigated the pain that he had with the tendinitis, “ Kelly said, “which now will allow him to go back in and play the game the way he can play it. We don't want him hobbling around and putting himself in harm's way. He feels good about it, and he knows he can help the football team.”

Nix’s availability question is heightened even more by two dynamics — that the template to beating Pitt is to attack its offensive line, and that an ankle injury that will sideline Nix’s top backup, senior Kona Schwenke, means the Irish would either start third-string, fifth-year senior Tyler Stockton (two career tackles) or a converted end in his place if Nix misses his third game in a row.

Meanwhile, the host Panthers rank 118th nationally in sacks allowed, sixth from the bottom of the FBS, and 104th in rushing offense. They’ve had two games in which they’ve rushed for more than 260 yards (Old Dominion, and coach Bob Davie’s New Mexico squad), but three games in which they amassed fewer than 25 yards on the ground (Virginia Tech, Virginia, Georgia Tech).

Kelly and his staff tinkered with some different ideas on how to bolster depth on the defensive line, with Day still hobbled with an chronic ankle injury but likely to play some snaps on Saturday. They settled on moving senior offensive line backup Bruce Heggie back to the position for which he was recruited, defensive end, to only be deployed in an emergency situation.

Redshirting freshman Jacob Matuska and convalescing junior Chase Hounshell have been nixed from possible activations.

Hounshell hasn’t played since the 2011 season. He’s had three surgeries on the same (right) shoulder while at ND, the most recent of which in April was projected to sideline him from practicing or playing in this, his second straight season.

But Hounshell began practicing well ahead of schedule, late last month.

“It's more the rust and re-engaging into contact,” Kelly said of the reluctance to use Hounshell even in an emergency. “The surgery that he had, I think we're at that point where we don't want to go zero to 60 with Chase. We're re-engaging him into light contact, moderate contact to full contact, and we would like to take that out and space that out through the spring, instead of jumping him into a full contact situation after a third surgery.

“Using this analogy could be way off, but it's similar to somebody who is a pitcher and they have had surgery and you're putting them on a pitch count. We want to be careful and bring him along slowly. A doctor can say he's medically cleared to play; we get that. But Chase has worked so hard to get back, we want to reintroduce him into contact in that kind of setting.”

For Nix, it’s not just contact, but conditioning — that latter of which Kelly said does not appear to be a problem.

“He's worked really hard,” Kelly said. “He's been in at 7 in the morning, and that's really early for most people, and Louis would admit that's really early for him, too.

“He's really worked hard in these last couple of weeks to stay fit. He had a jug of water with him today, hydrating, I think he's committed to giving everything he can. He's committed to getting himself back here and doing the best he can to help our football team.”

Personnel matters

•Kelly said starting safety Austin Collinsworth’s recent MRI for a neck strain “came up clean,” but the senior did not practice Tuesday is listed as questionable for Pitt.

“He has some neck issues — spasms, facet joints,” Kelly said. “We're hopeful that clears up. ... He was better today, but he's going to need another day before we know where he is.”

The good news on the safety front is, fellow starter, Elijah Shumate — out the past three games with a hamstring injury — is expected to play and be at 100 percent on Saturday.

•After missing the Navy game Saturday following 34 consecutive starts at left guard and 47 straight games seeing some playing time, fifth-year senior Chris Watt is expected back in the Irish lineup Saturday against Pitt.

Watt suffered a posterior cruciate ligament tear Oct. 26 in a 45-10 win at Air Force.

“It was an issue of pain. and there was inflammation in there,” Kelly said, adding Watt had to get used to playing with a feeling of instability in the knee, which won’t require surgery.

“I think with a full week of practice, which he will practice (Tuesday), we think that he's going to be able to make the accommodations to be able to play at the level that he needs to play at.”

Watt’s return takes on added importance, given who will be lining up across from him and at times freshman right guard Steve Elmer on Saturday night — Pitt senior defensive tackle Aaron Donald, the reigning Bronko Nagurski Trophy National Player of the Week.

The 6-foot, 285-pound senior leads the nation in tackles for loss (2.4 per game), ranks third in sacks (1.1 per game) and is 12th in forced fumbles (0.38 per game). He’s also the nation’s active career sack leader with 27½.

Saturday, in a 21-10 loss to Georgia Tech, Donald amassed 11 solo tackles, six tackles for loss (highest in the FBS this season), two forced fumbles and a sack.

•Kelly Tuesday identified junior outside linebacker Ben Councell’s season-ending knee injury, suffered Saturday against Navy, as an anterior cruciate ligament issue. He said Councell would likely undergo surgery this week, once the swelling goes down, and that he’d likely be limited during spring practice, next March and April.

•ND’s offensive line, with fill-in Conor Hanratty making his first collegiate start (in Watt’s place). is coming off a game in which it did not allow a single non-intentional negative-yardage play (the Irish had three kneel-downs at the end to kill the clock) for the first time since at least 1970.

Squibs

•Two former Notre Dame assistant coaches are now members of Pitt head coach Paul Chryst’s staff — defensive ends and linebackers coach John Palermo, who served as Lou Holtz defensive line coach from 1988-89, and running backs coach Desmond Robinson, who held the same position at ND during the entire Bob Davie Era (1997-2001).

•Former Irish defensive back E.J. Banks is one of nine Pitt scholarship players who began their careers at the school as walk-ons. The senior has played in one game this season (Virginia Tech), but has yet to record a tackle or any other statistic.

Painful tendinitis in his knees has forced Notre Dame defensive tackle Louis Nix III (1) to miss the last two games. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN