Notre Dame football: Nix back; Jones in the mix
SOUTH BEND - The bounce in Brian Kelly’s step pretty much gave away the news of the day before he was even asked about it.
All the caveats and hypotheticals surrounding Notre Dame standout senior nose guard Louis Nix’s availability for Saturday night’s lone venture by the 24th-ranked Irish (7-2) into ACC country this year sort of melted away Thursday.
The surprise came moments later when it was revealed by the Irish head coach who Nix’s tag-team partner at nose guard would be against Pitt (4-4) at Heinz Field (8 p.m. EST, ABC-TV).
The mildly enigmatic but talented 6-foot-6, 305-pound sophomore followed up a quasi- breakthrough game against Navy Saturday with a strong week of practice, thus pushing out the question of whether the backup defensive end could end up in the shallow pool to be Nix’s replacement at nose guard in 2014.
“I think standing here right now, that’s a good possibility,” Kelly said Thursday after practice.
That Nix transformed from possibility to certainty for Saturday definitely uncomplicated Kelly’s job of shifting what healthy bodies remain in a depleted defensive front seven and gives the coach arguably his most impactful defensive player against a Pitt offensive line that has allowed 29 sacks — 22 more than its Notre Dame counterparts.
“He had a good week of practice, a full week of practice, moved around well,” Kelly said of Nix, who missed the past two games against option teams Air Force and Navy with what has been described as knee tendinitis.
As for Jones, small-school competition at St. Thomas Aquinas Institute in Rochester, N.Y., predictably put him in line for a redshirt season in 2012, but the hope was the talent that prompted CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming, for one, to label him as the No. 13 prospect overall in the 2012 class would begin to surface in 2013.
But through ND’s first eight games this season, he totaled three tackles. Against Navy, Jones more than doubled his career total with four more.
“He’s a big kid that we just need to continue to develop,” Kelly said, “but we feel like he can go in there and hold his own and contribute.”
More personnel matters
•Fifth-year senior Chris Watt remains on target to return to the starting lineup Saturday night at left offensive guard after missing the Navy game with a PCL tear in his knee.
“We are pleasantly surprised with Chris Watt,” Kelly said while literally knocking on wood. “Once he got the swelling out of there and the pain, he’s taken virtually all the first-team reps and he’s looked good in practice this week.”
•Senior safety Austin Collinsworth (neck) participated in non-contact drills Wednesday in practice and was cleared Thursday to play on Saturday night, but the extent he’ll actually be used is still to be determined.
The Irish did get a reinforcement this week in the safety corps with the return of fellow starter Elijah Shumate after he missed the past three games with a hamstring injury.
“We were pleased with what he did this week and (that) he was able to cut it loose,” Kelly said.
•Starting defensive end Sheldon Day, in and out of the lineup since suffering a high ankle sprain against Purdue on Sept. 14, is expected to see at least some spot duty, if not more, against the Panthers.
•Key backup outside linebacker Ishaq Williams, out since suffering a knee injury early in ND’s 45-10 win at Air Force on Oct. 26, remains on a trajectory that would put him back in action Nov. 23 against BYU.
Williams participated in strength training and range-of-motion exercises this week and will be cleared to start running next week, Kelly said.
•It is Kelly’s hope that key backup nose guard/defensive end Kona Schwenke (high ankle sprain versus Navy) will also be back for BYU, Schwenke’s final home game at ND.
“He’s in a cast for 10 days.,” Kelly said. “Instead of putting him in a (protective) boot, we wanted to go 10 days to really shut that down. and we’ll know when we take that cast off where we are with him.”
Out of the running?
The curiosity in freshman running back Tarean Folston’s serious push for more playing time is how those potentially being displaced might react.
The 5-9, 207-pounder from Cocoa, Fla., in his first extended opportunity, ran for 140 yards on 18 carries against Navy and scored the winning touchdown in a 38-34 ND victory. He had 47 yards rushing in the go-ahead 76-yard scoring drive.
Folston’s 140 yards were just eight short of the freshman school record, held for the past 38 years by Jerome Heavens, set against Georgia Tech in 1975 in a game that became famous because of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger’s cameo in it.
So how did juniors George Atkinson and Amir Carlisle, the players most likely to have carries reduced to accommodate Folston’s surge, react to the freshman’s push for a larger role?
“If your program is developing the players in the right way and things are in the right place, they respond in a positive way,” Kelly said. “And what I mean by a positive way is that they get in there and then they make every rep in practice count, because they can see that it’s a very competitive situation.
“And I think they’ve done that. So I look at it as an extremely positive situation where they’re in there and doing everything that they can to make certain that they’re getting better as well.”