Notre Dame football: Nix kids (?) about taking the fifth

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - It took Louis Nix all of about 30 seconds to steal the thunder from Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly’s 33-minute go-round with the media earlier Tuesday afternoon.

Moments after explaining why he had the Old Spice cologne jingle as his cell phone ringtone, the 6-foot-3, 357-pound senior nose guard from Jacksonville, Fla., seamlessly segued into the possibility that he could exercise his fifth-year option and return to ND in 2014.

“Who knows?” Nix ultimately framed both subjects with a big smile on his face before admitting that he is not actually an Old Spice consumer.

His admissions about his football future were intentionally murky.

“Doesn’t Notre Dame have a perfume or cologne?” he accurately and playfully posed, changing the subject.

How realistic is it that Nix would do a U-turn and push off the NFL Draft for another year when he is projected currently to be a top 15, if not top 10, pick in the first round in May?

Consider Nix has crammed 19 credit hours — four more than the norm — into his fall semester in order to have his degree requirements completed by December. (He plans to walk with his class in May for his mother’s benefit.)

Consider he came out for the first round of warm-ups Saturday night at Pitt’s Heinz Field in sweats just to confuse the media about his injury status for the game. “I like to mess with people a lot,” he said.

And consider he is a film, television, and theater major — and is good at it.

“It’s up in the air right now. Who knows? “ he said. “I don’t know the future. and I don’t think you guys do, either. It’s something to just keep thinking about. I love this place, and who wouldn’t want to come back for a fifth year at Notre Dame? Hey, half y’all thought I was leaving last year.”

Targeting aftermath

A little-known consequence for Irish junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt being ejected for targeting Saturday night seven seconds into the second quarter of ND’s 28-21 loss at Pitt was that Tuitt had to spend the rest of the first half and all of the second in the visitors’ locker room, isolated from his team.

The good news for the Irish (7-3) is that because the infraction occurred in the first half, Tuitt’s status for the Nov. 23 matchup with BYU (6-3) is unaffected.

The same cannot be said of Tuitt’s psyche.

“I had a conversation with him at halftime,” Kelly said, of ND’s leader in sacks. “I think he was confused, quite frankly.”

Who isn’t? The inconsistency with which the targeting rule has been applied has created a national outcry for reform of the less-than-1-year-old rule. Kelly, though, said he won’t coach his team any differently, moving forward.

“We’ll continue to coach our players to be aggressive, to tackle, to get to the football,” said Kelly, who has had two players ejected this season for targeting and nearly had a third. “We’ve never talked about punishing ball carriers or leading with your helmet. We’ll continue to use the right vocabulary, communicate properly with our players about how to finish tackles. So we won’t change in terms of the way we go to work on it every day.”

So what’s the answer?

“Targeting, as we all know it, is somebody dialing in intentionally to try to injure somebody,” Kelly said. “And we clearly know that that wasn’t the case in that instance. We’ve got some work to do with the legislation, and hopefully, we’ll be able to clean that up after the season.”

Tuitt’s shoulder and helmet collided with the helmet of Pitt quarterback Tom Savage, who dipped his head and lowered his shoulder at the last second to try to get a first down. That resulted in a 15-yard penalty on ND and Tuitt’s removal from the game.

“One of the things we’ve tried so hard to rectify in officiating is to be more universal in our interpretations,” Kelly said. “Now we’ve got (a rule) out there that’s looked at differently by conference. So we have a problem. We all recognize that. It’s a real shame that a young man misses a game. I think we all realize that it has to be dealt with. But we just can’t deal with it until the end of the year.”

Kelly said he’d like to be part of a committee that helps refine the rule for future seasons.

Talking ’bout practice

If practice makes perfect, then why aren’t the Irish doing any of it this week during their second bye week of the season?

Because the further injury risk outweighs the potential benefits in Kelly’s mind. So the Irish conditioned and lifted weights Tuesday and will repeat that regimen Thursday and Sunday.

“Look, if I knew going out and practicing two or three days was going to benefit us greatly for the BYU game, I’d be out there right now and we would not be talking,” he said. “But it’s in my estimation we could have a situation of diminished returns and put us in jeopardy.”

Added to the recent run of injuries, coming out of the Pitt game, were starting center Nick Martin and key defensive line backups Isaac Rochell and Jarron Jones. In fact, given the depleted state of the defensive line there is no such thing as a non-key backup in that position group.

That’s why inside linebacker Carlo Calabrese was playing nose guard in some of ND’s nickel and dime packages against the Panthers.

“We were pulling the rip chord on that one. That was an emergency of emergencies,” Kelly said. “We didn’t envision that, but it was really our next best option of getting somebody that knew the stunts that we wanted to run in that nickel package.

“And as a senior, he knew the fronts and the calls, so we could execute what we wanted to execute. And we knew we were really thin in that situation.”

Rochell and Jones both suffered sprained ankles in the Pitt game and are listed as day-to-day for BYU.

“They’re in our new line of shoeware called the (protective) boot,” Kelly deadpanned.

Senior nose guard/end Kona Schwenke, who missed the Pitt game with a high ankle sprain, had a cast removed from his foot with the hope he’d be available for BYU.

Junior outside linebacker Ishaq Williams is moving toward being available after missing the past two games and almost all of a third with a knee injury.

“Is he going to be 100 percent? Probably not,” Kelly said. “But we’re hopeful he’s going to be able to contribute (against BYU).”

Martin, meanwhile, is determined to do so, even though he suffered a fracture in his snapping hand in the first quarter of the Pitt game. Kelly expects Martin to play in a cast against the Cougars.

“He wants to play, and we think we can make it work,” Kelly said.

Focusing on 2013

With a BCS bowl option no longer in play, Kelly said he has had no problem finding a carrot to pull along his team toward a possible 9-3 finish.

Part of that formula won’t be building momentum for 2014, nor will Kelly use the remaining two regular-season games to get returning players on the field simply to get an experience jump on next season.

“As I talked to our team, our primary focus and the focus or our team is winning our last home game, and in particular sending our seniors out with a win,” Kelly said.

“They’ve got four quarters left at Notre Dame Stadium. They are going to be a huge part of the history of Notre Dame and helping us to four bowl games, and national championship (appearance), and we are going to do everything in our power to make certain that our seniors go out winners in their last game at Notre Dame Stadium.”


•The Irish coaching staff will use most of the balance of this week to amp up recruiting, but Kelly said the Pitt loss doesn’t change the message or, in his opinion, the likely reception they’ll get from prospects.

“Recruiting is a year-round process,” he said, “and if you’re jumping off board because we lost to Pittsburgh, you weren’t coming to Notre Dame anyway.”

•Lost in the bottom line Saturday night was the fact that the Irish offensive line kept Pitt from recording a sack for just the second time in the Panthers’ past 47 games.

The Irish rank fourth nationally in sacks allowed (0.7 per game) behind only Toledo, Northern Illinois and Air Force,

•Kelly never really directly answered Tuesday why the Irish only ran the ball six times (for 10 yards) in the second half against Pitt after the Irish parlayed 18 carries into 128 rushing yards (7.1 per carry) in building a 14-7 halftime lead.

But he did reconfirm offensive coordinator Chuck Martin is calling the plays, and Kelly defined his role in the process.

He said he has input into the game plan in the meetings leading up to game day, and that he also gives input in between offensive series on Saturdays, with the power to veto a play at any time.

“Look, if I don’t like the play, we’re not running the play,” said Kelly, who relinquished offensive play-calling this season for the first time in his head coaching career. “So that’s pretty clear. But that’s not the way to run the game. If you’re vetoing every other play, you might as well just call the plays. I’ve never wanted to operate under that.”

Notre Dame defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt, left, lays a hit on Pittsburgh quarterback Tom Savage (7) during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. Tuitt was flagged for targeting and ejected from the game. He will be available to play the entire game against BYU on Nov. 23. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER