UPDATE: Notre Dame football: End of the road for Nix?
SOUTH BEND -- Louis Nix Sr. will likely get to see snow for the first time in his life on Saturday, but the Jacksonville, Fla., resident and father of Notre Dame star nose guard Louis Nix III won’t get to see his son play in a Notre Dame uniform in South Bend.
Maybe for good.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s post-practice bombshell that the younger Nix’s torn meniscus in his left knee led to season-ending surgery Thursday morning ramped up the speculation over whether the 6-foot-3, 357-ponder will ultimately discard his fifth-year option at Notre Dame to enter the 2014 NFL Draft or make an unexpected U-turn back to ND.
Perhaps the emotions of having his family in town shrouded the pragmatism that Nix is a consensus top 15 prospect, with ESPN’s Todd McShay ranking him sixth overall and fellow analyst Mel Kiper Jr., 11th. But for the first time since pushing away the temptation of an early entry in the draft last December, Nix sounded sincere about feeling a tug from both sides this time around.
“Realistically, it’s still a big decision now,” said Nix, who added that the timing of surgery won’t be a deciding factor.
“I don’t know what to consider. This is a great place, a great university. It’s done a lot for my life. And I feel like if I did come back, it would still do numerous things for me and help me out. There are a lot of choices on both sides, but at this time I’m not really even thinking about it. I just want my guys to go out there and play, and I just want to be supportive.”
The Irish (7-3) face BYU (7-3) on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium as ND celebrates Senior Day. A sophomore (Jarron Jones), a senior (Kona Schwenke) and a seldom-used fifth-year senior (Tyler Stockton) are the three-headed tag team charged with trying to fill Nix’s void.
Jones, exclusively a defensive end up until three weeks ago, is coming off an injury himself that curtailed his snaps in a 28-21 upset loss to Pitt on Nov. 9, the last time the Irish played. But Kelly said the 6-5, 305-pounder had shaken the ankle injury and had a “great week” of practice.
“(Kona) is not 100 percent,” Kelly conceded. “Jarron Jones will have to play a lot. Kona’s going to give it all he has. He really wants to play. It’s important to him to play. How much we can get out of him, we’ll see.”
Schwenke suffered a high ankle sprain in a win over Navy on Nov. 2 and hasn’t played since. He’s been a productive fill-in for both Nix and defensive end Sheldon Day when they’ve missed time earlier this season.
That Nix needed surgery was always part of the plan, penciled in for after the season. The shift in the timing of it is what caused such a stir on Thursday.
“It just got to the point where Lou really tried to fight through it the best he could,” Kelly said. “And it was such that he was not going to be able to play at a level that was going to help the team. And he was not going to hurt the team.”
Nix said he first started experience the severe pain in his left knee as long ago as the BCS National Championship Game loss to Alabama on Jan. 7, but that team doctors were never able to pinpoint when the meniscus tear actually happened.
The pain flared this fall, and eventually tendinitis began double-teaming to add another layer of discomfort as well as a challenge to flexibility and mobility. Eventually it prompted Nix to sit out games against Air Force on Oct. 26 and Navy the following Saturday.
“Me being an athlete, I didn’t want to seem like I’m soft or anything,” Nix said.
He underwent platelet-rich plasma treatments during his time away and not only returned to action against Pitt on No. 9, but he played 63 of a possible 76 snaps. He made five tackles.
The Irish had a bye week last week and didn’t practice, but they did do conditioning and weight training. And late in that week, Nix felt like the healing process had been thrown into reverse.
The ND doctors ordered another MRI and Nix got a second opinion on his condition by renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews. Nix said Andrews and Irish team physician Dr. Brian Ratigan, the latter who performed the surgery, agreed that the operation couldn’t wait any longer.
“Me walking to class, me being in class, teachers noticing I have to get up and stand up because my leg wasn’t comfortable at a 90-degree angle. I couldn’t sleep because of it,” Nix said. “It’s been like that all year, but it worsened.”
Nix said it’s expected he’ll be able to return to normal activity in six weeks, then he’ll spend two additional weeks strengthening the quadriceps muscle in his left leg.
Doctors orders will keep Nix from even attending practices, at least for a while. He won’t be able to make the Nov. 30 road trip to Stanford either, even as a bystander. And he won’t be able to be on the sidelines Saturday to watch the game.
“It won’t be the same (watching from) the locker room,” Nix said, “but my guys know and everybody knows the reasons why.”
He will be able to make the Senior Day walk, albeit on crutches, with his mother, Stephanie Wingfield, and father. His mom missed his Senior Day at Raines High in Jacksonville, because she couldn’t get off work. So she has been dreaming of this day for four years.
“All she does is talk about it,” Nix said. “My dad is happy about it. ... He’s just ecstatic. I’m happy for them, because they get this opportunity to share something special with me, being at this great university.
“It turned my life around. Had a lot growing up, had a lot of issues. Lot of things that could have happened to me that didn’t. And I chose to come here, and it’s changed my life for the best, so that’s a special moment just for my whole family.”
At some point, they’ll talk, maybe not this weekend, about life after Notre Dame. The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the 2014 draft is Jan. 15. But when is the right time to restart the discussion?
“I don’t even know,” Nix said. “I’ve never been in this situation where I’ve had to make two big decisions (surgery and NFL), but I don’t think either decision is wrong, because who wouldn’t want to be at Notre Dame? I feel like you guys wish you could be here right now instead of having a real job.
“This is a great place, and I enjoy every day. I enjoy all my experiences — my highs, my lows here. Sometimes I even enjoy the snow. It’s hard to believe, but yeah I think there are two sides to it. But right now I’m just thinking about being there for my teammates., my rehab, and getting back to walking better.”
-- You might have thought ND junior center Nick Martin simply had a boo-boo on his snapping (right) hand. The first-year starter, who actually had never played the position in his life before last spring, broke his hand during the second quarter of ND’s 28-21 loss to Pitt on Nov. 9.
There was some concern on Kelly’s part on how — or even if — Martin would be able to manage it, concerns that were quickly dispelled by the younger brother of starting left tackle Zack Martin.
“It’s fine,” Nick Martin said of the hand. “We had a bye week, so I had a lot of time to get everything down. Now it’s routine.”
“There’s really not,” he said. “You just get the ball to the quarterback.”
Martin will wear a hard splint during the game, but he doesn’t wear it at other times when he’s not playing football.
“That family, Nick and Zack Martin, are pretty unique,” Kelly said. “They’re tough-minded kids. They make it seem like it’s nothing, but it’s a pretty significant injury that he’s fighting through and he did a really good job this week of doing the things necessary.”
-- Kelly said junior outside linebacker Ishaq Williams and freshman defensive end Isaac Rochell both practiced this week in varying degrees.
“They will participate,” Kelly said, “and we’ll hope for the best and we’ll try to get as much as we can out of them on Saturday.”
Williams has been out since suffering a knee injury against Air Force on Oct. 26. Rochell suffered a sprained ankle against Pitt on Nov. 9 that knocked him out of that game. Overall, 11 of the 22 players who began the season on the ND defense’s two-deeps have missed at least two games because of injuries.
-- Defensive end Sheldon admitted he thought the loose ball he swatted at in the Pitt game was an incomplete pass and not a fumble. He, and several other Irish players, then walked away from the ball, and the Panthers recovered.
“Not my best moment I’ve had in my career,” he said.
The sophomore starter was then told the play was No. 2 on ESPN SportsCenter’s NOT Top 10 plays.
“Thank you for bringing it to my attention,” he said.
-- Freshman outside linebacker Jaylon Smith will swap his No. 9 jersey out for Danny Spond’s No. 13 Saturday as a tribute to the player who mentored him this season.
Spond, a senior, gave up football in August because of debilitating hemiplegic migraines he was experiencing, but continues on as a student assistant coach.