Notre Dame football: Staring down the future


South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - Notre Dame’s climb to the No. 2 position nationally Sunday in sacks allowed was tempered by the news Irish head coach Brian Kelly will have to plug in another spare part.

Junior center Nick Martin, a first-year starter who finished the Pittsburgh game on Nov. 9 with a broken snapping hand and started Saturday’s 23-13 win over BYU playing through the same condition, is now out for what’s left of the season and postseason with what Kelly termed a “significant knee injury.”

Kelly hinted during his regular Sunday teleconference with the media that more details would likely be revealed Tuesday, after he gets a look at the results of an MRI. But the one detail that is most relevant to the newly re-ranked No. 25 Irish (8-3) in their regular-season finale Saturday night at No. 8 Stanford (9-2) is that junior Matt Hegarty is set to make his first collegiate start against the most oppressive defensive front seven the Irish have seen this season.

And he’ll do so a year after not knowing if he had a future in football at all. The 6-5, 300-pounder from Aztec, N.M., suffered a stroke on Nov. 8, 2012, then underwent surgery 36 days later to address two holes in his heart that he had been born with but had gone undetected for the first 20 years of his life. Hegarty said doctors told him the holes were the impetus for the stroke.

The Irish already have lost starting right guard Christian Lombard in early October to a season-ending knee injury, with true freshman Steve Elmer taking his place. Left guard Chris Watt missed the Navy game on Nov. 2 and has been playing with a torn posterior cruciate ligament in his knee in ND’s subsequent games.

“It could have been an absolute disaster if you think about it,” Kelly said of the line shuffling.

Instead, they’ve flourished, at least when it comes to pass blocking. Only Toledo with five sacks in 11 games has allowed fewer than ND’s seven. And the past two games the Irish have faced the nation’s active career solo sack leader in the FBS, in Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald, and No. 3 on the list, BYU outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy.

Neither had a sack against ND, and the two combined for a quiet three tackles. The Irish will face a Bednarik Award semifinalist (nation’s best defensive player) for the third week in a row Saturday night in Cardinal outside linebacker Trent Murphy.(13 sacks, 19 tackles for loss). But he’s got the most impressive supporting cast among the three.

Stanford is the best sacking team the Irish have faced this season, ranking seventh nationally. At 11th, they’re also the leader among Irish opponents in tackles for loss per game, and only Michigan State’s top-ranked rush defense is better among the teams on ND’s schedule than Stanford (fourth) in that category.

“You cannot play finesse football against Stanford,” Kelly said.

Hegarty was part of the most non-finesse effort by the Irish on both sides of the line of scrimmage this season to date Saturday in a bruising victory over the normally high-octane Cougars. Martin came out of the game at the 1:47 mark of the first quarter, so Hegarty played more than three quarters in his longest extended playing time of his career.

“I thought the big series for him was when we were backed up on our own goal line,” Kelly said of an Irish fourth-quarter drive that started on their own 5 following Jarron Jones blocking a BYU field goal attempt.

“And (he) did a very good job under those conditions, and I thought he held his own. I thought for a first time in there, he did a nice job.”

Looking a bit further into the future beyond Saturday night’s brainiac matchup (7 p.m. EST; FOX), here are a few poignant points to ponder.

Life after Tommy Rees

Late last week Kelly made the point, for the first time, that exiled quarterback and 2012 starter Everett Golson should not be considered a lock to be the starter in 2014.

While it reeks a little more like motivation than reality, the Irish fourth-year head coach was trying to make a point about how far he feels true freshman Malik Zaire has come, even while redshirting.

“I’m not trying to be cute,” Kelly said. “We think that there’s going to be very good competition for that position.”

Kelly acknowledged that the coaching staff still needs to sit down with senior Andrew Hendrix, ND’s current No. 2 behind senior Tommy Rees, to see if a fifth-year option makes sense for both sides.

Toledo (Ohio) Central Catholic senior DeShone Kizer is the only QB recruit in the 2014 class, but the Irish did secure a commitment from junior standout Blake Barnett, from Corona, Calif., for 2015 on Sunday.

As for the more immediate future, Kelly believes preserving a year of eligibility for Zaire outweighed any possible benefits of a few cameos this season. As it is, Hendrix has been on the field only long enough in 2013 to attempt 14 passes.

“Quite honestly. without sugar-coating it, I wanted to redshirt him,” Kelly said of Zaire. “I wanted a quarterback that was going to be a fifth-year guy. Throughout it all, we wanted that more than anything else. And we’re going to get that with Malik.”

Kelly said it’s not been the typical redshirt year, like Hendrix, Golson and since-departed Gunner Kiel experienced, running scout team offense as freshmen.

“I took him on every trip,” Kelly said. “He got to see the different venues. He got to see the programs and the atmospheres across the country. He really got a chance to see what it’s like to prepare on the road, really give him that sense of what it’s like and the preparation necessary to be the starting quarterback here.

“He’s been in every meeting. He did not go down on scout team for one second. He’s been involved in every game-planning session. He just hasn’t taken the reps, which he’ll get a ton of reps when we break and get into the spring. So we gave him everything we can give him.”

Life after Stephon Tuitt?

Saturday very well could have been Senior Day for junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt, who continues to rate as a consensus top 15 pick in next May’s NFL Draft if he chooses to give up his final season at Notre Dame.

But with Tuitt, you really never know, even though a purely business approach would dictate an early departure.

What has become apparent is if he did make an unlikely U-turn back to Notre Dame for a senior season, the way you look at the Irish and their postseason possibilities in 2014 change dramatically.

In ND’s three losses this season, Tuitt was a non-factor in two of them. Against Pittsburgh, the man who stands No. 5 on ND’s career sack list (20) was tossed from the game early in the second quarter because of a targeting penalty. The Irish then largely flailed against the worst pass-protecting team they’ve seen this season.

Tuitt managed one tackle against the Panthers, one more than he did while playing a full game against Michigan on Sept. 7.

Well, technically.

Tuitt wasn’t Tuitt for the first three games of the season as he dealt with the lingering affects from his offseason sports hernia surgery. Against three of the worst pass-protecting teams in the country (Temple 101 out of 123, Michigan 110 and Purdue 116), which also happen to be well below-average rushing teams, Tuitt had a total of four tackles and just one sack.

Saturday, against a team with a comparable pass protection track record but with the kind of dual-threat quarterback that gave the Irish fits earlier in the season, Tuitt had seven tackles and one sack (and was close on a couple of other occasions).

The Irish must find answers at inside linebacker and nose guard for 2014, and Jarrett Grace and Jarron Jones might evolve into those, but there is no apparent turn-key replacement on the horizon for what Tuitt brings to both run defense and the pass rush.

Life after Stanford

Almost every published bowl projection now has the Irish landing in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, Dec. 28 against a team from what used to be the Big East — the American Athletic Conference.

Losses by Indiana, Northwestern and Tennessee over the weekend expanded those bowl options by virtue of the Big Ten and SEC not being able to fill all their contracted bowl slots.

Could there be a dark horse that derails what seems like a natural matchup?

Kelly said Sunday there are times that bowl destinations can give his team a recruiting bump, depending on the location (El Paso is a good example where that was not the case), but when he gives his input to athletic director Jack Swarbrick, Kelly said that won’t be a consideration at all this time.

“I want this to be a reward for our seniors,” Kelly said, “so the bowl opportunity for our team is going to be, in large degree, the input that I’ve gotten from our seniors and where they’d like to go and where they’d like to play.”

So if you’re a 22-year-old and mulling Shreveport, La., Dallas, Detroit, Memphis, Birmingham, New York, San Diego, etc., it certainly would seem to bring the low-paying, but geographically alluring Poinsettia Bowl back into play.

Also when you look at the ACC bowl alignment for 2014 and beyond, of which ND will be a part starting next season, New York and Detroit are on the list as is Florida three times, El Paso, North Carolina and Tennessee. California, where the Poinsettia is played, is not.

The Poinsettia matches the No. 2 pick from the Mountain West Conference against Army,. which is already out of the bowl picture. The logistical problem if ND did have interest is the bowl’s backup contract with the Mid-American Conference.

“We would not renege on our agreement with the Mid-American Conference,” Poinsettia Bowl executive director Bruce Binkowski said Sunday night. “We have a long-standing relationship with them, either as a backup or a primary team through 2019. And I wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize that.”

He also said he hasn’t been in discussions with anyone but the MAC to this point, but knows there can be backdoor deals struck between teams, leagues and bowls.

“The only way those work is if everybody could be made happy and whole,” he said.

The MAC already has six bowl-eligible teams and likely will add a seventh in former Kelly coaching stop Central Michigan. There are three contracted MAC slots, four if you count the Poinsettia and five if Northern Illinois transcends into the BCS lineup.

Notre Dame's Nick Martin is helped off the field during the college football game between Notre Dame and Brigham Young on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN