Notre Dame football notebook: Bryant stirs excitement for Irish

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- At some point, Brian Kelly will likely express real or feigned unease, and in great detail, about what Rutgers (6-6) might bring to the upcoming New Era Pinstripe Bowl matchup, next Saturday at Yankee Stadium in New York. For now the most compelling story lines involving the 25th-ranked Notre Dame football team (8-4) remain those that tie into what 2014 might look like for Kelly and Irish. Which is why redshirting freshman running back Greg Bryant, a player whose role next Saturday will be bystander/cheerleader, came bubbling up in conversation at Kelly’s press conference Saturday, the Irish head coach’s last in South Bend before the team leaves for New York on Monday. That and the fact Bryant has been the most rumored-about player on the Irish roster this season that has yet to make a significant statistical impact. Stir together a five-star prospect rating, a long distance from home, a crowded depth chart at his position, limited playing time, and you have the makings of cyber-panic among those who follow the program. Saturday, there was finally substance to juxtapose against the speculation. The 5-foot-10, 204-pounder from Delray Beach, Fla., who fermented mid to late season following knee surgery, was back on the practice field. And excelling. “I’m really excited about where he can be next year,” Kelly said. “I think we did the right thing with him not playing this year, because I could see where his development (is going) and how he’s going to help our football team next year. He’s a dynamic player.” Dynamic or not, there’s still a numbers game to address. The four players who split 345 of ND’s 348 running back carries in 2013 — juniors George Atkinson III, Cam McDaniel, and Amir Carlisle, and ascending freshman Tarean Folston — are all back next season, theoretically at least. There are no running backs in the 2014 Irish recruiting class, once North Carolina prep prospect Elijah Hood decommitted in August. Bryant had three carries for 14 yards over three games this fall before knee pain pushed him to the sidelines and ultimately toward the pursuit of a medical redshirt year. Had Bryant played in one additional game in the season’s first half or played a single snap in the second half of ND’s 2013 season, he would have been out of the running to recoup the year of eligibility from a medical redshirt standpoint. “The procedure that he had (was) very similar to Louis’ procedure,” Kelly said of senior nose guard Louis Nix, whose late-November operation to repair a torn meniscus effectively ended his season.Like Nix, a fellow Floridian, Bryant struggled with his role, or lack of it, on the team early on in his freshman season. “It wasn’t that he wasn’t happy,” Kelly said. “It was every freshman goes through that period of time first that, ‘Hey, I’m a great player. I should be playing. And then how do I communicate that back to my friends that I’m not playing. What’s wrong with you? You’re not a good player?’ “So that communication — I think his dad helped him a lot with that, communicating. You’re having a conversation with the parent usually helps a lot, so it starts there. Then I think it’s just the realization as time goes on, that there’s so much more than just stepping out on the football field. “(It’s) handling, the day-to-day academics and handling the day-to-day scheduling, weight-training and all those things. I think we’ve had that conversation with a number of players. They’re just going through the growing pains of being a freshman.” On the mend The biggest surprise this month among ND’s convalescing players has been junior defensive end Chase Hounshell, whose three shoulder surgeries — all on the same shoulder — have wiped out each of his past two seasons. Down the road Hounshell is a strong candidate to receive a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA if he can stay healthy, but for now just being healthy is a victory in itself. “Hounshell is practicing. He’s with us on scout team,” Kelly said of the 6-4, 271-pounder, whose last playing time came during the 2011 season. “He’s fully engaged (in) contact. He feels good about where he is, feels better than he ever has.” -- Sophomore safety Nicky Baratti and freshman linebacker Doug Randolph, both of whom missed the regular season because of shoulder surgeries, are running, conditioning and doing individual drill work, but remain out of contact periods in practice and likely will do so during the spring, Kelly said. -- Junior defensive lineman Tony Springmann, among Kelly’s most viable options to fill the vacuum at nose guard in 2014, continues a slow comeback from August knee surgery. “He picked up an infection, so that put him well behind,” Kelly said. “He’s not even close. We expect him to be ready for the fall, but he’s certainly in no position to even compete right now.” What’s my line? One of the more comedic moments of Saturday’s press conference — and unintentionally at that — unfolded when Kelly was pressed to name the backups for his patchwork offensive line. Three former starters — guards Christian Lombard and Chris Watt, and center Nick Martin — remain out of action, and have been replaced by freshman Steve Elmer, junior Conor Hanratty and junior Matt Hegarty, respectively. As for the potential replacements for the replacements? “I think the first and second unit are as one. Pretty much,” Kelly said, pulling a depth chart out of his pocket and staring at it blankly. “I think at center right now we’d probably kick over Hanratty at center and (Mark) Harrell would go in at guard. Ummm. (Pause) Ummm. (Pause). That’s about it. “You know I don’t want to play (true freshman Mike) McGlinchey. And Big Red is maybe going to have to play, (walk-on Kevin) Carr.” Kelly then stared down at his paper again and paused. “We’re a little thin there right now. We’ve got one guy that we could probably plug in there right now and that’s — we could probably — yeah. That’s about it right now. We’ve got one guy.” The four freshman linemen — all of whom will redshirt — have impressed Kelly, especially the 6-8, 290-pound McGlinchey. “McGlinchey could play tight end — he’s that athletic,” Kelly said. “He throws the ball better than half our quarterbacks. He’s that kind of athlete.” Future gazing Kelly said he has asked for evaluations for three Irish underclassmen from the NFL Draft Advisory Board. The players who will receive evaluations are all three true juniors — defensive end Stephon Tuitt, tight end Troy Niklas and running back George Atkinson III. That is not necessarily a precursor to any of them leaving. NFL writer Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Thursday that the number of early entries so far in 2014 NFL Draft was at 201, 31 more than in 2012. Underclassmen have until Jan. 15 to declare. On schedule Kelly admitted Saturday that ND’s 2015 Shamrock Series game with Boston College at Fenway Park in Boston was an idea he brought to the table. “It was (about) finding the partner there, and certainly Boston College made sense,” he said. Kelly grew up and remains a staunch Boston Red Sox fan and even threw out the first pitch at a game in Fenway last summer. “You guys were all talking about my contract last year,” Kelly quipped. “The reason that wasn’t signed was the Fenway (Shamrock Series) deal. It was being negotiated, and they’re hard negotiators in Boston. So when we were finally able to get my family Green Monster seats, I was finally able to sign the contract.” Kelly’s overall impression of the 2014, 2015 and 2016 ND schedules, revealed on Friday? “There’s no question it’s a challenging schedule,” he said, “but I knew coming in that we were going to have a challenging schedule, especially as an independent. We can’t be left with questions about our schedule as an independent. We’re going to have to play a notch above a conference-scheduling team.” Squibs -- The Irish will use both the New York Giants’ and New York Jets’ practice facilities while prepping in New York for the bowl. -- Among the pre-bowl activities the ND football team will participate in while in New York are having breakfast at and ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange and visiting the observation deck at the Rockefeller Center. -- The ESPN broadcast teams for ND’s Pinstripe Bowl matchup with Rutgers are so follows: TV: Chris Fowler (play-by-play), Jesse Palmer (analyst) and Paul Carcaterra (sideline); Radio: Connell McShane (play-by-play), Jack Ford (analyst) and C.J. Papa (sideline). IMG (Don Criqui, Allen Pinkett) will also broadcast the game on radio. -- The folks at NationalChamps.net have published their insanely early Top 25 college football teams for 2014. Notre Dame checks in at No. 22. Here’s the entire top 25: 1. Florida State; 2. Alabama; 3. Auburn; 4. Stanford; 5. Oregon; 6. Michigan State; 7. LSU; 8. Ohio State; 9. Baylor; 10. UCF; 11. UCLA; 12. Texas A&M; 13. South Carolina; 14. Louisville; 15. USC; 16. Oklahoma; 17. Clemson; 18. Georgia; 19. Missouri; 20. Arizona State; 21. Oregon State; 22. Notre Dame; 23. Florida; 24. Minnesota; 25. Ole Miss. EHansen@SBTinfo.com574-235-6112Twitter: @hansenNDInsider

Notre Dame's Greg Bryant during the Notre Dame vs. Michigan game on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich.