Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly says decisions on investigation are 'imminent'

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Once Brian Kelly took the air out of his own press conference Tuesday with only limited news from the Frozen Five situation, the conversation, of course, eventually turned to the team’s holder on place kicks.

That was, and still is, walk-on senior Hunter Smith. And Kelly — ND’s fifth-year head coach — did the junior chemical engineering major the honor of not listing a backup in the official Irish depth chart, three days after Smith botched two holds that led to missed field goals in a 17-14 Irish win over Stanford.

Welcome to trap week, with an amply talented but disheveled North Carolina (2-3) team coming to town in between the Stanford high and a date Oct. 18 in Tallahassee, Fla., with reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and top-ranked Florida State (5-0).

And it could get even trappier when the sixth-ranked Irish (5-0) finally find out the fate of five suspended teammates at the center of the school’s 71-day old (as of Tuesday) academic fraud investigation process.

Or not.

Kelly’s best guestimate is that word would filter to him sometime Tuesday or Wednesday.

And then, if there were reinstatements of any or all among starters KeiVarae Russell, Ishaq Williams, DaVaris Daniels and reserves Kendall Moore and Eilar Hardy?

“I think that there are limited roles that (they) could find themselves (in),” Kelly said. “But I think it's hypothetical right now, because I don't have any information.

“I was asked this question on our (Sunday) teleconference, and it forced me to kind of give it some thought, so I did and have put some thoughts together in my mind.

“I think the overriding thought for me is six weeks is a long time. There's no way that somebody is going to come back in and start on Saturday.

“We'll see how it plays out if, in fact, we do have a player back. We'll try to get them an opportunity to contribute, but it will have to be in a limited role.”

All but Hardy have been held out of practices, games and meetings since Aug. 15. Hardy joined them in limbo on Aug.28.

The Tar Heels, a preseason Top 25 team, have had problems of their own — most of them self-inflicted and most of them having to do with their defense. UNC’s best defensive performance was ceding 27 points in a narrow four-point win over San Diego State on Sept. 6.

Rock bottom came the following game when North Carolina yielded 789 total yards and 70 points — both school records of a dubious kind – in a 29-point loss to East Carolina, after a bye week, no less.

The Irish lead the series, 16-2, and North Carolina has lost its last eight games when it faced ranked opponents.

“I think we do a lot of things to prevent having somebody stand up and really try to re-center,” Kelly said of ND’s method of quashing overconfidence.

“For example, during last week, we didn't make too much of the emotional part of the Stanford game. We talked more about, ‘It's one game. Yeah, it's Stanford, and the fans are going to be excited and it's going to be a great atmosphere. But in its totality, it's one game and it's one step.’

“So we can't play up each week, because you just can't do it here at Notre Dame or you're going to stumble. I think it's been a mind-set that we've tried to cast into our day-to-day preparation.”

And speaking on preparation, Hunter Smith had the media scrambling Saturday to figure out who the backup holder was after his two mishandled holds. Kelly suggested Smith, who just happens to be from North Carolina, try gloves on a third try in the drizzle and wind chill conditions registering in the low 30s.

Kicker Kyle Brindza ended up nailing that one, a 45-yarder that put ND ahead 10-7 and pulled the senior even in the Irish record book with John Carney for most field goals made in a career (51).

Kelly explained his philosophy behind selecting a full-time holder rather than using backup quarterbacks Malik Zaire or DeShone Kizer, for instance.

“Although they are certainly part of our football team, they work off a different schedule,” Kelly said of the long snapper, kicker and holder. “So even though he is a walk-on, if you can find somebody that is committed to that craft and committed to wanting to do the work and somebody that really takes the time and effort to be with that group, that's a good situation.

“We still believe in Hunter 100 percent; that he's the right guy for that position.”

Personnel matters

• For once, Kelly didn’t have to spend Sunday and Monday figuring out how to compensate for a player out due to injury.

In fact, he said, that beyond some bumps and bruises, the post-Stanford medical report came back clean, to the level no one was expected to even miss practice time this week. And the rumors of a flu epidemic going around the team were overstated (“Four or five guys needed medication”).

Instead Kelly’s newest challenge was to determine how to work grad student and captain Austin Collinsworth back into the mix at safety after the preseason projected starter missed the first four games of the season, while his replacement, junior Elijah Shumate, surged in his absence.

Collinsworth played briefly in Saturday’s 17-14 win over Stanford, making a tackle on his first snap of the season, a three-yard run by the Cardinal’s Barry Sanders in the third quarter.

“I think it will be more about situational rotation,” said Kelly, affirming Shumate retaining his starting status. “Now we can probably get into a three-person rotation for both (safety) positions, because we've cross-trained (Collinsworth) for both now.”

So Collinsworth will help keep strong safety Shumate and free safety Max Redfield fresh and deepen a position group diluted by a season-ending injury to junior Nicky Baratti and the extended absence of Frozen Five suspendee Eilar Hardy.

“I think it's a better situation than we had before the injury,” Kelly said.

• The stunning individual stat to date, especially after the Stanford game, is that senior outside linebacker Ben Councell has yet to record his first tackle of the season.

Kelly anticipated the 6-foot-5, 254-pound Councell would see significant playing time against the Cardinal, given Stanford’s tendency to run power formations. Instead, Stanford abandoned their philosophy when it couldn’t run the ball effectively and tried to spread the Irish out instead.

That led to an Irish defensive alignment of having a smaller outside linebacker (6-1, 220 James Onwualu) or a nickelback (5-11, 205 Matthias Farley) on the field for much of the game, as has been the case in ND’s first four games.

“He's a big, physical, close-to-the-line-of-scrimmage linebacker for us,” Kelly said of Councell. “We're getting much more spread, and so situationally, he's got to be able to be ready when we need him in (power formation) situations.

“He's helping us immensely on special teams, and he's a role player for us in terms of playing a significant role when we need him.”

By the numbers

• Notre Dame moved from 25-1 to 12-1 odds this week to win national title per Bovada.LV, following ND’s 17-14 victory over Stanford. Florida State moves back into the favorite’s role at 11-2, replacing Alabama.

Behind the Seminoles and ahead of the Irish are Auburn (6-1), Georgia (8-1), Michigan State (8-1) and Alabama (10-1.)

Also among the leaders are Baylor, Mississippi, Ohio State and Oklahoma all at 14-1; Mississippi State at 16-1 and Oregon at 22-1.

Also from Bovada, Irish quarterback Everett Golson moves from 12-1 to 10-1 in the latest Heisman Trophy odds. Georgia running back Todd Gurley is the new favorite at 8-5, replacing Oregon’s Marcus Mariota.

Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott is second at 5-2, then Auburn QB Nick Marshall (11-2), Mariota (8-1) and Golson.

Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, is at 20-1.

• Here’s how the Sagarin computer rankings view Notre Dame and its 12 football opponents, from best to worst: 9. Notre Dame, 13. Florida State, 15. Stanford, 19. USC, 25. Louisville, 33. Arizona State, 41. Northwestern, 59. Syracuse, 76. North Carolina, 80. Michigan, 89. Navy, 91. Rice, 97. Purdue.

Squibs

• Irish sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith became a repeat winner this week of the Lott IMPACT Player of the Week. The national award goes to the top defensive player.

Smith had a career-high 14 tackles, including 2.5 for loss and a sack, Saturday in ND’s win over Stanford.

• North Carolina starting right tackle Jon Heck is the son of former Irish All-America offensive lineman Andy Heck.

The 6-foot-6, 300-pound redshirt sophomore, from Bolles High in Jacksonville, Fla., missed Carolina’s past two games with an injury.

ND did not offer the younger Heck, a three-star prospect, a scholarship coming out of high school.

• North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams is one of nine players who leads his team in both rushing and passing yardage.

The Irish have already faced one of the other eight, Syracuse’s Terrel Hunt, though he’s out four to six weeks after suffering a broken leg last Friday against Louisville.

Backup Austin Wilson is in line to start for the Orange, who recently demoted offensive coordinator George McDonald, when they face top-ranked Florida State on Saturday.

• One-time Notre Dame recruit Elijah Hood comes to Notre Dame Stadium Saturday as North Carolina’s second-leading rusher. The 6-foot, 220-pound freshman running back has amassed 166 yards on 39 carries (4.3 average) and three touchdowns.

Eric Hansen: 574-235-6112

With the academic fraud hearings concluded, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly could be facing reintegration questions. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)