Notebook: Notre Dame football injuries get more plentiful and weirder

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Both the pluck in the face of mounting injuries and absurdity of their timing, depth, volume and even origin of them are best summed up by Notre Dame freshman safety Drue Tranquill’s second half against Louisville last Saturday.

The starting safety played it with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee, an injury that was discovered Sunday and will require surgery plus at least four months of rehab. He finished the 31-28 Irish loss with five tackles and an interception.

“Hard to believe I got my first career interception on this torn ACL,” Tranquill, ND’s most impacting freshman, tweeted on his Twitter account Tuesday afternoon. “A memory can't get much more bittersweet than that.”

“We thought he pinched the fat pad on his knee,” Irish head football coach Brian Kelly revealed Tuesday along with a season-ending prognosis and surgery for starting nose guard Jarron Jones, who suffered a left foot injury in Saturday’s first half.

“(Tranquill) played the second half on it. That's how strong he is, hamstring and quad area is so strong that he passed his ACL test. Then he comes in on Sunday and he's swollen. We're like, ‘We need an MRI.’

“We get an MRI. He has an ACL.”

And Kelly has another headache — or three — to deal with on an already depleted defense heading into Saturday’s Woulda-Coulda-Shoulda matchup in Los Angeles between unranked/unlucky/underachieving 7-4 teams Notre Dame and USC.

Kickoff is 3:30 p.m. EDT (FOX), making it the first afternoon game in L.A., between the longtime cross-country rivals since 2000.

Defensive tackle Sheldon Day (MCL sprain) didn’t have the miracle recovery Kelly was hoping for and will miss his second straight game, though being back for a bowl game is still a possibility.

That means ND’s starting interior defensive line Saturday will comprise Southern California product Justin Utupo making collegiate start No. 3 in front of family and friends, alongside sophomore Jacob Matuska, making his first start after recording five of his six career tackles last Saturday.

The Irish do get back for depth freshman nose guard Daniel Cage, who missed the Louisville game with a knee sprain.

Ailing grad student Austin Collinsworth will slide from strong safety to free safety and start there to compensate for Tranquill’s absence, with recently demoted third-stringer Elijah Shumate reinstated to the starting lineup at strong safety.

“He had a better week of practice,” Kelly said of Shumate. “I don't know that it really mattered. We needed to get him back in the game and get him going and get some confidence and get him on the upswing in this game, in practice, for the bowl game, to really kind of slingshot him into next year.

“So he was going to play a little bit, no matter what the circumstances. Obviously, with the loss of Drue, that puts him in more of an immediate situation where he's got to go in and impact what we do.”

Starting cornerback Cody Riggs (stress reaction in foot) remains in a walking boot and is a question mark as to the extent of his availability Saturday, while starting middle linebacker Nyles Morgan must sit out the first half of the USC game, per NCAA rules, after being ejected for targeting last Saturday against Louisville.

Sophomore Devin Butler would step in for Riggs, true freshman Martini for classmate Morgan.

“Each one is so different,” Kelly said of the trail of season-ending and long-term injuries that include losing linebacker Joe Schmidt Nov. 1 to a leg injury that required surgery.

“(In) the Navy game, (Schmidt) gets rolled up on. He goes to the sidelines, starts jumping up and down on his foot to try to get the feeling in (it), and displaces the fracture.

“But we sit down and examine all those things and look at them carefully. That's why it's so important to have great depth and continue to build your depth.”

The upside to the immediate misery is the depth that might be possible next season, when ND is expected to get back suspended starters cornerback KeiVarae Russell and defensive end Ishaq Williams along with injured Schmidt, Day, Jones, key reserve safety Nicky Baratti and possibly former starting middle linebacker Jarrett Grace.

Jones’ prognosis for returning to full contact is four to six months. Kelly is optimistic that the junior will be able to participate in spring drills.

Jones’ younger brother, Jamir, a linebacker prospect in the 2016 class, was at Notre Dame Saturday on an unofficial recruiting visit when Jarron Jones suffered the injury.

Kiss and tell?

The NBC cameras have captured some not-so-warm-and-fuzzy moments on the sidelines between Kelly and Irish senior quarterback Everett Golson this season, including Saturday in the loss to Louisville.

Business as usual? Cause for concern?

“If I'm on a player, they don't usually want to give me a big kiss,” Kelly said. “You know what I mean? So it wouldn't surprise me if a player, if I'm on them about something, they didn't immediately go and give me the big smile.

“But we communicate fine. And there's emotion in the game, too. And I'm a guy that immediately reacts. And sometimes you just need about 10 or 15 seconds to let it process. So we have no problem communicating the things that we need to communicate.

“So sometimes it takes just a deep breath. Not unusual from other quarterbacks that I've coached. I had a quarterback at Cincinnati, Zach Collaros, very similar to Everett. You’ve just got to give them sometimes a minute to catch their breath.

“And if you're on them right away, you're not going to get the response that you need. So I'm perfectly fine with our relationship and our conversations. We get what we need done on the sidelines in terms of the communication.”

Best yet to come

Sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith’s inclusion among the five Butkus Award finalists this week was certainly in line with his production and potential, but perhaps ignored his sometimes turbulent growth process of playing inside for the first time in his life, save a single emergency situation in high school.

“He tried to make some calls for the first time and wasn't very successful,” Kelly admitted of the Louisville game. “We had a talk with him after the game and we had to kind of restructure his thought process.

“I'm sure he won't be offended by my comments, because they're well intended. ‘Coach, I'm really proud of the decision I made to move the front.’ The problem is he moved the front the wrong way and they (Louisville) walked into the end zone.”

“I said, I think you mean you're proud of your assertiveness. We're not proud that you moved the front the wrong way. And we knew what he meant.”

Smith, an outside linebacker when he came to ND, leads the Irish in tackles with 89 and is tied for the team lead in tackles for loss with 7.5. He also has two sacks, a forced fumble and six quarterback hurries on a defense that started out shockingly effective but has waned as the injuries have mounted.

“Is he part of the chaos?” Kelly said. “He's part of the process of learning and he wants to be part of making those calls and making those decisions. But it was kind of interesting, you see Jaylon's moving the front and (cornerback) Cole Luke is trying to pull it back, because Cole’s (saying), ‘Listen, I'm by myself out here.’

“Unfortunately, it's just one of those deals where you’ve got a guy that wants to be assertive. He thinks he's making the right decision. And he's growing. He's ascending as a player. The knowledge base, we're trying to catch up there.”

Kelly does envision Smith staying inside next season and beyond.

“I don't want to speak for (defensive coordinator Brian) VanGorder,” Kelly said. “But we'll have a conversation at the end of the year. He's playing well inside. He could be a Mike (middle linebacker), a Will (weakside). He's starting to see things now very, very well inside and he's doing a very good job.”

Squibs

• Kelly said senior defensive lineman Chase Hounshell hasn’t been considered as an option in the diluted interior defensive line, because at 6-foot-5, 275 pounds, his body is more suited to play an end position than for the pounding he’d take inside.

• Sophomore Greg Bryant drew praise from Kelly for not only improvement in the punt return game, but an uptick in practice as a running back. He expects to give Bryant more opportunities to carry the ball Saturday against USC than he’s had in recent weeks.

• Former Notre Dame tight end Jake Golic, now a sixth-year senior at Cincinnati, finally got the first reception of his career last Saturday. And it was a touchdown.

It came in a 41-0 waxing of UConn in East Hartford, Conn., not too far from where Golic starred at West Catholic Northwest Catholic High before a constant stream of injuries hampered his college career. And it came against former ND defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, now the first-year head coach of the Huskies.

Another former ND player, Gunner Kiel, connected with Golic on the two-yard scoring play. For UConn, it was the first time the Huskies had been shut out at home since 1978, and they got blanked by the nation’s 105th-ranked defense.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Notre Dame freshman safety Drue Tranquill goes down with an injury during the Notre Dame-Louisville game Saturday. Tranquill returned and played the second half with a torn ACL, unbeknownst to him and the coaching staff at the time. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)