Notebook: Getting to fight another Day, Notre Dame DT returns

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Sheldon Day never lost his swagger, even when the medial collateral ligament in his left knee threatened to truncate Notre Dame’s best defensive lineman’s season in November.

On Saturday, it was clear the junior defensive tackle lost something else of note. His limp.

And Irish head coach Brian Kelly found new hope for a run defense that has slid from 13th nationally after the near miss at Florida State on Oct. 18 to 62nd heading into Notre Dame’s Dec. 30 Music City Bowl matchup with run-savvy LSU (8-4) in Nashville, Tenn.

Much of that regression happened with the 6-foot-2, 285-pounder captain from Indianapolis playing bystander.

“We’re a better football team when he’s in there,” Kelly understated of Day, who suffered the sprained ligament during a 43-40 overtime loss to Northwestern on Nov. 15.

He’ll not only play for ND (7-5) against the heavily favored and 22nd-ranked Tigers, Kelly said Day will be in the starting lineup along with grad student cornerback Cody Riggs, who limped in and out of the lineup in November while managing a stress reaction in his foot.

Day had 38 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and shared the team lead in quarterback hurries (9) when he went down with an injury potentially serious enough that Kelly unredshirted freshman Jay Hayes for the final two regular-season games and the bowl.

The reason why Day’s return to the lineup nudged the Everett Golson/Malik Zaire QB circus off center stage is because if Day hadn’t been available, it probably wouldn’t have mattered who ND started at quarterback against the nation’s No. 1 pass-efficiency defense and No. 8 unit overall.

Kelly is having defensive end Isaac Rochell take reps inside at nose guard to help deal with ND’s lingering absence on the interior of the defensive line, junior nose guard Jarron Jones. Jones suffered a season-ending foot injury on the first defensive play of ND’s 31-28 loss to Louisville on Nov. 22.

Jones underwent surgery, while rest helped Day return to form.

“His injury is 100 percent (healed), or we wouldn’t put him back out there,” Kelly said of Day. “So he is cleared medically.

“Now getting from that 90 percent to 100 percent is football-related activities — fatigue, volume. So that 10 percent is getting up (to speed). Taking reps gets him stronger and stronger.”

Back to the future?

The stunner of Kelly’s Saturday press conference, heck for the past couple of months, was delivered when the coach was mulling the future of sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith.

And the subject of Jarrett Grace popped into the conversation.

Given up by those on the outside looking in as a player who seemed destined to end his career as a medical hardship, the former starter middle linebacker is back on the comeback trail, this time perhaps for good.

The 6-foot-3, 253-pound Grace hasn’t played in a game since suffering four fractures in his right leg Oct. 5, 2013 against Arizona State. He had overtaken Dan Fox as the starter at that time and figured to resume in that role when he returned.

Which eventually turned into “if” he returned after a couple of surgeries and several setbacks. Former walk-on Joe Schmidt ascended in his absence and won team MVP honors, despite missing almost the entire month of November with his own broken leg.

Freshman Nyles Morgan tops the middle linebacker depth chart heading into the LSU matchup.

“When he’s out there, he has some Joe Schmidt in him,” Kelly said of Grace. “You can see the change in practice when a guy like Jarrett Grace is out there. His energy, his leadership. Obviously we’re not going to play him (against LSU), because we’re going to preserve the medical aspect of it. But here’s another guy who can help our football team (in the future).”

Grace is a senior academically, with at least one year of eligibility remaining in 2015 and perhaps two if he decides to petition the NCAA for a sixth year in 2016.

A key to his recent surge has been using the AlterG, an antigravity treadmill.

“He’s been able to relearn the foot strike,” Kelly said. “He’s really made great progress, and he’s put in the time. He’s got great strength and we just couldn’t get that foot strike back, and I think just the re-teaching of it is great to see.”

McGlinchey steps in

A recurring back condition has starting right offensive tackle Christian Lombard’s status for the bowl game in some gray area, though Kelly didn’t rule him out, yet.

“He’s had that disc problem for most of the year,” Kelly said of the grad student and third-year starter. “So we’ll be careful with him.”

Surging sophomore Mike McGlinchey, who was battling to overtake Lombard before the injury, was singled out by Kelly as having an impressive bowl prep and may start anyway.

Redshirt standouts

Tight end Durham Smythe and wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr., were two redshirting freshmen who impressed last December during bowl prep.

This year it’s defensive linemen Jhonny Williams and Jonathan Bonner, as well as offensive tackle Alex Bars — especially Bars.

“Alex Bars is one of the best I’ve seen in 25 years,” Kelly said of the 6-foot-6, 305-pound Nashville, Tenn., product. “He’s that good. Those guys ought to be concerned about whose job he’s going to take. He’s that good of a player.”

Squibs

• Safety Max Redfield, who suffered a broken rib Nov. 29 against USC, practiced with full contact on Friday after the team finished final exams.

The Irish had a walk-through and meetings on Saturday. The team will have two physical practices on Sunday and Monday. They’ll be free after Monday’s practice to go home for Christmas before reconvening Friday in Nashville, Tenn.

• In the first of many way-too-early Top 25s for 2015, NationalChamps.net projects Notre Dame to be the No. 16 team in the country next season, while Music City Bowl opponent LSU checks in at No. 11.

Only two 2015 Irish opponents made the top 25 — USC at No. 10 and Georgia Tech at No. 22.

The four teams projected for the 2015 College Football Playoff comprise No. 1 TCU, No. 2 Oregon, No. 3 Florida State and No. 4 Ohio State. Alabama, at No. 5, is the top team on the outside looking in.

• If you ever wondered what coach Brian Kelly thought of freshman wide receiver Justin Brent ending up on TMZ in admittedly G-rated photos with 42-year-old adult film actress Lisa Ann a couple of months ago, he kind of went there Saturday in a roundabout way.

“Brent’s an interesting kid,” Kelly said of the 6-1, 205-pounder who has played sparingly in eight games and is still looking for his first collegiate reception.

“He’s in my doghouse obviously, so he’s got to get out of that first. But he’s an interesting player, because he’s improved. He plays physical. He’s a big kid. He’s an extremely talented player.

“I think what’s holding him back is he’s a guy who has a lot of competition in front of him, No. 1. And No. 2, he’s a guy who gets distracted easily.”

Kelly, with the media breaking into laughter on that line, declined to elaborate what those distractions constituted.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Defensive tackle Sheldon Day should play a big role in Notre Dame's effort to turn up the heat on opposing quarterbacks. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)