Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly searches for cure to injury bug

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — It’s not enough in Brian Kelly’s mind to simply bark out his signature mantra — “Next Man In” — and pick up the pieces of yet another season-ending injury.

For the sixth-year Notre Dame head football coach, looking back for patterns and dissecting the “what-ifs” are as critical as moving forward.

Tuesday morning Kelly confirmed reports that junior tight end Durham Smythe became the fifth regular in ND’s lineup since Aug. 14 to have his season truncated by a leg injury, and one of two to occur in Notre Dame’s 34-27 survival at Virginia on Saturday.

Smythe underwent surgery Tuesday morning on both the injured right knee for a torn medial collateral ligament (MCL) and a separate procedure for a lingering right shoulder problem. The only tight end on the 2015 Irish roster with at least one career catch (he has three for 20 yards and a TD) is expected to be back for spring practice next March.

Smythe joins senior nose guard Jarron Jones (MCL), freshman nickel back Shaun Crawford (ACL), junior running back Tarean Folston (ACL) and junior quarterback Malik Zaire (fractured ankle) as rest-of-the-season bystanders. Only Crawford and Folston have not previously redshirted.

Two of the five injuries occurred in practice (Crawford, Jones). Two of the five involved no contact (Crawford, Folston). And two of the five occurred on natural grass (Zaire, Smythe).

“It’s just one of those things that, is there anything you could have done differently in that situation?” Kelly said Tuesday as his eighth-ranked Irish (2-0) prep for Saturday’s home clash with favored (2 1/2 points) and No. 14 Georgia Tech (2-0).

“That’s certainly what I try to do in each one of these situations. And that one there (Smythe) was nothing you could do about it. It was just part of the game.

“If there’s anything we can do in terms of injury-prevention, they’re generally ones that would happen in practice that probably hurt the most. Did we do something in practice that could have put us in a better position?

“But during games, very rarely is it something you can control, and in this one in particular.”

Smythe’s injury occurred in the last 45 seconds of the Virginia game Saturday and on ND’s second-to-last offensive play — a one-yard pass from DeShone Kizer to running back C.J. Prosise.

On the next play, Kizer found Will Fuller streaking down the left sideline for a 39-yard scoring play with 12 seconds left for the latest game-winning touchdown in regulation in Notre Dame history (excluding plays in which the ensuing conversion was the score that put the Irish ahead).

“Durham got rolled up on by one of his own players,” Kelly said. “He wasn’t even part of the play.”

But he was part of a logistical conundrum in the frantic moments that followed. If Kelly brought the trainers out to help Smythe off the field and the clock had to be stopped without calling a timeout, there would be a 10-second runoff of the clock.

The Irish did have a timeout left, but wanted to save it in case the middle of the field was open, to set up a possible game-winning field goal.

“I held them (the trainers) back, and (Smythe) had to limp off the field,” Kelly said. “So that cost us about seven seconds to get him off the field and to get Tyler Luatua back on the field.”

Luatua — a 6-foot-3, 255-pound sophomore — is one member of the four-man rotation that will move into a mix-and-match mode to replace Smythe, who at this juncture was the most complete — blocking/receiver ND tight end.

Luatua and grad Chase Hounshell (6-5, 255) are considered the stronger blockers, with freshman Alizé Jones (6-5, 240) and sophomore Nic Weishar (6-4, 241) the advanced receivers.

“I think you’ll see them all play, no question,” Kelly said. “Durham was able to do a lot of different things, so now I think you’ll see we’ll go deeper with the tight ends.

“But I feel very confident that in all of them we’ll get the kind of play necessary at that position.”

And given the seven long-term injuries to two-deep players during the 2012 national title run and a handful of significant defections that came along with that, Kelly is confident his entire team will rise to the occasion.

"I think any team kind of looks at it and says, 'Boy, why us?' " he said. "But as I told our team, no one really cares. Certainly those that do are happy that you got more injuries, because they're in it for their own teams. So just no excuses. Let's go play.

"Everybody's got to deal with some adversity, and this is our end of it. We'll be stronger for it. We'll find a way, and that's what I want to hear from our team. And that's what we're going to make sure our team understands that."


Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame trainers attend to Quarterback Malik Zaire (8) during second half of Notre Dame's win over Virginia Saturday, September 12, 2015 in Charlottesville. SBT Photo / BECKY MALEWITZ