Notebook: Notre Dame forced to go in-depth again

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Someone alert the next man’s next man.

Notre Dame’s defensive secondary will continue to test its depth in Friday’s BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State, as head coach Brian Kelly announced Tuesday that cornerback Devin Butler will miss the game with a broken left foot suffered in practice on Monday, and junior free safety Max Redfield was sent home for a violation of team rules.

Sophomore cornerback Nick Watkins is expected to make his first career start in place of Butler, who was filling in for senior KeiVarae Russell (broken tibia). Freshman and Ohio native Nick Coleman will be the next man in behind Watkins, and graduate student Matthias Farley is expected to start in Redfield’s safety spot alongside Elijah Shumate.

With Watkins’ addition to the starting lineup, Notre Dame will have started 38 different players in 13 games this season.

Notre Dame’s injury news wasn’t all negative, however.

Senior nose tackle Jarron Jones (torn MCL) and senior running back C.J. Prosise (high ankle sprain) both practiced on Tuesday, and Kelly confirmed that both players are expected to contribute when the eighth-ranked Irish (10-2) take on the No. 7 Buckeyes (11-1) at 1 p.m. EST on Friday.

Jones even broke into an impromptu dance-off with defensive tackle Sheldon Day during the stretch lines prior to Tuesday’s practice, exhibiting impressive flexibility in his rehabbed right knee.

Elliott speaks

“What are we talking about?” Ezekiel Elliott asked with a laugh and a wink.

The 6-foot-1, 215-pound junior with the bushy, black beard knew, just as everyone else did, what the topic of conversation would be. A day prior, news broke that Ohio State’s star running back had been involved in a car accident before departing for the Fiesta Bowl, and that he had been cited for operating with a suspended license to boot.

On Tuesday, he wasted little time in clearing the air.

“First and foremost, I wasn’t aware that my license was suspended,” said Elliott, who added that he was the only one in the car and he didn’t have his driver’s license with him, because he lost his wallet.

“I’m doing everything I can now, my dad is doing everything he can now to get that handled to get my license back in good standing. I’m honestly just glad nobody was majorly injured, I’m glad everyone’s all right, and I feel like that’s the most important part.

“It was a scary situation, and I’m trying to put it behind me and focus on this game.”

#OhioState RB Ezekiel Elliott on his car accident. pic.twitter.com/vKj0YJWl4b

— Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) December 29, 2015

Elliott, who said that his car hydroplaned on its way to the team facility, could have been playing Friday’s game in a different uniform, and position. The St. Louis native grew up a Notre Dame football fan, as did his parents. But the Irish, who received commitments from running backs Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston in the 2013 class, recruited Elliott as a defensive back.

The junior, who will play his final collegiate game on Friday after rushing for 1,672 yards, 6.4 yards per carry and 19 touchdowns thus far in 2015, is happy with his choice.

“I’ve been trying to leave the past in the past,” he said. “I think I made the right decision on what school I chose, and everything wound up working out fine. I don’t really try to think back on the past and what could’ve happened.

“I love the state of Ohio. I love The Ohio State University, I love going out there and wearing scarlet and gray on Saturdays, representing the university.”

On tape, just as in person, it’s easy to see what has made Elliott an asset in the Buckeye backfield.

“He’s very, very powerful,” said Notre Dame linebacker Joe Schmidt. “He was a high school hurdler, so you see that explosiveness, that flexibility. The ability to get over runners. He’s got a few signature moves that really are different than your normal back.

“I think the first thing that jumps off the tape is that physical trait, but then you look at … he’s somebody that he isn’t afraid to block. He isn’t afraid to put his body in places. He’s a tough, rugged runner, and I really have nothing bad to say about him.

"I think he’s a great football player, and I’m really looking forward to the challenge that he presents.”

A decision looms

In an utterly unsurprising development, Notre Dame junior linebacker Jaylon Smith — the 2015 Butkus Award winner — said that he heard secondhand that he received exclusively first-round grades from the NFL Draft Advisory Board, though he hasn’t confirmed it with the coaching staff. Once the Fiesta Bowl is over, the deliberation into Smith’s future will begin.

“It will be after the game,” Smith said, when asked when he’ll decide whether to return for his senior season. “Maybe a day or so after the game when I get a chance to talk to my family.”

The 6-3, 240-pound Smith, who led Notre Dame with 113 tackles in 2015 after racking up 112 tackles the season prior, was asked how difficult it would be to turn down a first-round grade in favor of a final season.

“It’s something that sticks out,” Smith said with a grin.

Smith’s play sticks out, too — both to fans and opponents.

“He’s the best athlete we’ll face all year,” said Elliott, who Smith will be tasked with running down on Friday. “He runs from sideline to sideline making plays. Combine his athletic ability with his size and he’s very impressive.”

A big hypothetical

Oh, what might have been.

On Tuesday, on the heels of a regular season in which he notched career-highs in sacks (4) and tackles for loss (14.5), senior defensive tackle Sheldon Day contemplated how those numbers might have changed with Jarron Jones at his side.

“Jaylon (Smith) is the Butkus Award winner, and we feel the D-line played a key role in that,” Day said. “Having him, and Jarron on the D-line with us, that definitely would have evened it up even more. We definitely missed him this year. I don’t know, it probably would have been an even more special year.

“I think there would have been a lot more 1-on-1s as far as me, Isaac (Rochell) and Romeo (Okwara) go, because Jarron is that double-team guy. You have to put two hands on him or he’s going to get a sack, because he’s so long and powerful. I don’t know. It probably would have been Romeo with 15 sacks or something like that. Something crazy. Maybe even 21. It would have been a totally different year.”

Alas, the 6-6, 315-pound Jones — who tore the MCL in his right knee during fall camp and missed the entire regular season — will contribute in Friday’s game, allowing fans to glimpse a shred of what that defensive line might have been capable of.

Still, a glimpse is better than nothing — especially considering the motivation Notre Dame’s senior nose tackle carries into the game.

“It’s definitely been a humbling experience for him watching and now playing,” Day said of Jones. “He’s definitely ready to get after it. I’ve seen a different look in his eyes when we go out to practice. His commitment level is definitely higher than it has ever been.”

JT Barrett's advice for Kizer, Zaire, Wimbush about being in a QB competition. pic.twitter.com/NnqoILvrqx

— Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) December 29, 2015

#OhioState QB JT Barrett said he was trying too hard to make highlight plays early in the season. pic.twitter.com/tE2z62lJ4K

— Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) December 29, 2015

Notre Dame's Cole Luke (36) practices stripping the ball from Nick Watkins (21) during practice on Tuesday at Scottsdale Community College. Watkins will make his first collegiate start Friday, in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. (Tribune photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)