Notebook: Who steps in for Notre Dame if Torii Hunter Jr.'s concussion lingers?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Almost lost in the outrage over a controversial hit in Notre Dame’s 50-47 overtime loss to Texas Sunday night in Austin, is the reality that the aftermath could linger into Saturday’s home opener with Nevada.

Which could mean an Irish receiving corps, already saturated in inexperience, could be getting even more unseasoned.

Irish senior wide receiver Torii Hunter, the only ND wideout with more than one career catch going into the season, suffered a concussion late in the third quarter on a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit from Texas safety DeShon Elliott that turned a potential touchdown into an incompletion and left Hunter unavailable for the fourth quarter and both extra periods.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly reiterated Tuesday that Hunter is going through concussion protocol and that his status for Saturday’s matchup between the 18th-ranked Irish (0-1) and Nevada (1-0) at Notre Dame Stadium (3:30 p.m. EDT; NBC-TV) is muddled.

“He will get into an exercise regimen today,” Kelly said. “That will be the next step, and we'll see where we go from there.”

If the Irish have to go without Hunter, junior Corey Holmes — normally a backup slot receiver — and freshman Kevin Stepherson would step into his role, with freshman Javon McKinley backing them up. All three are looking for their first college reception. Hunter had four catches for 37 yards and a TD against Texas.

The two Irish receivers who will start alongside Hunter — or his replacement — both enjoyed productive first collegiate starts ob Sunday night. Sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown had a team-high five catches for 75 yards and two TDs. Sophomore C.J. Sanders had three catches for 55 yards, including a 25-yard catch-and-run for a score in the first OT.

But the passing game labored once Hunter left the game in the last minute of the third quarter.

The ACC officiating crew assigned to the Texas-ND game did not flag Elliott for targeting. Kelly was under the impression during the game and the next day after speaking with the ACC that the replay official, Richard Jordan of the Big 12, didn’t even review the play during the long lull while Hunter lay motionless on the Darrell K. Royal-Texas Stadium turf.

However,  Big 12 supervisor of officials Walt Anderson told USA Today that Jordan did review the play, and that the replay official did not believe the hit rose to the level of applying a call from the booth.

A new NCAA rule not only empowers the replay official to review a potential targeting call, but he can interject a 15-yard penalty with an option to eject the player if he feels the field crew missed the call.

The penalty would have given the Irish first and goal from inside the 10. Instead, it was fourth-and-12 from the Texas 19, and Irish sophomore Justin Yoon’s 36-yard field goal attempt was blocked.

Another safety dance?

Sixth-year grad senior Avery Sebastian’ second career game in a Notre Dame uniform ended similarly to the first.

With an injury. Against Texas.

Sebastian suffered a broken foot in last year’s opener against the Longhorns. He did not play the rest of the 2015 season. Sunday night he suffered a concussion, but the contact that caused it wasn’t controversial, as Hunter’s was.

But like Hunter, Sebastian's availability for Saturday is still an unknown as he goes through concussion protocol.

The grad transfer started at free safety against the Longhorns Sunday night, his seventh career start, including six spread over four years at Cal. He moved to his more natural position of strong safety late in the second quarter when junior Drue Tranquill was pulled from the lineup.

Freshman Devin Studstill, whose presence in the second half helped stabilize the Irish defense for a stretch, is likely to start at free safety. Tranquill, benched because of ineffectiveness Sunday night, is listed as the starter at strong safety for Saturday’s game.

“We’ve got to get him back out there,” Kelly said of Tranquill, whose 2014 and 2015 season each ended prematurely because of a torn ACL. “It's a learning process.

“Some of the mistakes out there were ones that he's aware of that we just have to be better. We've got to communicate and teach better. We've got to make sure that he's clearly understanding what we're asking of him and making sure that we get that on game day.”

Still in limbo

Just because the four players back in good standing with Kelly after their Aug. 19 arrests for marijuana possession all played Sunday in Texas doesn’t mean they’re necessarily in good standing with the university.

They eventually could be. But the university’s disciplinary arm, the Office of Community Standards, has yet to rule on any of the four, per Kelly.

All four are key backup players and/or special teams contributors. Linebacker Te’von Coney had three tackles against Texas, and cornerback Ashton White one. Running back Dexter Williams returned a kickoff 20 yards.

And while Stepherson didn’t end up in the stat column, he did play extensively in the fourth quarter and both overtimes after Hunter left the game with a concussion.

“Community standards has a way of handling all matters,” Kelly said Tuesday. “They'll handle the matters in the time frame that they see fit. They do not consult with me.

“I've been through this before — if you remember, a couple years ago? So I just don't concern myself with those matters. I focus on the team and what I can control. I can't control any of that.

“So I don't wring my hands. I don't wait around for the phone calls. I go to work every day with our roster. And if I'm informed of anything, I react accordingly.”

Squibs

• For the second week in a row Brian Kelly’s head coaching counterpart will be a former Notre Dame assistant coach. Sunday night it was Texas’ Charlie Strong, who worked for Lou Holtz and Bob Davie.

Saturday, it will be former Charlie Weis assistant Brian Polian, who brings Nevada to town. In fact, Polian was on staff the only other time the Irish and Wolf Pack met on the football field — a 35-0 ND victory in Weis’ final season (2009).

• Notre Dame’s offensive line play Sunday got mixed reviews from Kelly, but perhaps not along the lines one might expect. The left side, left by All-America candidates Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson, underwhelmed the coach, while right tackle Alex Bars, right guard Colin McGovern and center Sam Mustipher pleasantly surprised him.

McGovern and Mustipher were making their first collegiate starts. Bars was making his third, but first at a tackle position.

• Kelly’s strategy with a short week and the team arriving back on campus at 5 a.m., Monday, included excusing players from all classes before 11 a.m., on Labor Day.

“I think rest, sleep, treatment are really important and have been over the last 24, going on the next 36 hours,” he said. “We've had optional weight training. We've had some optional things that we normally have mandatory.

“As well as today will be a lighter load in practice, and we will make up for that as the week unfolds, as we get ourselves back into what would be the traditional days.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Corey Holmes is a leading candidate to replace senior Torii Hunter Jr. in Notre Dame's starting lineup Saturday against Nevada if Hunter's concussion symptoms linger. (Tribune photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)