Notebook: Notre Dame's Brian Kelly altering his post-USC schedule

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Lingering on the West Coast to recruit after the regular-season finale is one tradition current Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly adopted from predecessor Charlie Weis.

But this year Kelly plans to do a little less California dreamin’ and a little more dealing with his current team after the Irish (4-7) clash with arch-rival and 12th-ranked USC (8-3), Saturday in Los Angeles (3:30 p.m. EST; ABC-TV).

“A little bit, not a lot,” he said earlier this week of the recruiting part of things. “I want to do exit interviews with all of our players, offensively and defensively. And I think that's as important as recruiting. What I think is most important is that I get in with all of our (fifth-year candidates). Those are the two most important items on my list.”

Kelly has nine seniors eligible for a fifth year, though it’s likely most won’t return. That total doesn’t include indefinitely suspended cornerback Devin Butler, who Kelly said recently was on the verge of announcing his plans, moving forward.

The other nine are quarterback Malik Zaire, running back Tarean Folston, wide receiver Torii Hunter, Jr., offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey, tight ends Jacob Matuska and Durham Smythe, and offensive guards John Montelus (who spent some time this season as a defensive lineman), Hunter Bivin and Colin McGovern.

The fifth-years haven’t been as automatic in returning as in previous regimes, though the grad-transfer rule adopted in 2006 has played a part in that.

The numbers have to knit with the next recruiting class. And this cycle, with Kelly having only eight players exhaust their eligibility and a class of 18 recruits presumably still growing, there isn’t enough wiggle room under the 85-player cap to invite everyone back — or even close to it.

As far as Kelly’s message to the recruits that he does come in contact with after the USC game and in the weeks ahead until signing day in February?

“I think it's still the same,” he said. “You're here to be challenged, both in the classroom and out on the football field.

“We're here to win championships and we're here to get our degree at Notre Dame. I don't think any of that has changed. We've had a subpar season, but that's going to just be a hiccup, and you'll be part of a championship program when you come to Notre Dame.”

Media fatigue?

Normally candid and expansive, Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was uncharacteristically a bit terse Tuesday night after practice.

Questions about how he was feeling after some hits to the head in Saturday’s loss to Virginia Tech and his future beyond Saturday were met with: “I’m getting ready for USC,” or some variation of it.

One of the few subjects the junior was willing to express more than few words about was his memory of the last time Notre Dame played in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, a 49-14 Trojan rout of the Irish.

ND surrendered six TD passes in that game, a first for an Irish defense as USC blew out to a 35-0 second-quarter lead.

Kizer was a redshirting freshman at the time, and saw QB starter Everett Golson demoted during that game in favor of Malik Zaire.

“Obviously, we didn’t’ have the success that we wanted,” Kizer said of the second-most lopsided USC win in the series. “And coach (Kelly) challenged us after the game to remember that feeling, and every time we play USC allow it to fuel us. And that feeling is still there. It fueled me last year and it fueled me this year.”

For the record, Kelly said Kizer showed no ill effects from the helmet-to-helmet contact against the Hokies.

“I haven't seen any issues with him at all,” Kelly said. “Normal DeShone Kizer.”

Injury updates

• The holdup in wide receiver Torii Hunter returning to action has been the inability to cut and move laterally. ND’s second-leading receiver, and its most experienced, suffered a knee injury against Navy on Nov. 5.

He then missed the next two games, against Army and Virginia Tech. Kelly said he expected Hunter to practice this week.

• Nose guard Daniel Cage has missed the past three games with a concussion suffered against Miami on Oct. 29. And although the part-time starter is improving, per Kelly, the coach doesn’t expect Cage to see action Saturday at USC.

“His symptoms have now gone away in the sense that he's passed his cognitive testing,” Kelly said. “Now it's just simply more of the subjective — how do you feel? — and getting back to the point of confidence to go out there and begin to play.

“We would get him some work this week in a limited role, but I think he would have to show his want and desire to want to get out there. And then we'd have to get him enough work to feel like he could contribute.”

Bowl-loni

For those still holding out hope that a 5-7 Notre Dame team could get to a bowl game, the biggest obstacle is actually getting the fifth win.

But there are more.

First, there may not be the need to dip into pool of 5-7 teams at all this season after taking three such teams last bowl season (Minnesota, Nebraska and San Jose State). If there is a need, the tiebreaker is the Academic Progress Rate scores, and the Irish surprisingly don’t measure up as well as one might think in that department.

Of the teams currently sitting on either four or five wins (or in Army’s case six with two FCS wins), the Irish ranked ninth behind Duke, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Army, North Texas, Boston College, Indiana and Maryland. That's according to the Reddit college football website.

And then there’s Kelly’s stance.

“It's not my call, and that would be (athletic director) Jack (Swarbrick) and our administration,” he said. “I'm a football coach. I'll do what they tell me to do. But I'm not real supportive of a 5-7 football team in bowl games.

“I don't know if we have obligations relative to the ACC or what the standard is for it, but it doesn't fire me up that much.”

Squibs

• Kelly has a 4-2 record against USC. Trojans coach Clay Helton, meanwhile, will be facing the Irish for the second time, after being named interim head coach just six days before last year’s 41-31 Irish victory in South Bend.

• USC’s current seven-game winning streak is its longest since 2008-09.

• Saturday marks the first time since 1986 that the Irish visit the Coliseum with a losing record.

• USC is 12-13-1 against unranked Irish teams all-time.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly's first order of business, once he returns from the West Coast, is meeting with the seniors who have fifth-year options, including quarterback Malik Zaire (right) (Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)