Notebook: Trying to crack the code on Drue Tranquill's comeback, Irish linebacker depth

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Linebacker Drue Tranquill wore full pads in practice Thursday, according to Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly.

“Got him in some 7-on-7s,” Kelly said afterward of ND’s convalescing second-leading tackler. “Got him into some team stuff. He’s moving OK.”

But …

“We’re not going to put Drue out there unless he’s capable of helping us win.”

But …

“I think we’ll have to see how he is (Friday),” Kelly said.

That it’s even a conversation — albeit it apparently a carefully encrypted one — after the grad senior suffered a high ankle sprain last Saturday night against Navy, is a testament to Tranquill’s power to confound both medical precedents and amateur prognosticators.

That seemingly the majority of a fan base is wringing its hands about his availability of the 6-foot-2, 235-pounder this Saturday night (7:15 EDT) at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill., speaks to the preseason concern that has lingered the deepest into the season — linebacker depth. Proven, quality linebacker depth.

Big Ten West leader Northwestern (5-3) will try to exploit whether it’s still a thing in the ESPN-telecast against the AP No. 3/CFP No. 4 Irish (8-0) — the first top three-ranked team to visit Northwestern’s stadium since Ohio State in 2006.

The No. 1 Buckeyes thumped the Wildcats in that encounter, 54-10, a dozen Novembers ago. The last time Northwestern actually pinned a loss on a top 5 team — home or elsewhere — is when a fellow named Ara Parseghian was coaching the Wildcats. And he did it twice — to No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 5 Iowa — in consecutive weeks to start the 1959 season.

Three weeks later, he took his Northwestern team to South Bend and knocked off his future employer, Notre Dame, by the score of 30-24.

For the record, Kelly did profess that his Plan B at the buck linebacker position looked good in practice this week. And he characterized Plan B as a rotation.

Kelly then continued to make his Thursday press conference seem more like a chess match of words when he declined to name which players constitute that rotation.

“It’s a rotation that you’ll see on Saturday,” he concluded.

The way Northwestern is set up offensively, Notre Dame figures to play a lot of nickel anyway, but Tranquill is by far ND’s best cover man in the passing game at the linebacker/rover level.

Sophomore Jordan Genmark Heath, a converted safety, would seem like the right fit to be a big part of the rotation of fill-ins. But senior rover Asmar Bilal, freshman rover/linebacker Shayne Simon or triple-option sophomore sub Drew White may all get looks. Or not.

Mack still sidelined

Notre Dame senior tight end Alizé Mack left Saturday night’s 44-22 win over Navy in San Diego after making back-to-back catches in the second quarter.

He didn’t return, nor will he this weekend against Northwestern.

Kelly said Mack suffered a head injury in the Navy game and remains in ND’s concussion protocol.

Mack, part of a deep and effective tight end crops, is tied for third on the team in receptions (27) and is fourth in receiving yards (250).

Yoon back

Senior place-kicker Justin Yoon is 100 percent healthy, per Kelly, after Yoon missed the Navy game with a groin irritation. He is 9-of-12 this season on field goals and has converted all 27 of his PAT attempts.

Sophomore Jonathan Doerer, ND’s primary kickoff man, was 5-of-6 on extra points against the Mids in Yoon’s absence and nailed his only field goal attempt, a 30-yarder.

November state of mind

Even before the calendar flipped to November on Thursday, Kelly was pushing a November mindset at his unbeaten team.

“It was intentional on my part to let my football team know you better match their (the opponents’) intensity level, because they will come out with high intensity,” said Kelly, a combined 10-1 in his first three Novembers as ND’s head coach and a collective 6-13 in November since.

“And if you don’t come out and match it, you’re going to be in for a long afternoon.”

How does he plan to manifest it?

By holding cornerback Troy Pride Jr. to a higher standard, for one.

Pride, coming back from an ankle injury, consistently looked timid in ND’s win against Navy.

“He wasn’t feeling 100 percent,” Kelly said, “but my point to Troy was, ‘Look, we’re closing in on November. If you don’t have 100 percent — which you probably don’t — if you’ve got 90 (percent), you’ve got to give me 100 percent of 90.’

“That’s a knowledge base that some of these younger players, that are accumulating a lot of reps (for the first time), are figuring out. I was on him hard this week, and I think he responded in the right way.”

And then there’s Quenton Nelson.

ND’s former captain, team MVP and unanimous All-American, is spending his NFL bye week away from the Indianapolis Colts checking out his former team.

And Wednesday Kelly put him to work, speaking to the entire Irish squad.

“He’s a guy who’s been a part of this run for us, in terms of what we’re doing and how we’re doing it,” Kelly said. “I wanted to give him the opportunity to give a little bit of insight into what the plan is here and how we finish this off.

“It was good to have him at practice. It was good for his words to resonate with our football team. Quenton is a guy that has a mindset of getting after his opponent. and you’ve got to be tough-minded in November. And, as you know, Quenton brings that to the table.”

In words and in action.

On the first day of November, Nelson became the first offensive guard in league history, to be named the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Month.

October standout

The Football Writers Association of America has named Notre Dame senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery its national defensive Player of the Month for October. Clemson left offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt was awarded the corresponding offensive honor.

The annual Outland Trophy is awarded to the nation’s best lineman on either side of the ball.

Tillery has 25 tackles this season and leads the Irish in tackles for loss (8.5), sacks (7) and forced fumbles (3).

Notre Dame’s Jordan Genmark Heath (2) is one of several alternatives coach Brian Kelly could be considering if linebacker Drue Tranquill is unable to play Saturday night at Northwestern.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly expects cornerback Troy Pride Jr. (5) to revert to earlier form after struggling last Saturday night against Navy.