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Football: Bringing out the bench

Mike Monaco | Monday, November 4, 2013


Since arriving in South Bend, Irish coach Brian Kelly has preached a “next-man-in” philosophy.

That attitude, however, is being tested with No. 23 Notre Dame’s recent rash of injuries that has ravaged the squad, especially the defense.

“We are running out of next men,” Kelly said Sunday. “We’re at that point where from a defensive standpoint, and particularly the defensive line, we’re left with very few options.”

The defensive line will be without senior Kona Schwenke on Saturday against Pittsburgh. Schwenke, who is dealing with a high-ankle sprain, started against Navy and Air Force in place of fellow senior Louis Nix, who is battling his own ailments. Knee tendonitis and a small meniscus tear have restricted Nix, but after an MRI on Sunday, the school announced the nose guard would practice this week.

Sophomore defensive end Sheldon Day reinjured his own high-ankle sprain against the Midshipmen, but Kelly said he is “optimistic” regarding Day’s chances to play against the Panthers. 

“I think we may get Sheldon back,” Kelly said. “We’ll see how he progresses during the week.”

The front seven has been stretched thin in the linebacking corps, as well. Junior inside linebacker Jarrett Grace broke his leg against Arizona State, and junior outside linebacker Ben Councell will miss the rest of the season after suffering what Kelly called a “significant knee injury” Saturday against Navy.

Fellow junior outside linebacker Ishaq Williams left the Air Force game with an ACL injury and did not play against Navy. Williams, who was in an immobilizer last week, could return for the BYU game Nov. 23, per Kelly.

In the secondary, senior safety Austin Collinsworth suffered a neck strain against Navy, and was scheduled to undergo an MRI on Monday. Sophomore safety Elijah Shumate, who missed the last three games with a hamstring injury, is now 100 percent and will be activated Saturday, according to Kelly.

The ever-growing injury list is in addition to the group of players who suffered season-ending injuries either during spring or preseason practices. Junior defensive linemen Chase Hounshell and Tony Springmann are out for the year with shoulder and knee injuries, respectively, and sophomore safety Nicky Baratti is also out with a shoulder injury. Senior outside linebacker Danny Spond, who started 11 games in 2012, was forced to retire in August because of hemiplegic migraines.

“I think this is probably close to the pinnacle,” Kelly said, when asked if he has seen a defense endure this many injuries in his coaching career. 

“They don’t give you any points for complaining about it,” Kelly continued. “If they did, I’d complain every minute. So we just take care of it internally and get the next guy ready.”

For Notre Dame, the new next guys are the likes of sophomore defensive lineman Jarron Jones, graduate student defensive lineman Tyler Stockton, sophomore outside linebacker Romeo Okwara, senior defensive lineman Justin Utupo and junior safety Eilar Hardy. When it comes to preparing backups throughout the season, Kelly said he focuses on three aspects.

“The first thing you have to make sure is they don’t lose their conditioning, so when they do go in there, they’re able to handle the volume of plays,” Kelly said.

Kelly said players who didn’t play at least 15 plays in the previous game will go through conditioning the Monday following the contest.

“The second thing for us is making sure that those guys get an opportunity to get some reps in practice,” Kelly said. “Even though it may not be as many as the first group, but they’re getting some reps. I think it’s absolutely crucial, and I’ve always done that.”

Kelly said second-team players typically receive about half as many reps as the first-teamers.

“The third thing is when they’re not taking [reps], we’re demanding that they’re taking mental reps and there are not a bunch of peripheral things going on, they’re focused and paying attention,” Kelly said. “I think all those things have to happen if you want to have an effective next man in.”

On the offensive side, senior right guard Christian Lombard was ruled out for the season following the USC game after undergoing back surgery. The guard playing opposite him, graduate student Chris Watt, did not play against Navy because of a PCL tear in his knee. Kelly said the injury will not require surgery and is a matter of Watt feeling comfortable playing through the issue.

“I think he’s going to feel a lot better this week, be able to make some of the compensations that he’s going to have to make with that no PCL,” Kelly said. “I’m pretty confident that he’s going to be able to get back in the lineup this week.”

If not, the Irish will push forward with their next man in.

Contact Mike Monaco at [email protected]