Constant Evaluation

A kicker switch (breathe easy), Dever's Saturday status, Crist's progression and Dan Wenger highlighted the last meeting with Brian Kelly before Saturday's contest with the Panthers.

Surprising Switch

Notre Dame's kick coverage unit technically ranks as the squad's second-best (behind its field goal group). Ranked 23rd nationally at 18.86 yards allowed per return (that's within two yards of 6th place) and with three touchbacks, walk-on kicker David Ruffer's job appeared safe to most of us outside the program.

Then again, we don't watch practice.

"We've made a change at kick-off. (Nick) Tausch is going to kickoff; he's had a good week kicking it," Kelly said of the sophomore who was (surprisingly) beaten out for field goal kicking duties at the end of August. "Ruffer is going to continue to be our field goal guy, obviously," Kelly added in reference to his 13-13 career accuracy including an 8-8 effort this fall.

"Tausch was pretty consistent with his kickoffs in terms of placement (in practice). One of the big things in our kickoff (approach) is ball placement and we weren't getting consistent ball placement (from Ruffer)," Kelly offered. "He was kicking it hard, but we'd have a squeeze left on and he'd kick it to the right and really compromise some of our coverages.

"This is about ball placement and Nick's always been a little better at ball placement. He hasn't kicked it as deep (as Ruffer) but we're willing to take a little bit off to ensure better placement."

On a related note, former Notre Dame special teams coach Brian Polian noted the same of both kickers last August.

Both players kicked off 35 times last season. Tausch averaged 61.8 yards per kickoff compared to Ruffer's 62.1. Ruffer booted two into the end zone (as noted above, he has three touchbacks in five games this year) but also knocked two out of bounds in 2009, an absolute disaster for a kick-off specialist. Tausch did not record a touchback last season and suffered from one kick falling out of bounds.

Ruffer has averaged 64.5 yards per kickoff this season with one of the 26 offerings eventually hitting the dreaded sidelines.

It starts at the snap

Saturday marks the midpoint of the 2010 season for the Irish and the first, possibly, in which Brian Kelly will rest easy, at least when visions of his quarterback's forthcoming execution dance through his head.

"I sure hope so," Kelly said when asked if this was the week it all comes together for the Irish. "I think a lot is about the recognition from the quarterback. When he can recognize it becomes the right reaction and the appropriate response," he noted, reiterating the Three R-themed approach he explained Sunday.

"This is a defense (Dayne Crist's) more familiar with; one I know pretty well. Hopefully we've been able to give him a good scouting report but I think our offense really revolves around the quarterback's recognition.

"When he does that," Kelly continued of Crist's high points this season, "generally his reaction's been pretty good and (his) response is about athletic ability – the ability to make throws and stay alive and keep the play extended.

Crist offered earlier in the week that he was more comfortable with protection choices (adjustments at the line of scrimmage).

"He really had to sort out his protections and how he was protected first. If you can't protect yourself at the quarterback position, it's hard to move onto Stage Two," Kelly said. "I think he's moving onto Stage Two."

Stage two relates partly to the maddeningly quick release Kelly quarterbacks showed during a successful run in the Queen City. When the ball is gone, a defense's pressure, especially delayed pressure, matters far less.

"He's getting into the movement keys that (will) allow him to get the ball out of his hands on time. The offense prompts the ball to come out based on what the defense does. We couldn't do that for a few weeks. We're getting closer to that."

Still, the unknown exists for Kelly's team in Part I of Year I.

"If I knew," he offered of the offense's progression, "I'd probably sleep a whole lot better on Friday nights."

One question up front

Kelly opened his commentary with a pre-emptive response to the oft-asked question of the week: what's the status of Taylor Dever, Chris Stewart and Braxston Cave, each of whom left last Saturday's contest due to injury.

"From an offensive standpoint, Dever moved around pretty good today. We've practice (Andrew) Nuss, (Matt) Romine, Dever, Zach Martin…so we have some pretty good flexibility at the tackle position…they've practiced pretty well. I'll wait until game time to decide what we're going to do there but I feel pretty good after today (regarding Dever's status)."

The rest of the cast appears cleared for the main stage; in fact, Kelly noted his crew is at its healthiest this season.

"Stewart's fine; Cave's fine; from an offensive standpoint: all hands on deck.

"Defensively, everyone is fine. Manti (Te'o) had a little stomach flu, we kept him out of stuff today," the coach offered. "Nothing major; he could have played today if he had to."

This newfound healthy state will allow the Irish defense to continue to substitute more liberally – and schematically – is it began to show last week in Boston.

"(Good health) gets more guys on the field; gives us a better rotation on the back end," Kelly admitted. "It gives us more possibilities in 3rd down situations and being able to situation-substitute."

Unofficial staff addition

Thursday's press gathering finalized what many feared: 5th-year center Dan Wenger is out of the season due to concussions suffered in August.

"He is not cleared to play this year; he's out for the year," Kelly said.

As a player who's already received his "extra" year of eligibility, Wenger now has the unlikely chance to apply for a rare sixth-season, though that will depend on the technical reason he was withheld from action as a true freshman in 2006.

"That's been discussed," Kelly said of Wenger's possible sixth-year status. "We're going to check with compliance. To get a 6th-year you have to have two injuries that put you out of competition for the year…I think it will get sorted out when our compliance people start to examine it."

Though it is unlikely to serve as a basis of fact, Wenger's freshman year listing in the Notre Dame media guide notes he was, "hampered by injury most of the year…named show team player of the week on at least one occasion after providing a good look for the first-team offense…did not see any game action as a rookie lineman."

Regardless, Wenger continues to be part of the team and he's moved forward in an exercise program which is at the least good news for his life outside the sport.

"He has been put on a program to move back in that direction (if he wants to play again). A little bit of light exercise followed by an increased volume week after week," Kelly offered.

Since the second concussion occurred, Wenger has remained an integral part of the team, even traveling with the Irish on the road.

"He's done a nice job of spending time with (Chris) Watt on the road; Watt's swinging back and forth (from center and guard)," Kelly said. "He really provides a nice student-assistant…the angle of somebody who knows the position and has played it. He's part of our football team."

Multiple Notre Dame opponents have received a sixth-year of eligibility in the past two seasons, most notably USC guard Jeff Byers.


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