HamstrungWhether injuries are at the root of Notre Dame's 4-5 mark entering its Week 10 bye is debatable. What's inarguable is the drastic change the Week One depth chart has seen due to a rash of season-ending or altering wounds to front line players.
The team's starting quarterback, tight end, tailback, slot receiver, nose guard and inside linebacker from the Week One matchup vs. Purdue missed all or most of last week's game.
At least four, if not all six, of the injured starters won't see the field for the remainder of the regular season.
Improved conditioning was a purported strength offered by Kelly after the hiring of trusted Strength & Conditioning coach Paul Longo, whom Kelly elevated to one of three "Leadership Roles" alongside the team's offensive and defensive coordinators.
How does Kelly correlate the new S&C program with a team beset by lingering injuries?
"I really think there are a lot of answers to that question; there are a lot of pieces there. You've hit on one of them," the head coach said of the possibility that Longo's 10-month influence has not yet been able to transform a team Kelly noted was run down upon his arrival.
"But I think there's a lot of areas that we're going to closely examine at the end of the season so we can come up with some answers, instead of saying, ‘You know what? It's just bad luck this season.'
"That just doesn't cut it," he continued. "We're going to have to look at all the things that we believe can cut back on the number of injuries that we have."
Among the most serious of those injured was senior tailback Armando Allen. Allen had surgery this week in Nashville to repair one of his injured hips. The other will need surgery as well, though the first operation was especially telling.
"He had only one of the hips repaired," Kelly began before facetiously adding, "They found a tire in there; radio antennas, cans…there were a lot of things in there that showed that maybe this was an injury that he's had for many, many, many years."
Allen, who has exhausted his collegiate eligibility, has an expected recovery timetable of three to four months.
The road to recovery: Sophomore inside ‘backer Carlo Calabrese sat out Saturday's loss to Tulsa with a hamstring injury. I noted prior to the contest that the team's third-leading tackler would not play and further doubted that Irish fans would see Calabrese take the field again this regular season.
According to Kelly, the sophomore from Verona, N.J., could prove that observation false.
"Carlo has made significant improvement. He'll stay here this weekend and continue treatment."
(Area Irish players were given the option to return home if possible over this Friday-Saturday respite from team meetings/practice.)
Kelly also noted that freshman linebacker Prince Shembo was cleared for practice this week after suffering a concussion vs. the Golden Hurricane. Shembo practiced Thursday for the first time since being knocked woozy covering a second quarter kick-off.
Go North (or South), young manAs noted in IrishEyes Thursday morning, sophomore wide receiver Robby Toma not only put forth the best effort of his Irish career last Saturday, but played with enough of a purpose and aggressive attitude to warrant either a start or significant playing time in November.
Kelly (who I choose to believe is a fan of the IE weekly film review series, The Eye in the Sky), praised Toma's skill-set, and positive attitude, after his first big break.
"I would think that if you looked at the depth chart and were third, and we moved an X (wide receiver) over to Z (Toma's spot), you would get the sense and feel that, ‘Well they don't want me,'" Kelly offered of Toma's logical thought process when X wide receiver Tai-ler Jones moved ahead of Toma at the Z (slot) following Theo Riddick's ankle injury.
"He's worked hard," Kelly continued of the undersized target. "We trusted that when he got his opportunity that he could be successful for us. I think that what he did better than most of us thought he could was (gain) yards after the catch (Editor's Note: I concur.). He took the ball and he went north and south.
"He's a very competitive kid and I think energized us in some instances as well."
Kelly was asked if it's surprising to see a smaller player (Toma is 5'9" 175 pounds and both are generous listings) employ such an aggressive attitude with the football.
"If you think of (New England Patriots slot receiver) Wes Welker, there's a guy that's 5'8" and just puts his shoulders down," Kelly offered while acknowledging hyperbole in the comparison. "Toma has that quality in that he's a tough kid. He plays the game with a toughness (rather than) finesse. He's skilled, but he's more of an aggressive, downhill-type of runner."
Win first, request later...Traditionalists beware: the Notre Dame Stadium grass, the same hallowed ground that hosted Bertelli, Hornung, Hanratty, Montana, Ferguson, Rice, Denson, Quinn and every legend in between may some day feature that homogenized look to which you've recently grown accustomed when tuning into college games nationwide:
"The offense obviously is such that we like to play fast," Kelly said of his spread attack. "I think it's pretty clear that (the Field Turf) surface plays pretty fast. It's not going to be my decision. I know that I'll have my say and that's all that it'll be."
Notre Dame practices on both Field Turf and grass inside the LaBar Practice Complex. They've played three games on Field Turf this season: at Michigan State (28 points in regulation; 31 total); at Boston College (31 points); and vs. Navy (17 points) at the New Meadowlands.
"I want the best for our football players; I want the best for our team and for the kind of offense that we run. And I know that we've been able to play really fast on those surfaces," he opined before coyly stating, "Don't know if that's going to be good enough to push it over the top...but it's more about the kind of team we're putting together that correlates (to Field Turf) more than anything else."
Kelly's desire for a Field Turf surface is understandable, and for those unfamiliar with the surface, its well-liked among players and in no way similar to the unforgiving Astro Turf carpets of the past.
The team's Navy/Field Turf performance notwithstanding, I'll defer to Kelly's better judgment as to where the Irish might "play fast." But I have a feeling a first-year head coach slated to win between 4 and 6 games could endure a bit of a wait before said synthetics grace South Bend.