Until Notre Dame's punt return teams finds a modicum of success, the early-season Achilles Heel will serve as a media focal point and fan lament this fall. The practice might not be an issue Saturday in Heinz Field.
"There'll be times when we don't have a punt returner in punting situations on the field because they leave the quarterback on the field, so we've got to be prepared for that," Kelly noted of the Panthers unique punt team. "It's rather deceptive in a sense that they take the quarterback and only move him back a couple of yards so you really can't tell if they're running an offensive play. So we'll get our punt team out there but we may not get them out when the quarterback is still on the field," he said.
"We've had (strong safety) Harrison Smith back there in case we get into a situation where we believe they're going to punt for sure. We've trained Harrison and Goody (John Goodman) and Robby Toma; those are the guys that have been catching punts."
Of Smith's early season contributions, Kelly added, "Leadership, communication, he plays the ball well in the air. I think we had our highest number that I can remember, we had nine or 10 pass breakups (vs. Michigan State, of which Smith recorded four, a career-best and the highest at the program since Glen Earl defended the same vs. Florida State in 2002).
"He plays the ball well and communicates extremely well for us. We run the game plan through him, essentially," Kelly continued, noting Manti Te'o sets the front seven of the defense while Smith is in charge of the backline.
92 for 7 not the highlightNotre Dame's 10-play, 92-yard touchdown drive in Saturday's second quarter broke open a nip-and-tuck contest with the Spartans, extending the lead to 11 en route to an 18-point final margin. While game announcers and Irish media lauded the effort as a possible turning point for the offense, Kelly noted a previous drive as the season's most impressive.
"I think if I look at one drive that we had, it was probably the late-game drive against Michigan," Kelly said of a 61-yard, 5-play march that gave the Irish a four-point lead with 30 seconds remaining. "I can tell you that they're a confident group, that they believe they can move the ball on anybody."
Part of that progress involves cleaning up the drive-killing mistakes that have plagued the offense. On the season, 10 Irish drives have ended with turnovers; and 10 have concluded with touchdowns.
"I don't know that they have that sense that they're a turnover-waiting-to-happen, as much as they just need to make good decisions and take care of the football," Kelly said, reiterating, "They're a pretty confident group, they've just got to keep working on the little things.
Injury UpdateIt's not exactly all hands on deck, but Kelly intimated that the bulk of the two-deep depth chart would be available for action Saturday – that includes backup cornerback and special teams coverage member, Lo Wood, whose status was in doubt most of the week.
"He played today in all of our nickel and dime situations," Kelly said following the week's final practice. "(Freshman) Josh Atkinson got a little work earlier in the week as his replacement, but Lo's back out there and we expect him to play. He's back in on our special teams. He ran and he said he felt pretty good today."
Also expected to be activated is sophomore tight end Alex Welch. His classmate, Danny Spond, is unlikely to suit up as he progresses through a hamstring strain. Spond is a special teams starter and the backup Drop linebacker, replaced last week by freshman Troy Niklas in the latter role.
Not injured but also absent from action has been sophomore defensive end Kona Schwenke. Much was made of the lineman's 30-plus additional pounds since he first saw varsity action last November. Up to 295 (after enrolling around 227) Schwenke hasn't hit the field in 2010.
"He's a guy that we still have a lot of confidence in, but we've built some very good and competitive depth there," said Kelly in reference to freshmen Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt. "It's just a really competitive situation for him right now. We'll see how things unfold during the year. You lose a guy and you get banged up later in the season, he's certainly, I don't want to say a luxury, but it's nice to have a guy who's got experience who can go in there and help you win."
As for the possibility of Schwenke being withheld from action as a true sophomore this fall, thereby preserving a season of eligibility, Kelly noted, "I wouldn't say it's unconventional, but of course you know that seasons of competition are a very different topic for me to address," he offered, an obvious tongue-in-cheek reference to the verbiage surrounding Notre Dame's "redshirt" policy. "But I think you guys got the answer."