"I think it's going to be game time," head coach Brian Kelly said of Johnson's playing status. "We're going to have to see how he moves. Now, he doesn't have to do some of the jobs that he's used to doing at the 4-technique; we've moved him down inside (as a result of the Air Force offensive attack), we'll see how he goes through warm-ups.
"Encouraging, but I'm not ready to put my stamp on it right now."
Johnson did little in Thursday's practice.
"We just took (the boot) off, evaluated him again. We were trying to make a decision on PRP (Platelet-rich plasma injection) today," Kelly offered. "If we felt he was too far behind, we were going to PRP that. We didn't seem to think that we needed it. The next step is moving him and see what he looks like."
Also in question for Saturday is long-snapper Jordan Cowart. The junior broke his hand in the first half of last week's win over Purdue.
"He snapped today. We'll help him on Saturday with the pain," Kelly said. "If he can't go, and (again) today he snapped, it would be (Braxston) Cave for short snapper and it would be (Ryan) Kavanagh for long snapping."
The walk-on Kavanagh has held for all of David Ruffer's field goals and extra points since the season opener last fall. Should Cave be injured, senior linebacker Darius Fleming would be the emergency short-snapper, keeping Kavanagh as Ruffer's holder.
Brotherly Love?Irish cornerback Josh Atkinson and his brother George had an interesting meeting in late August – Josh won, decisively, hitting George in the flat and dropping him for an 8-yard loss in a rare scrimmage open to the media. (Or as George noted that day: "I think he had help; he couldn't do that alone.")
Regardless, George has on-upped his brother by hitting the field first, shortly thereafter returning his second career touch for an 89-yard kickoff return score.
The Atkinson's won't be the only pair of brothers in uniform Saturday in South Bend. Austin Niklas, older brother of Irish freshman, Troy, and a fellow linebacker is a junior on the 3-1 Falcons. The elder Niklas has eight tackles and a sack this season in a backup role – he posted a career-best 14 stops in his lone start, last year vs. UNLV.
"I remember in the recruiting process, pushing hard that, 'Hey, come to Notre Dame, we play Air Force this year and you'll get a chance to play against your brother," Kelly said. "So I remember it from that perspective. It's always great when brothers get a chance to compete against one another, and I know it will be a great afternoon for the family because they'll go home winners," he joked.
Mr. Formerly AutomaticFive straight field goals ended David Ruffer's 2009 season, prior to Kelly's arrival at the program. 18 consecutive successful attempts followed before his only miss, a season-ender late in a Sun Bowl blowout. A trip to the ESPN Home Depot Awards show and runner-up status to Lou Groza award winner Dan Bailey (55 touchbacks on kick-offs didn't hurt Bailey's cause), completed Ruffer's storybook effort.
That was David Ruffer then, a non-scholarship walk-on kicker and the best single season field goal specialist in program history; a between-the-pipes machine.
A 5th-year senior now, Ruffer, has been decidedly human.
"He hit the ball pretty good. He kicked one into the wind at 49 yards and just missed it to the right," Kelly said of Ruffer's second miss last week at Purdue. "And then he kicked one, hit it good, just a little low (the first).
"I'm not pushing the panic button there."
Ruffer's hit three field goals this season, but missed a crucial chip shot (30 yards) vs. South Florida in the opener. He missed at Pittsburgh (28 yards) to end the half as well.
As for kick-off specialist Kyle Brindza's notably shorter kicks last week in West Lafayette, Kelly wasn't fazed.
"He didn't kick it great, but his hang time was four-plus (seconds)," Kelly noted of his freshman. "Even though he kicked it to the 15, the average field position was the 23-yard line on kicks that didn't get to the goal line.
"We've got to cover better, we've got to run better," Kelly continued. "Our 'run team' players are too good. We've got to do a better job and we're working at it."
I choose to blame everybody, too…Four misses in seven field goal attempts; a 110th out of 120 teams in net punting (though recently improved); 0.3 yards per punt return (not last nationally at 117th!); 116th in punt return defense (in 2010 they ranked among the best); a middling 71st in kick return defense (after three seasons of excellence).
Aside from a solid 37th ranking among the nation's kick return units, augmented by George Atkinson's 89-yard score, Notre Dame's special teams don't have much to be proud of as the 2011 season reaches the halfway point.
"We've got to coach better. Everyone wants to put this on Mike Elston, but there are six other coaches that are responsible for those teams," Kelly noted of the failing special teams. "They are our lieutenants on each one of those units, and each one of them has to be accountable for doing a better job.
"Now, having said that, I think we all know on the other end what players have to play better. But we've got to coach better, too. But this is not just on Mike Elston. He can't run that whole group himself," he added of his special teams coordinator (and defensive line coach). "He's got six assistant coaches that are responsible for certain aspects of it, and they've got to coach better and we've got to get more out of our guys."
Mike Elston's defensive line is Notre Dame's best position group; the special teams, in total, has been (far and away) the season's biggest disappointment. If the latter doesn't change, Notre Dame's current winning streak won't extend to a BCS-qualifying level.