Head coach Brian Kelly offered Saturday a few updates on combatants that missed the 2013 season, including one on junior defensive lineman Chase Hounshell, a player forced to miss both 2013 and 2012 due to shoulder surgeries (three total).
"Hounshell's practicing. He's with us on scout team, fully-engaged, contact," said Kelly. "Of all the guys, relative to full engagement, Chase is in there. Feels good about where he is, feels better than he ever has."
Hounshell debuted as a true freshman as part of the regular rotation vs. a talented Air Force offense in 2011. He recorded the only four tackles of his collegiate career to date vs. the Falcons, sitting out 25 consecutive games and counting.
Three other Irish missing from the 2013 fray are on the mend. Slowly. That includes sophomore safety Nicky Baratti, a starting candidate entering August camp where a second shoulder injury waylaid his season.
?"He's at a safety position where he's going to be in a hit position," said Kelly of Baratti. "One-on-one striking position, we're not going to put him in contact probably through the spring. We're obviously going to put him in all of our drill work, but we're going to keep him in a red jersey if you will all the way through the spring. He's going to have to find his way throughout the spring without contact."
Baratti was in a similar situation last spring the result of surgery No. 1 on his shoulder. He played throughout 2012 as a reserve safety and key member of the special teams. Baratti contributed greatly to the undefeated season because of two key plays: a goal line interception in a 13-6 win over Michigan in September and an open-field tackle on Robert Woods, one-on-one vs. the standout USC playmaker, on a late first half punt return in the season finale.
"I think we're fine, I think he can continue to develop in the program, but with that second surgery, instead of going six months where we contacted him after six, we're going to go nine, and really air on being conservative with him," Kelly added of Baratti.
"I think (freshman linebacker Doug) Randolph, same thing," said Kelly. "These guys are running, conditioning, football-related drill work, no contact, is where the shoulder guys are. As you know Randolph and Baratti were surgically prepared on the same day (late August.)"
Also slow to mend is junior defensive lineman Tony Springmann, lost in August to a significant knee injury that included a dislocation with severe ligament damage.
"He's further behind," said Kelly. "He picked up an infection, so that put him well behind. He's just moving around right now. He's not even close. We expect him to be ready for the fall, but he's certainly in no position to be ready (in the spring.)"
Ready to RollOn the opposite end of the healing spectrum is freshman running back Greg Bryant. Out since the team's win over Michigan State where he appeared on kickoff coverage, the former four-star prospect spent December showing his stuff against the Irish defense, this just two months after "PRP" (plasma replacement procedure) on his knee.
"He's moving along very well after the procedure that he had, which is very similar to Louis's (Nix) procedure, a little bit more involved," said Kelly. "He's running around, took some carries in our (December 21) scrimmage. He's really good, really excited about where he can be next year. I think we did the right thing with him not playing this year, because I can see where his development and how he's going to help our football team next year.
"He's a dynamic player."
Bryant is expected to receive a medical redshirt for his freshman season, though that's not made official at Notre Dame until after an athlete completes his fourth (senior) season. Bryant appeared in three games and not after Game Four (MSU).
The first three decades of freshman eligibility (dating back to 1972) passed before a former redshirted Irish runner later in his career led a Notre Dame in rushing. That changed when Cierre Wood turned the trick in the first (and second) seasons of the Kelly era.
Bryant will attempt to do the same, presumably with four seasons to play ahead.
Kelly noted Bryant developed mentally as much as physically during his time away from active duty.
"Handling the academics, handling just being here at Notre Dame, that with the rigors of college football and (where) everybody's a really good player," said Kelly of a freshman's challenges. "His experience here is going to be not just on the field but off the field as well. He's done a really good job. Grades aren't out yet but we always get a good indication, and we feel like he's handled himself pretty well the first semester."
Kelly was asked Saturday if he ever had the impression that his freshman runner wasn't happy with his place on the team as a rookie.
"It wasn't that he wasn't happy. Every freshman goes through that period of time," said Kelly. "First, that 'hey, I'm a great player. I should be playing.' Then, 'how do I communicate that back to my friends that I'm not playing.' What's wrong with you? You're not a good player? That communication.
"I think his dad helped him a lot with that. Usually you find a parent to help get involved in that. So you're having a conversation with the parent. That usually helps a lot. It starts there.
"Then I think it's just the realization that as time goes on, there's so much more than just stepping out on the football field. It's handling the day-to-day academics and handling the day-to-day scheduling, weight-training, all those things. I think at times, we've had that conversation with a number of players here. They're just going through the growing pains of being a freshman."
Confidence not misplacedFavored by two touchdowns (or more, pending your prognosticator of choice), Notre Dame's matchup with 6-6 Rutgers, the sixth-place team from the American Athletic Conference, does not rank as must-see TV outside the teams' respective fan bases.
Few Notre Dame fans consider the Scarlet Knights a threat. One head coach, does.
"We're 8-4, so I don't know how good we are. If we were 12-0, we could probably listen to that," said Kelly of Irish fans writing off Rutgers. "We have to play well or we're going to get beat. I told our guys, listen, they're from New Jersey, this is a big game for them.
"We have to play well. If we go out there and don't play well, we're not good enough to beat Rutgers. I don't listen to what other people say, and I know our players understand. They know who they are. Our players clearly know that they have to go play."
Notre Dame has lost 11 of its last 13 bowl appearances. It was, however, favored just twice in that span, losing 35-28 to Georgia Tech in the 1999 Gator Bowl (1998 season) and winning 49-21 over Hawaii on Christmas Eve 2008.
Prior to this ongoing ignominious post-season run, Notre Dame won five of its previous six bowl games, each of them ranking among the five major bowls (currently referred to as "BCS" bowls) of the time.