Time to hit someone (else)

Notre Dame senior defensive lineman Chase Hounshell cleared the first hurdle of his third comeback attempt. The next, and most satisfying, can't happen until August 30.

For Chase Hounshell, the first hit will be the best.

Not the first hit of his Irish career, that came in mid-season 2011 as a true freshman against Air Force, when Hounshell posted a career-best four tackles.

Not the first hit of spring practice 2014, though that felt good after no pad-popping for nearly a calendar year.

Those were special, memorable to be sure, but Hounshell's first hit on August 30 when the defensive lineman joins his mates up front for the season opener vs. Rice will be tough to top when he looks back on what has been a trying collegiate experience to date.

It will be Hounshell's first on an opponent since December of his freshman season -- nearly 32 months will have passed.

"I thought about it, for sure," said Hounshell of his first padded practice this spring. "First day, let's get out there, let's take it play by play. After the first play I never thought about it again. I go out there with no regrets and no inclination. Just going 100 percent."

The 100 percent aspect has not gone unnoticed.

"His resolve and want to come back is pretty evident as we moved through the months and through the season," said head coach Brian Kelly of Hounshell. "When he started practice with us, it was pretty clear to me that he wanted to come back. Then, through weight training and conditioning and now obviously through all this contact, he's been involved in full-contact.

"I think here's a young man who there was no question in his mind he had made a decision that -- I don't know if he knew exactly what was going to happen but he knew he was going to get himself back on the field."

Three shoulder surgeries and two seasons removed from his last game in uniform, Hounshell's final season as an undergrad at the University approaches. But should he remain in good health and perform well in his reserve role this fall, two more football seasons (a rare sixth year) will doubtless be the reward for his struggles and continual rehab.

He has an open-and-shut as as two-time medical redshirt.

"I'm not going to lie, it's been tough," said Hounshell. "Definitely the toughest thing I've ever had to do in my life. Getting 100 percent healthy, then falling down so far, then getting 100 percent healthy then falling down so far again, it definitely takes a mental toll on you. Then having some doctors saying they're not sure if I can come back, you have players asking you every day. So it takes a mental toll. I trusted the process and took it step-by-step to get better.

"I'm 100 percent in practice, full-go in the weight room, have my strength back completely, and it's go time.

Hounshell's one of many necessary ingredients, one of many reserves that will receive an opportunity to show his wares through fall camp and the ensuing three-month season.

"This year more than others our D-Line has more depth," said Hounshell noting the overall number of competitors. "That's going to help us going in late in the season. As hard of a schedule as we play, it gets worse as the season goes on. If one or two guys go down, I think we have the depth to deal with that."

New look, new role

Recruited as a defensive end for Bob Diaco's 3-4 front, Hounshell will chip in from a new position, working as a three-technique tackle in defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's 4-3 look.

"I came in at the DE position, we were in a different defense," he noted. "This year (his move inside) is based on personnel. We have (defensive ends) Ishaq (Williams), we have Romeo (Okwara), we have Anthony Rabasa. Early enrollee Anthony Trumbetti has been absolutely phenomenal, he's been great. Really that's where the team needed me."

And ample opportunity exists.

"He's going to be a contributor to our football team in some fashion," said Kelly. "I think if he can stay in that 270-280 range, I think (strength and conditioning) coach (Paul) Longo feels in that range he can be athletic for us and move, he can do some things for us, because he is a strong kid. That's where we think he'll be maximizing his potential. Anything bigger than that, we don't feel like he can maximize his potential."

Hounshell noted he can easily "put on 10-15 pounds" but noted that he makes up for any lack of girth with "my speed, my toughness, and my motor."

Currently spelling the team's best lineman, junior Sheldon Day, Hounshell knows spring ball is the best time to hone his fundamentals. He can position himself well for the fall with a strong spring and summer workout session.

"This is our time as players to get better. The more reps you get, the better you get," he offered. "We did lose some great players, but now is our time to focus.

"(The new defense) has been pretty sweet so far. Coach VanGorder has done a great job of not putting so much on our plate that we can't handle it. He takes it step-by-step to make sure we understand our plays and schemes going in (to practice) before we move on."

Moving on, however, remains paramount for Hounshell on his road to recovery.

"I took mental reps for two seasons," he explained of his rarely waning focus. "I'd watch how (defensive linemen) get off the ball. I made sure I knew every play. Then take it a step further and watch the O-Line. Where they go, movement, lineup, formations, predicting plays. I learned a lot from watching.

"I have all the plays down. I'm a smart kid when it comes to football," he added. "But I am done with mental reps. It's time to hit some people now."

People not wearing the blue and gold, and thanks to VanGorder's one-gap scheme that allows the defensive lineman to attack while the linebackers read plays, those hits are planned in the opponent's backfield.

"I love the new defense. Instead of taking on three guys and letting Manti (Te'o) run up and get 100 tackles, it's kind of our time to get in the backfield and create some havoc, get some tackles," said Hounshell. "It gives the defensive line more freedom to come off the ball, get into the backfield, and make a play."

For one of them, a play 33 months in the making.

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