Seven players Notre Dame's program will doubtless miss in 2015. But they're the only seven among Notre Dame's *40 best players -- intermittent and/or regular competitors to the 2014 campaign -- that exhaust collegiate eligibility at this season's end.
(*When 34 of 40 remain, plus the pending return of Keivarae Russell and Ishaq Williams, there's reason to continue to point to 2015, as we have on these pages since December 2013, as the season in which head coach Brian Kelly is loading up for a playoff run.)
Though small in number, the contributions of each Irish senior will heavily impact Saturday's home finale against #24 Louisville. Across the board, each of the seven is set to log a heavy workload if not start.
Utupo will start under unfortunate circumstances -- in place of the team's best player, Sheldon Day, the first starting assignment of the fifth-year senior's career, one spent mostly as a special teams contributor to the team's kickoff return unit. From "edge rusher" prospect as a 2010 freshman, to inside linebacker, to defensive end, to nose guard, to defensive tackle, Utupo's final stop proved the best fit.
After a three-year stat line that showed just seven tackles (all in 2013) Utupo has this season produced 15 tackles including two for loss, a sack, an interception, three passes defended, and a quarterback hurry.
"We expected him to be, first of all, a good leader for us," said Kelly of extending Utupo an invitation for a fifth season last winter. "And he has been. Justin is well-respected by his teammates. He's well-liked. He has a lot of credibility in our locker room. And so we knew what we were getting as a locker room guy. And if that's all we got from him, that would have been enough for him to come back as a fifth-year player.
"But we were hoping to get a role for him, as well. And (defensive coordinator) Brian (VanGorder) thought that after the spring that he could perform in a role for us. And that's what it ended up being. He found a role for us on the defensive line and has performed probably and played more snaps than we thought coming into the season."
Fellow fifth-year senior safety Austin Collinsworth remains injured -- injured but playing. Collinsworth returned to the field last week and scored a touchdown on his second snap of game action. He's not close to full health, but he's playing football because his team needs him.
"I only have three more opportunities to play for this school to win football games, and I gotta get it done. We gotta get it done," he said.
Collinsworth's shoulder dislocated in an Oct. 4 matchup with North Carolina. He offered Saturday that the MRI came back with more positive news than expected, and instead of surgery, it's become a matter of persistent pain and pain tolerance as a result. "A lot of biting down on my mouthpiece," Collinsworth said.
"I've just learned to ignore pain a little bit. I'm alright, I'm as healthy as I've been all year, which isn't saying much. But I feel good.
"Really, it was just whether or not the shoulder would come out again. And when the doctors gave me clearance that I could protect myself, as soon as I had enough strength, I knew I could play through pain."
Joining Collinsworth on the pain brigade is graduate student Cody Riggs. Pain though is the ancillary issue regarding Riggs' stress reaction in his foot -- as a cornerback, if he can't press off in his backpedal or coming out of his break, Riggs goes from standout defender to liability on the edge.
"He'll get some playing time for us," said Kelly of the team's best defensive back over the season's first two months. Riggs played approximately half the snaps last week, ceding time for most of the second half to sophomore Devin Butler at left cornerback.
Redemption on Tap?Fifth-year senior right tackle Christian Lombard will make his 31st start Saturday vs. the Cardinals, splitting time this season between right guard (Game #1-#3) and right tackle (Game #4-present). Lombard was the team's starting right tackle for all 13 games in 2012, then moved inside to right guard last fall, starting seven games prior to late-October back surgery.
Lombard joined a 2010 Irish team that was 16-21 over the previous three seasons. Like Collinsworth and Utupo, he's been with the program for the duration of the Kelly era (44 wins vs. 18 losses) and Notre Dame has won 24 of the last 30 games he's started.
"When we came in, it wasn’t an established, winning program like it is now," said the Palatine, Ill.-native and Scout.com's No. 2 ranked guard prospect from the 2010 class.
“The coaches have a certain level of confidence now that kind of rubs off on us. It’s the process. It’s a rough patch (consecutive losses), but we’re all in a good mindset, a good frame of mind. That’s kind of what I’ve learned over the past couple years. We’re special athletes. We’re all smart. We’re here for a reason. We can all do whatever we need to do.”
Two other seniors, Cam McDaniel and Kyle Brindza, have little reason reminisce on Senior Day. Redemption trumps emotion for both.
"I think everybody is already ready for Saturday, ready to redeem ourselves," said McDaniel. "Losing at home is something you never want to happen. We've created a winning culture here at home and didn't take care of business with that (last week). We have a pretty bitter taste in our mouths as you all can probably imagine. We have a serious challenge with Louisville coming in.
"For me, especially, that's how I'm looking at it. I know there's senior week and there's emotion, but this is a good football team coming in here. We have lost two games and we're not that type of team. We're a winning football team and we want to prove that."
Said Brindza, who missed a pair of crucial field goals Saturday, including a key 42-yard attempt in overtime, "It was a first for me. But as the code is for Michael Jordan, it's the missed game-winning shots that made him succeed (later) and not fail. When one thing is wrong, don't let it fulfill you with a trait and behavior you've never had.
"I've adhered to a saying this week and it's on my phone (screen) every time I pick it up:
"'Failure is an event, not a person.'"
For a small senior contingent, failure is not an option they've considered Saturday, their final game together in South Bend. Emotions will be put aside in search of one goal.
"Maybe later in the game you start to think about it (Senior Day), but going in, and after a few plays, it's not something we'll think about," said tight end Ben Koyack.
"Everyone just wants to get that taste out of their mouth and get back in the win column."