Irish defense catching breaks before break

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly discusses the emergence of young players up front, a position tweak for the Music City Bowl, and the crucial return of starters Sheldon Day and Cody Riggs.

Two phases down, one (plus a mini-vacation) to go.

Bowl preparations for Kelly's Irish have to date included a renewed adherence to technique, plus a heavy dose of weight training and conditioning. Those essentials led into Phase Two last week, putting self-improvement into action in the form of live scrimmage, tackling, 11-on-11 work, and initial preparations for upcoming opponent LSU.

With final exams at the university concluded, two more campus practices (Dec. 21 and 22) promise to be intense prior to the team-wide dismissal Monday afternoon for Christmas break with their families. The players will then reconvene in Nashville where the staff will have begun in earnest game week preparations for the Tigers.

Key to the latter is the likely inclusion of starters Sheldon Day and Cody Riggs, both of whom took part in live scrimmages this week -- a crucial development after a November in which the defense missed Riggs for the better part of four games and Day for nearly two-and-a-half.

"Sheldon practiced in full gear and took reps in all of our team. We’re a better football team when he’s in there," said Kelly. "His injury is 100 percent (healed) or we wouldn’t put him back out there. He is cleared medically. Now, getting from that 90 percent to 100 percent is football related activities. Fatigue, (snap) volume…We would never put a guy out there that is physically not healed.

"The quad is not at the strength it needs to be (Day sprained his knee) and taking reps gets him stronger and stronger."

As for Riggs?

"No doubt there," said Kelly. "Both those guys will be in the starting lineup."

Riggs offered thereafter that his injured foot (stress reaction) was in dire need of rest. He finally received that respite in December.

"There was always pain. A stress reaction is basically a stress fracture. The more you play on it, the worse it gets," said Riggs. "With me trying to tough it out, I probably made it worse. I should have just rested it and probably could have been ready for USC."

Riggs' injury presented following the team's 49-39 win against Navy. The Irish were 7-1 at the time and finished 0-4 with Riggs missing games against Arizona State and USC and playing briefly against Louisville in the first quarter. Riggs played a limited number of snaps on Nov. 15 vs. Northwestern, mostly in the first half.

"With the time off now, I'm going to be close to back to 100 percent," Riggs said.

Day seemed less certain of his overall status, but was focused on being available on Dec. 30 to aid the defense's otherwise youth-filled front.

"I'm probably about 80 percent right now," said Day. "Hopefully it gets better. I'm going through the process with rehab and the training staff and hoping everything works out."

Unlike Riggs' situation, Day's return to the field wasn't based largely on rest.

"It's definitely strength, rehab, and trying to get your confidence back."

With or without Day at full strength, sophomore defensive end will be asked to offer aid inside. Junior nose tackle Jarron Jones is out (his backup, freshman Daniel Cage, is working through a knee sprain as well), which means Rochell, the team's strongest lineman, will be asked to help plug the recent holes that plagued the Irish rush defense.

"He’s gonna have to be prepared to play some inside for sure. We got him working in there right now," said Kelly. "He’s gotta continue to work with his hands, it’s a little bit different inside than on the edge. But we feel like it’s important that we’re able to handle some big guys up inside and those two guys (Day and Rochell) probably give us our best chance."

"We have a little bit more size in there," Kelly continued. "Daniel Cage is gonna have to play much better than he did (late while nursing injury) and with exams over, I can see the whites of his eyes. I can see his pupils and his eyes were in the back of his head two weeks ago, he was a little overwhelmed with everything. I think he’ll play better for us.

"Obviously (Jarron) Jones would help us in there immeasurably, but certainly we’re a much better defense with Cody at the corner and having Sheldon in there. That helps us so much more. But clearly LSU is a better run offense than USC was."

Kelly added that sophomore starter Max Redfield is expected to play after breaking a rib vs. USC on Nov. 29, an injury that kept him overnight in a South Central ER. Redfield took part in full contact in a recent practice.

An Unfortunate End; A Rookie Emergence

While a handful of defenders poised to return, at least one longtime starter appears out, 32-game starter Christian Lombard.

Kelly noted the team's "Iron Cross" award winner (dedication in the weight room) for 2014 remains in a competitive situation with redshirt-freshman Mike McGlinchey for the starting right tackle job. McGlinchey replaced Lombard during the team's one-sided defeat at USC.

Lombard has been battling a back injury since early November, and prior, one that knocked him out of the final six games of the 2013 season. Irish Illustrated's Pete Sampson reported Saturday that a source indicated Lombard has already made the decision not to play, thus ending his Irish career.

Lombard was Scout.com's No. 2 guard prospect from the 2014 recruiting class, but dominating team news yesterday were the No. 4 and No. 14 rated offensive tackles from 2013 and 2014, respectively, Quenton Nelson and Alex Bars.

"Quenton Nelson is going to be a really good player for us on the offensive line," said Kelly Saturday.

"I think from a defensive standpoint we’re gonna really like (defensive tackle) Jonathan Bonner (and rush end/defensive end) Jhonny Williams, those guys are gonna really contribute for us. Those guys stand out in practice. You see them, they’re visible, they make plays for you.

"Then the freshman Alex Bars, he’s one of the best I’ve seen in 25 years. He’s that good. Those guys ought to be nervous about who’s job he’s gonna take. He’s that good of a player. If there’s one offensive player that I could point to, Alex Bars is clearly the guy that stands out on offense."

Kelly noted last week that Nelson is being evaluated at guard, Bars at tackle.


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