Max Redfield (thumb) will start, Corey Robinson (knee) should play, and Tyler Luatua’s game day fate will be decided by concussion protocol procedures in place through Wednesday’s practice.
Those pressing injury issues and more highlighted a personnel-heavy media session as No. 6 Notre Dame prepares for Saturday night and its matchup with No. 12 Clemson in Death Valley.
NOT BETTER, JUST DIFFERENT
It was three weeks ago that Brian Kelly offered of junior linebacker Jaylon Smith, “I haven’t coached a player like him before. Period.”
Naturally, most football minds turned their attention to one Manti Te’o, he of the truckload of awards for the 2012, 12-1 Fighting Irish. Kelly was asked to compare Smith to Te’o today.
“My comments were centered on (Smith’) versatility and his ability to impact all phases of our defense,” said Kelly. “Manti had a way of influencing the entire defense. He had a -- he just had a savvy and a smart presence about him, like a Joe Schmidt, but certainly an athleticism about him as well. Not to the level of Jaylon. So I think they impacted differently.
“I think Jaylon impacts more physically than Manti did, but Manti had a large presence on that defense as well.”
Kelly added that as with all players, Smith has room to improve.
“I would say that we continue to work in pass coverage and some of the things that we want him to recognize,” said Kelly. “But I think we're splitting hairs. He's generally in really good position in most pass coverages.
“His pass rush, too, because we obviously need him to help us there as well. So I think there are a couple things that certainly he's going to continue to work on himself; but I think within our defense, we're pretty happy as to where he is.”
Editor’s note: To define “versatility” in a linebacker, you could do worse than a player asked to improve his A.) Pass Coverage, and conversely, B.) Pass Rush, while C.) Leading the team in tackles (29) and tackles-for-loss (4.5).
FROM FLAWED TO FANTASTIC
At the conclusion of the 2013 football season, Brian Kelly called his kick coverage unit “a disaster.” One year later, they were nearly as bad (111th in 2014 vs. 120th in 2013).
To begin 2015, they’ve been outstanding, allowing just 18 yards per return over a whopping 30 kickoffs. Of the 30, only eight have been touchbacks – and that’s often by design.
“We would like them all to be at the appropriate hang time,” said Kelly of redshirt-freshman punter/kickoff specialist Tyler Newsome’s offerings. “We're getting to the point where we would like the ball inside the 25-yard line (touchback placement). The 25-yard line is the max for us at this point where we've gotten our kickoff coverage team. We're 19.6 (yard line) now in returns. So we'd like it at the appropriate hang time because we believe that we can pin you inside the 20 if we get the appropriate hang time.”
Said Kelly of Newsome the punting prospect – off to the best start in program history at a ludicrous 47.1-yard net average. “We knew he had talent. It was raw talent at the time. We knew we had a year to work with him (Kyle Brindza would serve as the kicker and punter in Newsome’s 2014 freshman season.)
“He has got an incredible work ethic,” Kelly continued. “A lot of the credit should go to him and his work ethic. He's about as hard a worker as we've had, and I mean across all position groups. If Coach (Paul) Longo was in here today talking about the hardest workers on the football team in the weight room, he would mention Tyler Newsome.”
FORGED THROUGH TRAINING (CAMP)
Nic Weishar’s earned universal praise from a group that matters little in terms of playing time earned – the daily Irish media – thanks to continual quality practice sessions during media viewing periods (approximately 10 hours/5 August practices).
Weishar caught everything thrown in his vicinity and was an equal opportunity offender -- that is, he beat first, second, and third-stringers alike.
Turns out those grueling August practices caught the attention of a decision maker as well.
“We were very confident in playing him based upon what we saw in camp,” said Kelly. “We saw a toughness and a grittiness in camp when he had to play a lot of snaps. There was a time when Aliz’e Jones was out, Durham Smythe was out, not playing much, and Tyler Luatua was out in camp. And there was probably a two-week stretch where Nic Weishar was getting all the reps. He was getting all of them.
“We were able to get a really great evaluation of him, and I saw a toughness. I saw grit and determination. I saw him being able to do all those jobs. So when we gave him that opportunity, we felt very confident that he could do the things we needed him to do.”
Though his biggest contributions came Saturday as a blocker, Weishar also converted a third-down pass from fellow former second-stringer DeShone Kizer for a chain-moving first down.
ALL EYES ON HIM
He was outstanding on third down against UMass (four completions in five attempts for four first downs), gained more first downs via the rush than anyone not named C.J. Prosise (4), and scored his first career rushing touchdown.
Previously, he won a football game for the Irish with a half-field touchdown toss in the waning seconds.
None of the above rank among DeShone Kizer’s most important traits to date per his head coach.
“He has a presence about him, a command presence that, when he goes out there with the other 10 players, you don't feel like you're putting a freshman quarterback out there. You don't sense that or feel that,” said Kelly.
“I think that's all about a presence, and he has that about him. I see that every day he goes out there, he takes control of that offensive unit. It's not meek. It's not weak. It's a presence that he brings when he goes out there, and I think that that's what he's brought.
“He's learning along the way,” Kelly continued. “There are things that he hasn't seen before. There will be mistakes that he makes this weekend as well. But I think that it's his presence that allows the other 10 players to have a great deal of confidence that they can go out and be successful.”