The hits just keep coming for Notre Dame.
The question is now how many more the Irish can absorb if they want to make the College Football Playoff, never mind mount a legitimate challenge within it.
On Saturday night against Boston College in the Shamrock Series at Fenway Park, Notre Dame lost starting running back C.J. Prosise (ankle sprain) and cornerback KeiVarae Russell (broken leg).
Brian Kelly said Russell will have surgery to insert a metal rod to help heal his broken right tibia on Sunday night, with a 6-to-8 week recovery outlook. Kelly said the senior cornerback could be back for the national championship game on Jan. 11, but that outlook was far from certain.
“Certainly very disappointing,” Kelly said. “He was in a lot of pain last night obviously on the way home. But he's just one of those kids that you hate to lose. He's meant so much to the program.”
The Irish head coach was much more upbeat on his running back’s outlook.
“No major damage to the ligament, very encouraging on that note,” Kelly said. “I would say right now that he would be doubtful this weekend.”
Notre Dame has experience going without Prosise, who suffered a concussion early against Pittsburgh and sat against Wake Forest. Freshman Josh Adams rushed for 288 yards in those games, although he was held to just 13 carries for 39 yards and one lost fumble against Boston College.
Russell’s absence is more problematic because the Irish don’t have a tested backup. Notre Dame will go with junior Devin Butler, sophomore Nick Watkins or freshman Nick Coleman. In fact, Kelly said the Irish may play all three despite rarely using any of them this season.
“They all have some strengths,” Kelly said. “And certainly each one of them, Devin has had a lot of game experience, he started games for us. Nick Watkins is a bigger corner, he's got very good size, hasn't played a lot of football for us. We'd like to see his compete level pick up. And Nick Coleman is a guy who plays the ball very well down the field, but he's raw.
“And so if you can take a little bit of each one of them … you'd like all three of those skill sets in one and you've got a super corner.”
Butler is a former prep teammate of Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan.
Prosise and Russell join Notre Dame’s overflowing injury report that’s savaged the depth chart at virtually every level. Defensive tackle Jarron Jones, safety Drue Tranquill, tight end Durham Smythe, running back Tarean Folston, quarterback Malik Zaire, defensive tackle Daniel Cage, receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, safety Avery Sebastian, offensive guard Alex Bars, nickel back Shaun Crawford and linebacker James Onwualu were out going into Fenway Park.
That means the Irish were down a dozen frontline players at the final gun.
Cage, who suffered a concussion before the Wake Forest game, should be back for Stanford after sitting the past two weeks, according to Kelly. His absence has forced the coaching staff to rely on red-shirt freshman Jonathan Bonner at defensive tackle while also moving Isaac Rochell inside.
That means a healthy Cage could help Notre Dame at two positions by returning Rochell to end.
“It makes a difference getting Cage back,” Kelly said. “It allows us to get back into the rotation that we want. So it definitely impacts us and helps that rotation that we have on the defensive line.”
Kelly is optimistic Jones and Smythe could be back for the bowl game. Sebastian is a potential comeback story too, although Kelly said he won’t burn the safety’s final year of eligibility unless the Irish are playing for a championship.
But with so many players out, the odds of Notre Dame getting that title shot appear to be waning.