WALKING, NOT WOUNDED
Wait, you mean a team can have good injury news, too?
That appears to be the case for Brian Kelly’s Healing Irish, a battered unit at season’s end but one that will approach full strength for its January 1 matchup with the defending champion Buckeyes.
“I had a long conversation with our medical staff and (trainer) Rob Hunt today,” said Kelly. “(Nose tackle) Jarron Jones is cleared for full practice and participation, so we will have him involved in practice, and it'll just be a matter of increasing the volume as we work through our bowl preparation.
The good thing about the bowl preparation is it's not like two-a-days. There are breaks in there, and I think we can increase his volume where he can be playing for us and contributing.”
Notre Dame will practice Friday and Saturday of this week and take Sunday off. Practices will be intermittent through Dec. 23 when the team breaks for Christmas, then resumes preparation in Arizona for game week. The Irish will land on Dec. 27 and with a Monday practice, have the equivalent of a standard week in preparation for the contest on Friday, January 1.
Jones isn’t the only early-season casualty expected to rejoin the fray.
“Durham Smythe is in a very, very good position,” said Kelly of his starting tight end, lost Game 2 to both knee and shoulder surgeries. “He's got full strength. We expect him to be a solid contributor for us, and he is cleared to practice immediately.”
More recently injured Irish are in various states of recovery. Sam linebacker James Onwualu is full-go after suffering a sprained MCL on Senior Day against Wake Forest while senior running back C.J. Prosise will be brought back slowly.
“C.J. will be moving around on Thursday,” Kelly added. “He's not fully cleared. He's out of the (ankle) cast. He's moving around. We'll have to see how he continues to progress. We expect him to be ready, but he'll be a process of moving him and getting him to the level that we need to get him.”
One crucial cog in the Irish machinery will not return.
“I don't see KeiVarae (Russell) being available to us,” said Kelly of his senior cornerback, lost late in the win over Boston College to a broken tibia. “He's still obviously a ways away relative to his injury.”
Kelly added that Smythe is expected to return to his pre-injury levels in terms of strength and conditioning while Jones is working to that end.
“Jarron is at about 90 percent right now, so it just depends on where we can get his volume. If we can get his volume up, I think at this time of the year, that's pretty good. I think we can get some really good play out of Jarron.”
Kelly noted that cornerback Devin Butler is back after a fourth quarter concussion at Stanford and wide receiver Corey Robinson (undisclosed injury) is full go as well.
THE HERE AND NOW
Previous bowl bids such as the Sun (2010), Champs Sports (2011), and Pinstripe (2013 – and yes, that really happened) provided Kelly & Co. with 15 additional practices. The bonus time together was welcomed, but in large part because the Irish coaching staff could take a look at younger players with an eye toward the spring and ensuing season.
A bowl win, in those cases, wasn’t nearly as important as program growth.
Not so last fall when the Irish were in desperate need of a win on the heels of a four-game losing skid and not so today.
“This team wants to win, and so winning will be the most important thing,” said Kelly. “I think that we'd like to say that experimenting with positions and getting young guys work is really left to the spring. This is about preparing this football team for one last game.
“Look, we lost our last game, and nobody wants to end their season on a loss. They want to end it on a win. So the preparation for this game and its focus will be about preparing to win the football game.”
Ohio State has won 49 of its last 53 games dating back to the outset of the Urban Meyer era. Just one of those four defeats occurred in bowl season, a 40-35 loss to Clemson in the Orange Bowl following the 2013 campaign.
NEVER GO OUTSIDE THE FAMILY
Ohio State’s future Hall of Fame head coach isn’t the only Buckeyes staffer with Irish ties. Assistant AD for Football Sports Performance Mickey Marotti served as Notre Dame’s director of strength and conditioning from 1998 until 2005 (the dawn of the Charlie Weis era) when he joined Meyer at Florida.
Ed Warinner serves as Ohio State’s offensive coordinator and offensive line coach while Tim Hinton works as the tight ends/fullbacks coach after tutoring running backs in South Bend in 2010-11 and previously working under Brian Kelly at Cincinnati for three seasons.
Warinner was Kelly’s offensive line coach in South Bend in 2010 and 2011.
Tony Alford – the lone holdover of the Weis era when Kelly took over in December 2009 – serves as Ohio State’s assistant head coach for offense and the running backs coach. Alford worked as a wide receivers and running backs coach for Kelly 2010-2014.
Let’s just say Ohio State’s staff might know a thing or two about a thing or two in South Bend.
“I think we'll probably have to consider it and look at maybe what we communicate on the line of scrimmage and be cognizant of it,” said Kelly of the Buckeye’s ability to discern Notre Dame’s initial play call. “I think it's something that we'll consider certainly on the offensive side of the ball with former coaches that are there. So I definitely think it's something we'll look at. But I don't think I'm too concerned about it, but it's something that we'll definitely consider.”
The addition of first-year quarterbacks coach/offensive coordinator Mike Sanford changed many relevant signals and machinations since Alford departed last fall and Warinner and Hinton moved on prior to 2012.
“I think there are a couple of protections that sound the same that maybe you can change a little bit,” said Kelly. “There wouldn't be wholesale changes, and it's so difficult…coaches are -- the last thing coaches want to do is run in the offense and go, hey, I know that this means this, and it really doesn't help you on game day. I think people make more out of it than it really is.”
THE SIREN’S SONG…
Meyer’s aforementioned 49-4 record in Columbus – with national championship in tow – has cemented his legacy as an all-time coaching great. His previous work in six seasons at Florida included a pair of national championships and a 67-15 mark in Gainesville.
Prior, Meyer led Utah to a 22 wins in 24 games including a 12-0 finish in 2004 that included a Fiesta Bowl victory. That success caused Notre Dame fans to fall in love with Meyer and a potential return to South Bend (Meyer served as the program’s wide receivers coach from 1996-2000).
You’d think that 11-year-old courtship would be irrelevant today.
Question: There are still some Notre Dame fans out there that think (Meyer) could come here some day. I wonder if you take that personally or use this as a moment to shut those fans up?
Said Kelly in response. “We're going to wrestle, arm wrestle before the game, and whoever wins gets the Notre Dame job. No, I mean, I think that's just great talk for the fans, and Urban is a great coach.
“Who knows? I'm not going to be here forever. Maybe he'll get a chance one day to coach at Notre Dame if that's what he wants.”