Two key players – one on each side of the football -- should be back in action for Notre Dame against Ohio State in the Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl, which would be a huge boost against a talented Buckeye squad that could still be the best team in the country, as it was a year ago.
Notre Dame (10-2) will need all the talent it can put on the field against the Buckeyes (11-1), who have won a phenomenal 49 out of 53 games played under head coach Urban Meyer.
Nose tackle Jarron Jones and tight end Durham Smythe were expected to be pillars within the defense and offense respectively in 2015. Jones was felled by an MCL injury during pre-season practice while Smythe suffered a shoulder injury in week one against Texas and a knee injury in week two against Virginia, both of which sidelined him for the balance of the regular season.
“Jarron probably has further to go,” Kelly said. “He’s such a big guy and he plays a position that requires such great leverage, which equals more strength and power than say Durham, who is playing a position that doesn’t necessarily need that kind of power.”
Jones was an effective, established piece to the Notre Dame defense in 2013-14 before suffering a foot injury that caused him to miss the final two games of last season. He was still mending from that setback when camp opened in August 2015.
Then came the knee injury, forcing the Irish to turn to sophomore Daniel Cage and freshman Jerry Tillery as a tag-team replacement for Jones.
Both performed admirably, but didn’t have the impact of a healthy Jones.
“One of the things I saw that was pretty clear was (Jones’) ability from that shade position to push the pocket,” said head coach Brian Kelly. “That really would have helped us with Sheldon (Day) coming off the edge and Romeo (Okwara). We didn’t have that hard, inside push, which (Jones) gives you instantly.
“I think we’re going to be able to get that from (Jones against Ohio State). He was a little high on some of the double-team work. We’ve got to get his pads down. But he really pushed the pocket.”
Kelly said Jones was less tentative Saturday than he was in the first post-season practice earlier in the week. Kelly estimated that Jones had about 15 full-speed practice reps Saturday.
If the Irish could get 20-to-25 quality snaps out of Jones against Ohio State – which could be a little ambitious – it could go a long way toward helping curtail Ohio State’s power running game, which can gash defenses between the tackles with running back Ezekiel Elliott.
Look for Jones to come off the bench in the Fiesta Bowl with Tillery and Cage sharing duties.
It wasn’t that the Irish were unable to put points on the board in 2015. Heading into bowl season, Notre Dame is 31st in the country in scoring offense at 34.8 points per game.
But when it came to red-zone offense, the Irish were inconsistent, scoring touchdowns at an insufficient 56.0-percent rate (28-of-50), which ranks 91st nationally.
Smythe, who clearly was the best receiving/blocking option among the five tight ends, peaked early in the Virginia game with a touchdown reception on a fake field goal. His regular season would be over shortly thereafter.
“Maybe situationally a little bit,” said Kelly of the negative impact on the offense after losing Smythe. “He became a guy that was going to be heavily counted on in certain situations – short yardage, red-zone passes, things of that nature. He’s the kind of guy that DeShone (Kizer) probably would have leaned on in those situations.”
Smythe’s return for the Ohio State game would be a significant piece added to the red-zone attack.
“Durham looks really good,” Kelly said. “Physically strong. He’s kind of jumped right in there and will be able to help us against Ohio State.”
Running back C.J. Prosise, who suffered a significant high-ankle sprain in the Boston College game on Nov. 21, remains hindered. He did not practice in either of the sessions this week. Kelly projected a likely return at the end of next week upon the conclusion of final exams.
If Prosise hits that return date, he could get as many as half-a-dozen practices at Notre Dame before the team convenes in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Dec. 26 with the first on-site practice slated for the 27th. Freshman Josh Adams is the projected starter against the Buckeyes until further notice.
“He’s on the Ultra-G (treadmill) right now, really working to get up to full speed without too much pressure on that (ankle),” said Kelly of Prosise. “I think he’s on schedule to begin practicing late next week.”
Kelly also expects outside linebacker James Onwualu (knee) to be back in action after missing the Boston College and Stanford games. Cornerback KeiVarae Russell (lower leg fracture) will not be ready for the Fiesta Bowl. Junior cornerback Devin Butler, as he did against Stanford, is expected to start in Russell’s absence.
Kelly said that quarterback Malik Zaire, who suffered a broken foot in the Virginia game, has taken reps at the quarterback position, but will not be available for the Ohio State game.
Also still sidelined for the Ohio State game are running back Tarean Folston (knee), nickel/cornerback Shaun Crawford (knee), nickel/safety Drue Tranquill (knee), offensive guard Alex Bars (ankle), and receiver Equanimeous St. Brown (shoulder).