Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

O’Malley’s Monday Musings

Ten thoughts in the wake of Notre Dame’s Fiesta Bowl defeat and the defections that followed.

1 – The Old College Try? Senior C.J. Prosise told me last Wednesday that he felt better than he had at any point since “at least Georgia Tech” the game in which the one-year Irish wonder injured his shoulder during a 198-yard, three-TD rushing epic. He noted that time off to recover from a high-ankle sprain suffered Nov. 21 at Fenway Park had allowed his body to recover from the many hits absorbed over the previous nine outings.

The good news is, unless you count a perfectly thrown football bouncing off each of his 10 fingers and two palms, he wasn’t hit or even bumped rudely during Notre Dame’s Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State, so he should be well-positioned for a healthy training period prior to the NFL combine.

Said Kelly of Prosise post-game: “Just felt like he couldn't go.”

2 – Left Something on the Table: The defection of junior Will Fuller to the NFL is a blow to the 2016 Irish offense to be sure but like Prosise, Fuller plays a position in which Notre Dame is well stocked and equipped to handle attrition, even at the top of the food chain.

Assuming he returns for his degree (Fuller stated he would in his departure message) there’s little downside for Fuller who is too small to be a first-round draft pick no matter how much he would potentially improve as a senior, but also too fast, too competitive, and too good not to have a quality NFL career – regardless of when it begins.

With degree in hand it seems the only thing Fuller relinquished is a chance to be remembered, statistically and otherwise, as the best wide receiver in Notre Dame history. And that’s something.

3 – Vacuum? Prosise, Fuller, Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day, Ronnie Stanley, Will Fuller, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell, Romeo Okwara, and Chris Brown. The names represent an inarguable 10 of the 2015 squad’s 15 best players. (Russell and Smith are likely to announce their intentions to pursue the NFL this week.)

Including veteran leaders Joe Schmidt and Matthias Farley, it’s apparent the loss of quality college and NFL talent isn’t the biggest problem facing the program heading into off-season 2016. Rather, it’s the potential for a leadership vacuum, as the above were respected figures on and off the field for Brian Kelly’s sixth-edition Irish.

There’s a chance the collective voices of their replacements won’t resonate, a reality that can turn a re-loading potential playoff contender into an also-ran in a hurry.

4 – Wait, what revolves around what again? Whither the Irish defense without middle linebacker Joe Schmidt? the only guy in the northern hemisphere that can absorb and disseminate Copernicus’s “NFL-style” defense…

5 – Say it ain’t so: Injuries are an accepted part of the game, but the season and (apparent) college career-ending injuries suffered by Jonas Gray (2011), Kapron Lewis-Moore (2012) and Jaylon Smith (Friday) were accompanied by gut shots to Irish fans and media members alike.

Assuming Smith declares for the NFL Draft, the trio will always be remembered by media as three ideal representatives of a program on and off the field, three players in the midst of breakout seasons – and three that deserved better health and fortunes than they received at the bitter end.

6 – One Last Rodeo: He’d have much preferred to remain in his backup role, but fifth-year senior Jarrett Grace should be lauded for his efforts to replace the irreplaceable Smith Friday. With his limitations and strengths on full display for three quarters, Grace finished his college career the way he started: going all out for the Irish.

Said Grace when I asked him to remove the circumstances of his insertion into the lineup and discuss how it felt to fight with his squad a final time: “It was incredible to get out there and play a lot with guys where it was our last game together. I going to relish that moment, playing against (his home state) Buckeyes, I got a few hits out there. I can honestly say I left it all on the field.”

7 – If a tree falls in the woods… Notre Dame’s defense doubtless missed the presence of rotation nose tackle Jerry Tillery in the middle of its front seven Friday afternoon. The freshman was suspended for a violation of team rules and will have to live with the consequences of his actions (I was told pre-game on the field they were “minor” and that Tillery was crestfallen when informed of his suspension). He’ll likely become a better future leader because of the situation.

Conversely, I’m uncertain whether the absence of safety Max Redfield, sent home earlier in the week for his separate violations of team rules, had an impact on the Irish defense. There’s actually no valid argument for or against, and therein lies the problem at free safety in 2015.

8 – The Old College Try, No Question Mark: Irish senior Sheldon Day displayed the heart of a champion last week. Day injured his foot badly enough in practice Thursday to warrant an X-ray to discern if his foot was broken. He then spent Thursday night vomiting. He spent Friday afternoon giving everything he had to his teammates in his final college contest.

Captain. Leader. Standout team player and performer.

Said Kelly of Day post-game: “That's the kind of guy he is. Here's a senior playing in his last game, got treatment all day, got himself ready to play, then got deathly ill last night. We had to have him on medicine and IVs to make it through the game. That's the kind of captain he is. He's unbelievable. He gave us everything he had today.”

9 – The Inexcusable: Ohio State kicked off eight times (bad sign No. 1!) Friday. On two of those boots, Buckeyes kicker Jack Willoughby booted the ball out of bounds. On a third, a touchback resulted. On five others, Notre Dame’s shoddy collection of porous non-blockers provided proven weapon C.J. Sanders enough blocking for returns of – get this – 11, 10, 17, 10, and 12 yards.

ARE. YOU. KIDDING ME!??!?!

I asked a reporter that covers Ohio State about the phenomenal effort of the Buckeyes coverage unit and he offered that Urban Meyer is obsessive over the group, often lauding them in unprompted in press conferences and noting prior to the contest that the group was the second-best nationally by Meyer’s personal metric of field position following returned kicks.

There’s a reason Meyer is the third most successful coach in college football history and the only pair above him have statues erected in front of Notre Dame Stadium. 

10 – The Inexplicable: Notre Dame has fallen behind 14-3 or 14-0 (or worse) in the first quarter in five of its last seven losses, and at least 10-0 in 11 of its last 16. Job No. 1 of the long off-season is solving this indefensible and championship-crippling dilemma.

Until next Monday, Irish fans…


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