Irish Notes: Hunter Game-Time Decision

Injury updates, the head coach’s schedule analysis and a recruiting mistake that could come back to bite the Irish (again) Saturday in South Bend.

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HE’D HAVE HELPED

Virginia Tech fifth-year senior Ken Ekanem offered this week that Notre Dame, a suitor of his during the 2012 recruiting cycle, made his decision to pledge to the home state Hokies easy.

They pulled his scholarship offer after the pass-rushing prospect tore his ACL in Virginia State Championship game (November 2011).

“Notre Dame came two weeks later to my school and told me I shouldn’t come visit, and they wouldn’t accept my commitment due to the uncertainty in my knee,” Ekanem told Roanoke.com. “They said most schools would do that. And I was like, ‘Tech didn’t.’”

Informed of Ekanem’s comments this week, Irish head coach Brian Kelly denied the claim.

“I do remember Coach (Bob) Diaco recruiting him and I do remember filling up,” said Kelly. “I’ve never pulled a scholarship from any player. It’s never anything I’ve ever done in my career. We’ve always honored scholarships. I remember Torii Hunter having a devastating injury (broken femur). It’s never something I’ve done in my career.

“We may fill up but we’re very transparent telling recruits that we’ve got two spots left at a particular position and when we fill up, we fill up. I’m certain we were transparent about whatever the process was.”

Notre Dame signed 16 in its 2012 class, losing wide receiver Deontay Greenberry on national signing day to Houston. The Irish landed two defensive ends during the cycle, five-star prospect Sheldon Day and three-star pledge Romeo Okwara.

No linebackers pledged to the Irish that fall on a spring roster that housed 84 players prior to the transfers of Aaron Lynch and Tee Shepard.

Greenberry would have been the 85th, the maximum total of scholarship’s allowed though that number is not relevant until the season’s outset.

“Tech wanted me as a student as well as an athlete,” Ekanem said. “(Notre Dame) just kind of wanted the athlete part of me. A full functioning athlete.”

Kelly said that the nature of Ekanem’s injury wouldn’t have scared him away.

“I think we would ask questions about the severity of the injury,” he said when presented with a hypothetical question regarding a prep prospects injury status. “In today’s medical world, an ACL doesn’t scare me. Micro-fracture, things of that nature where there’s a potential for further injuries or not being able to come back from some of those things.

“Each program does it differently. It was awhile ago. All I know is how I feel about offering scholarships and an injury’s not going to dissuade me. If we’re not filled up, and we’ve offered him, my inclination is not to pull a scholarship.”

Ekanem has posted 18.5 career sacks, a total that would rank No. 9 all-time at Notre Dame. The current Irish roster has registered 29 sacks in the aggregate over Ekanem’s seasons in Blacksburg.

IN THE EYES OF THE BEHOLDER


Notre Dame has beaten one team that’s earned six victories (Miami) and lost to a pair that have already won seven (Stanford and Navy). The rest of their foes faced to date have not yet been deemed bowl eligible.

“It’s a tough schedule for us this year, obviously starting off on the road (current 5-5 Texas) and clearly, even though Michigan State (3-7) isn’t having the kind of year many expected it’s still a tough game for you early on. Duke (4-6) has been a really good football team off and on. They’re similar to us in that they’re a better team than their record indicates.”

A pair of 7-3 squads, Virginia Tech and No. 13 USC await. The Hokies were ranked 14th-nationally before being upset by Georgia Tech last Saturday.

“Early as we were trying to find ourselves we had some tough games,” Kelly offered. “Add Stanford to it. We played a pretty competitive schedule. The non Power Five game (against) Nevada (3-7) was the only one.

“You go into the bye (Oct. 29), I know we’ve lost a couple of games, but, boy, if you look at the way we’ve played since the bye, I’m proud of the way our kids have competed and I think the early-season scheduling definitely helped us.”

Asked if the collection of contests, even in defeat, prepared him for the pending two-game task at hand, Kelly offered, “Losing is never where you want to be relative to saying, ‘Boy all that losing helped us.’ But all that experience against good football teams that play in a Power Five Conference are going to benefit you even if you didn’t have the kind of success you were hoping for.

“Being where we are right now, all of those things allowed us to get this football team to grow. The Syracuse (4-6) game, playing a passing team like that helped us get those young players some confidence as well.”

ON THE MEND

Senior Cole Luke and the freshmen trio of Julian Love, Donte Vaughn, and Troy Pride have the cornerback position covered through season’s end.

None among the latter trio was slated to be in such starring roles at the season’s outset, but injuries to junior Nick Watkins (spring, broken arm) and redshirt-freshman Shaun Crawford (Week 2, torn Achilles) necessitated accelerated development.

Now each among the quintet is expected to be battling for a spot in the two-deep Base and Nickel defenses next August.

“We have a pretty good feeling about Shaun and what he’s capable of doing,” said Kelly, offering Crawford will be “moving” in the spring session.

“It’s the best core group (or corners) that we’ve had since I’ve been here coming back.”

That includes the senior-to-be Watkins who’ll have two seasons of eligibility remaining beginning in 2017.

“He’ll be ready for spring ball,” said Kelly. “Another guy that is excited and anxious to get back out there.”

NOT SATURDAY?

While Notre Dame’s defensive future appears bright on the perimeter, it’s present is precarious at two key positions.

“(Torii) Hunter is still improving,” said Kelly of his senior captain who injured his knee in a loss to Navy two weeks ago. “We’ll see where he looks pre-game.

“(Daniel) Cage is feeling better but not to the level where I think he’s ready to play,” added Kelly of his junior nose tackle, concussed on Oct. 29 in a win over Miami.

Neither has practiced this week.

MORE ON THE CORNER

Redshirt-freshman cornerback Ashton White wasn’t expected to challenge for a starting role this fall but he was to be a constant on the Irish “Run Teams” (coverage and return). He’s missed the last five games with a wrist injury.

“He’s back, he’s doing well now but you lose a couple of steps to some of the younger guys we’re playing and it’s a pretty (tough) situation,” said Kelly.

Also initially set for a role on the run teams and backup duties on the edge was Devin Butler. The senior recently agreed to a plea bargain stemming from a late August arrest for an altercation with a police officer.

Butler pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge in exchange for having two felony charges reduced and dropped, respectively.

“I got a chance to talk to Devin’s dad,” said Kelly. “I think we’re at that point where Devin is going to make a decision here pretty soon. I think he’ll make it public as to what his intentions are. You’ll see something out there from Devin on what he plans to do moving forward.”

Butler is not expected to return to the team for a potential fifth year in South Bend.


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