San Diego State will arrive in South Bend this weekend short-handed at defensive line. Starting defensive end Tony DeMartinis tore his ACL and MCL in last week's opener and joined backup defensive tackle Neil Spencer on the list of players done for the season.
The Aztecs had hoped to get starting defensive tackle Siaosi Fifita back for the Notre Dame game and although Fifita practiced on Monday, San Diego State released a depth chart on Thursday and Fifita's name only appears under the list of injured players. Backup defensive tackle Avery Williams is also on that list as is redshirt freshman defensive end Michael Snead.
All of the injuries have forced the San Diego State staff to reshuffle its lineup for Saturday and are even listing their best defensive player, linebacker Russell Allen, as a defensive end. All of the adjustments have Charlie Weis and the Irish offensive staff cautious about what to expect.
"One thing that concerns you with that is that you kind of have a foundation structure of, ‘OK, it's a 4-3 defense. They line up in under.' You know what coverages they play," Weis said. "Now with a situation like this it sometimes causes defensive coordinators to try to be creative, to decide ‘Well, how are we going to play 46 (Allen)?' Obviously this is the guy, he's the best linebacker at Sam and now they're listing him as a potential end. ‘Well, is he really going to be an end or is he just going to be a 3-4 outside linebacker?'
"I think the players are going to have to just carry over what they learned in training camp and be able to recognize what they see when they go out there. Because it can't be as much about which guy is out there, it's about how they line up here because of the state of flux with the number of injuries they have on the defensive line."
The move of Allen to end brings senior Zach Clarke, who has never started a game, to the top of the depth chart at the Sam linebacker position. Weis noticed other differences on the Aztecs' depth chart.
"Their starting three-technique (Jonathan Soto) they really want to be playing at defensive end. But because their normal starting three-technique (Fifita) has not been practicing yet it kind of puts you into robbing Peter to pay Paul," Weis said. "We'll just have to wait and see how it goes. It's going to cause our guys to really concentrate on what they see when they're out there because it's a little bit of a guessing game in that whole expect-the-unexpected mentality in the first game."
There is no way to be sure what San Diego State plans to do, so the Irish need to be prepared to adjust.
"You don't know what they're going to do. You don't know for sure what they're going to do and I think you've got to be ready to change on the fly," said Weis.
AZTECS NOT COMING FOR NOTHING: A lot of fans are chalking the opener up as a win for the Irish, especially after seeing San Diego State lose to Cal-Poly of the Football Championship Subdivision last weekend. But Weis cautions that the Aztecs have nothing to lose and that makes them dangerous.
"They're not going to fly all the way across the country coming in here just for the heck of it now. What have they got to lose? Come in here and try everything they can to win the game and I'm sure that's what they intend to do," he said. "Especially after they've sat there and studied the tape from last year, their confidence might be sky high. They're not coming in here expecting, ‘Hey this is Notre Dame, we're afraid of those guys.' So we've got to show up ready to go."
WEIS OFFERS ONE PLEASANT SURPRISE: In his last meeting with the press before the first game, Weis was asked if there was one player that he wanted to talk about that he was not asked about during camp. After a brief hesitation, the head coach did offer one.
"Ryan Burkhart, for example, he's going to kick off. Now last year was almost like a year in exile because he was really struggling kicking the ball, kicking off, field goals he just really, really struggled," said Weis. "Forget about our production in the kicking game, I'm just talking about Ryan. So if there's one guy that I've been pleasantly surprised at how he's kicked off for us it's been Ryan because last year I wouldn't have thought we'd have headed in this direction."
SMITH NEEDS TO BE ON FIELD: Linebacker Maurice Crum confirmed that part of the reason why Harrison Smith was moved from safety to linebacker was because his athleticism is just too much to keep off the field.
"He's just one of those guys, he has every tool. A guy like that is a guy that you just got to get him on the field because he can just makes things happen. He's so fast, he's strong and he has good size. He has hands, he's smart and he knows the game," Crum said. "He's one of those guys having him on the field anything can happen, he can make a play or he can help make a play."
With his defensive co-captain sitting right next to him, Crum was asked if Smith could compete with David Bruton for the unofficial team title of ‘Best Athlete.'
"I think so. I think Harrison could give him a run for his money," said Crum.
Bruton chimed in to give Smith his due, but is not ready to give up his crown.
"Harrison is real athletic. He might give me a run for my money, but I'll still put myself on top," Bruton laughed.
FIELDS TO BE DEDICATED; LOUNGE WILL OPEN: Although the Fighting Irish have been practicing on the fields for weeks, the LaBar Practice Complex will be officially dedicated on Saturday morning before the home opener.
The complex features two FieldTurf fields, one grass field and is located just south of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex. The project cost $2.5 million and was made possible by the donations of 1953 graduate John LaBar and his wife, Carol.
Also, the Monogram Club Alumni Players' Lounge will open on Friday evening and be dedicated next Friday night before the Notre Dame-Michigan game. Formerly the postgame interview room, it also was used as a meeting room for Irish teams at halftime of home games.
The room features plush new furniture and carpeting along with five wide-screed televisions. The lounge, which honors national championship teams and coaches, will be available to all former players on the Friday night before home games and will also be used in recruiting. Any former player will be able to find his name in the lounge as the names of every monogram winner in football at Notre Dame are around the room.