NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Don't count Stephon Tuitt back in a Notre Dame uniform in 2014 just yet. The junior defensive end told Notre Dame's student newspaper, The Observer, Wednesday night that he has Notre Dame in his future plans next fall.
"I'm coming back next year," Tuitt said in The Observer story. "I'm a junior. I still have one year (of remaining eligibility)."
'Not so fast my friends' was Brian Kelly's ultimate response to the story after Thursday's practice.
"I think more than anything else he kind of stumbled into the question and answer and didn't probably answer it in a manner that he was wanting to," Kelly began. "I think he was saying 'Yeah, I've got another year and I'm coming back'. I think his intentions weren't to say that he was necessarily making a decision."
The 6-foot-6, 322-pound Tuitt is still projected by most NFL draft experts to be a first-round pick next spring. A projection that high makes the money too hard for such prospects to typically turn.
"I've pretty much made it clear to our players that anyone, including Louis Nix, we've had this with Manti Te'o and Tyler (Eifert) and Michael Floyd - that any decisions relative to the status that our players have relative to the NFL - that we'll exhaust all of their means relative to the NFL and their draft status - as well as talking to their family members at the end of the season," said Kelly.
"No decisions will be made, as long as I'm the head coach here, until the end of the season. We won't be making any announcements."
Kelly has still had a remarkable track record of star players returning for their senior seasons of eligibility - even with early round NFL draft projections in the balance. Kelly says things like gaining better NFL leverage, earning a Notre Dame degree before leaving school and coming back to play with teammates for another year are all among the reasons guys like Te'o, Floyd and Eifert have all opted to use their remaining eligibility.
"I think that any head coach would want his players to feel that they enjoy the environment that they're in," Kelly said. "I would not say that would be the number one reason that somebody would come back, but certainly it would be part of it."
Kelly says Eifert returned for another year at Notre Dame because the tight end just didn't think he was ready for the NFL after his 2011 season. He parlayed that into a first round selection this past spring. Irish left tackle Zack Martin came back this year for the chance to play with his younger brother Nick Martin on the line.
New Green On The Field
Kelly started a new tradition last year of practicing inside Notre Dame Stadium the Thursday before every home game. The only time the Irish have been able to do that this season though was prior to the Aug. 31 season-opener against Temple.
The stadium grass the Irish began the season with was in horrible shape after the Sept. 28 game against Oklahoma and new sod was laid between the hash marks on the field the following week.
"We've gotten a lot of rain and certainly that's the reason I'm not on it today," Kelly said Thursday evening. "It's been covered. (Associate Athletic Director for Football Operations) Chad Klunder has been over there. He liked the way it looked. All the reports have been positive."
Kelly is hoping for the best for the new playing surface this Saturday night. The South Bend area has received rain off and on since Tuesday this week. The rain is supposed to subside on Friday, but light showers are forecast on Saturday.
Expect to see more of Joe Schmidt when the Irish are in nickel and dime defensive packages on Saturday. Schmidt played in those situations two weeks ago in Texas against Arizona State after Jarrett Grace broke his leg.
Kelly says Dan Fox "won't come off the field" on Saturday as the Mike linebacker after Grace's season-ending injury. Carlo Calabrese will be the main Will linebacker. Kelly says Kendall Moore has practiced at Will this week, while freshman Michael Deeb, who is yet to see action in Notre Dame's first six games, took reps at Mike linebacker as well.
Kelly said earlier in the week that Deeb would only be used in an emergency situation and that he would prefer to preserve his eligibility for the season if possible.
Getting Back To Game Speed
The last time the Irish were coming off a bye week they nearly got burned by speed early. Notre Dame's 2012 bye was prior to the Oct. 6 game against Miami and the Hurricanes came right out and took a couple early shots down field that caught the ND secondary off guard. Fortunately, the passes were incomplete and the Irish would roll to a 41-3 victory.
Kelly showed his team game film this week from USC's 2011win over the Irish to remind his Irish about avoiding an early letdown.
"The speed of the game is going to be out there," said Kelly. "I mean our guys have to be ready. Coming off a bye week the biggest thing we concern ourselves with is the speed of the game right away. The speed that USC has, especially on the offensive side of the ball, is the biggest thing that we have to be prepared for right out of the gates."
In addition to getting back up to speed, Kelly also wants to see his team get off to a fast start against the Trojans on Saturday. That hasn't happened over the past five games. The Irish outscored Temple 14-0 in the first quarter of the season, but they have been outscored 31-17 in the first quarter since then.
"(It) hasn't been something that we've done very well," said Kelly of starting fast. "But against good teams you have to get off to good starts and when we haven't we've struggled. Our team knows it. Our players know it and it'll be important again on Saturday against USC."
The Hendrix Factor
After getting in on a handful of plays three weeks ago against Oklahoma, backup quarterback Andrew Hendrix was on the field for just one offensive play two weeks ago against Arizona State. Kelly says the focus at quarterback in training camp and early in the season was so much on getting Tommy Rees ready to play, that Hendrix just never got much of a feel for anything.
That has changed over the last few weeks.
"He's gotten so much more time and so much more involvement in the game plan that I'm feeling so much more confident that he can go in and run the entire offense," Kelly said of Hendrix. "I wasn't as confident earlier in the year. And he's locked-in. He's making the checks in the passing game as well as the run game."
"I would say we're at that point now where Andrew Hendrix can go in there and he's not just a change of pace guy any more in my estimation."