NOTRE DAME, Ind. - For the second time in the past three days, injuries were the dominant topic of conversation for Brian Kelly. The Notre Dame football head coach announced on Tuesday that outside linebacker Ben Councell has a torn ACL and will have surgery as soon as the trauma to the knee subsides. Kelly had already announced on Sunday that Councell is done for the year after suffering the injury in Saturday's win over Navy.
The best news the Irish have heading into this weekend's game at Pittsburgh is the possible return of Louis Nix to action. The nose guard has missed the last two games due to a knee injury.
"We're hopeful about Louis being able to play a role this weekend," said Kelly. "He'll practice today."
Nix is listed at No. 1 on this week's depth chart at nose guard. His return is crucial after his backup, Kona Schwenke, left the Navy game with a knee injury. Schwenke will not play this weekend. Nix missed both the Air Force and Navy games due to severe tendonitis in his knee as well as a meniscus tear that is of lesser concern.
"The tendonitis that he has will require the similar surgery that Greg Bryant had," Kelly said. "This is something that is chronic and will require attention at some time. After the USC game he was in real, real pain and it was a real situation for him."
Kelly says Nix has worked to keep his conditioning up with 7 am workouts over the last two weeks while he has been out of action. He does not expect Nix to be able to work his full volume of reps on Saturday, but does not expect a drastic drop either as long as Nix gets through practice this week.
Sheldon Day and Stephon Tuitt are each listed at No. 1 on the depth chart at their defensive end positions. Jarron Jones is behind Tuitt, while freshman Isaac Rochell is behind Day. Tyler Stockton is Nix's backup. Justin Utupo and Anthony Rabasa are two other players Kelly expects to continue to see more playing time due to the rash of injuries the defense is dealing with.
Depth on the defensive line has a little bit of everyone pitching in it seems. That includes reserve offensive lineman Bruce Heggie.
"He'll be with the defense this week," said Kelly. "In an emergency situation if we feel like we get a need there. He'll take some reps with the defense this week. Again, I think that would be more of an emergency situation."
Two players Kelly says will not see action on the defensive line this year are freshman Tyler Matuska and junior Chase Hounshell. The latter underwent shoulder surgery last spring for a third time and Kelly is in no rush to thrust him back into action too fast.
"We just want to gradually bring him back," Kelly said of Hounshell. "We don't want to go from zero to 60 with Chase. As we are right now, we're re-engaging him into light contact, to moderate contact to full contact and we'd like to take that through and space that out through the spring instead of jumping him into a full contact situation after a third surgery."
"We want to bring him along slowly," Kelly continued. "He's worked so hard to get back that we're going to reintroduce him to contact in that kind of setting."
Austin Collinsworth suffered a neck injury on Saturday that required him to have an MRI due to lingering pain afterwards. His status for this week's game is still uncertain though.
"The MRI came back clean," Kelly said. "He has some neck issues and when I say 'issues' (I mean) spasms (and) facet joint. I don't want to get too in depth, because I don't want to say something that's not medically correct."
Kelly said Collinsworth would not practice on Tuesday and the head coach lists the safety as "questionable" for Saturday's game at Pitt. If Collinsworth is out Saturday, Matthias Farley and Elijah Shumate would be the two starters. Kelly said Eilar Hardy would then be the third safety, with freshman Max Redfield at No. 4 in the pecking order.
Changing of the Guards
Chris Watt missed the Navy game due to a knee injury he suffered against Air Force. With Watt out, Conor Hanratty made his first career start at left guard last Saturday. Watt is now listed at No. 1 at left guard with Mark Harrell as his backup. Kelly says Steve Elmer will remain at No. 1 at right guard and Hanratty will be his reserve.
Watt has a PCL (posterior cruciate ligament) injury and was only able to practice on Thursday last week. He decided during pregame warm-ups last Saturday that the knee was not stable enough for him to play, but Kelly thinks the senior will be ready this weekend.
"I think with a full week of practice, which he'll practice today, we think that he's going to be able to make the accommodations to play at the level he needs to play at," Kelly said. "So, I think this is both swelling out of there, pain now decreased and then making the accommodations."
Folston in the Fold
Tarean Folston had a career day with 18 carries for 140 yards and a touchdown against Navy. Irish fans have wanted to see more of him and Kelly says that is likely to happen.
"I would say he's fully in the mix," Kelly said. "I think you guys have all seen that each week changes, but I would say that, barring any injuries, he is definitely in that (running back) rotation."
Kelly said on Sunday that Folston has battled a calf strain, hip flexor and hamstring all since the start of training camp. He has rushed for 187 yards over the past two games.
Romeo Keeps Growing
Romeo Okwara came to Notre Dame as a physical specimen who was raw in terms of actual football ability. The 6-foot-4, 258-pound sophomore moved to the United States from Nigeria as a sixth grader and is still relatively new to the game, especially in his head coach's eyes.
"He wasn't brought up as a young man that played a lot of football," said Kelly. "So, each time that he steps on the field it's new to him. He wasn't blessed with football instincts. He's learning about the game every day and he's making great progress every day. You can see him growing as a player."
Okwara played in all 13 games, mostly on special teams, last season, but he has been a Jack of all trades defensively this season. He has played five technique (defensive end) in Notre Dame's nickel defense package this season while also working at outside linebacker as well as continuing to contribute on special teams.