NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Think the Notre Dame football team has had a long layoff since the regular season ended? Well how about the layoff Irish wide receiver DaVaris Daniels has had since his last action. By the time Notre Dame and Alabama kickoff the BCS Championship Game on Jan. 7 Daniels will have gone nearly two months without suiting-up for a game.
Daniels has been sidelined since breaking his collarbone on Nov. 10 in Notre Dame’s 21-6 victory at Boston College. The play that sidelined Daniels is one he would just as soon forget, but one that he recently recalled rather vividly.
“I went up and tried to go get the ball at the highest point (and) came down on my shoulder,” Daniels said of the play after a recent Fighting Irish practice. “I didn’t really think it was hurt too bad. I thought I just got a stinger almost on my neck really. And then I came back to the sideline and it kind of got heavier and heavier.”
What the sophomore thought was a stinger turned into something much more severe as Notre Dame team trainers and doctors continued to probe the shoulder after the third quarter end zone play.
“I went to the training staff and (they) kid of rubbed across my collarbone and realized something wasn’t in the right spot. There was really no real pain. It was just kind of a weird feeling. I don’t know how to explain it. I thought I could (go back in the game), but it turned out I broke it so I couldn’t.”
Daniels had most of his uniform off and was walking off the Alumni Stadium field with his left shoulder in a sling by the end of his team’s 10th consecutive victory of the season. The options for Daniels at that point almost were not even options. He could have surgery and have a good chance to return to action in at least five weeks or not have surgery, let the shoulder heal on its own and be back for spring practice.
It was a no brainer. Daniels had surgery the very next morning. He had six screws and a plate inserted – hardware he will keep forever – to hold the collarbone in place. Daniels is now back at full strength and has been practicing with his teammates all month.
“I think I’m ahead of where I really thought I would be,” Daniels said of his quick recovery process. “Just being out for so long I thought I would be a little bit behind, but I’m right where I wanted to be.”
When Daniels first got back on the practice field before Christmas he found himself wearing apparel that is usually reserved for quarterbacks – a red jersey.
“I wanted him to be involved in all the timing work, but nobody could touch him,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly explained over the weekend of his rationale for the red jersey. “Now he’s off the red jersey. He’s ready to go out, play, jump, get hit (and) fall down.”
Daniels was not overly excited about donning the red, but he got past it and a bit of good natured ribbing from his teammates (especially cornerback Bennett Jackson).
“It was (a little weird),” Daniels said with a smile of wearing the red jersey during recent practices. “I’ve never been the type of guy to shy away from contact. When you have to it’s kind of a different situation, but it was kind of fun not being able to be touched.”
Daniels was starting to come into his own at the time of his injury. After being relegated to the role of scout team performer as a freshman in 2011, the Vernon Hills, Ill native had 25 receptions for 375 yards through ND’s first 10 games this season. His biggest game was a seven-catch, 86-yard performance against Pittsburgh the week before the injury.
His speed and big play potential make him a potential X-factor for the Irish in their championship game matchup with the Crimson Tide.
“I think we’ll be fine with him,” Kelly said when asked about Daniels’ potential role for the Irish offense in their last and most important game of the season. “He’s a really good player that understands his reps are going to be based on how he practices and how he performs. I’m certain he will play a role in the game.”
The silver lining for Daniels has been the more than month-long layoff his team has had since its last game has provided him extra time to heal and be ready for the ultimate bowl game. Rust would be expected for someone who has been out of action for so long, but he really has no more rust than anyone else on the team.
“I think the Christmas break that we had really helped,” Daniels commented when asked about getting past any rust factor. “Everybody got a few days off and we all kind of had to come back and work out the rust together. I think that definitely helped.”
Daniels’ began his comeback by riding a stationary bike to keep his cardio training in while the Irish were preparing for games in mid November against Wake Forest and USC. He has been on the practice field for the last three weeks. There is no hesitation and no real lingering soreness from the surgery.
“Now and again certain movements are still kind of getting kinked out,” Daniels said. “But it’s good pretty much. I took a pretty good blow at yesterday’s practice, so I think it’s pretty good.”
The hardest part for Daniels, who has a team-best 15.0 yards per catch average this season, has not been getting back on the field and into contact – the hardest part was watching from the sideline during those last two weeks of the regular season.
“It was tough,” Daniels said of his injury imposed time in limbo. “The whole time even being here and watching the guys practice and me not being in there – the whole thing was pretty tough for me. It was hard. Even just watching practice it was the worst feeling I’ve ever felt.”
Daniels is the recent, but not the most high-profile Irish receiver, to suffer a broken collarbone. Michael Floyd broke his left collarbone as well in 2009 and had similar surgery to aid his return to action that same season. Daniels was still in high school at the time, but Floyd’s injury more than three years prior indirectly aided Daniels own return to the field.
“A lot of our trainers were here when Mike (Floyd) went down,” Daniels explained. “They just told me about his process and said that mine wasn’t as bad as his, but it was pretty similar. Hearing what they had to say and doing the things properly – it was a good boost knowing that he came back for another game.”
Daniels is back for one more game now and he has his eyes on an Alabama defense that is ranked 8th nationally in pass efficiency, No. 2 in scoring and No. 1 overall.
“Of course they’ve got a lot of speed at every position, not just in the secondary,” Daniels said of the Crimson Tide. “They’re very physical – a lot like our defense. They’re good. They’re real good. You’ve gotta respect them.”
Daniels fully expects to help his team to a victory against Alabama next week, but he is also extremely grateful to even have the opportunity to suit-up for the Jan. 7 game in Miami after the Nov. 10 injury that could have easily ended his season completely.
“I’m very thankful,” Daniels said. “I couldn’t be happier. My teammates, my coaches, my family and everything they’ve put into this and all the support from all the guys. I’m very thankful for all that.”