Brian Kelly sees some small progress on Notre Dame’s injury report. But those gains might be minute beyond Sheldon Day’s legitimate return from an ankle sprain that’s cost the defensive end three games.
Jarrett Grace and Daniel Smith both underwent surgery in the past week, with the inside linebacker flying home to South Bend after three days spent in Texas following his broken leg suffered against Arizona State. Smith underwent surgery on his broken ankle after a reduction in swelling. Neither player will return this season, with Smith’s college career over.
Among an injury list that includes Doug Randolph (shoulder), Nicky Baratti (shoulder), John Montelus (shoulder), Torii Hunter (leg), Chase Hounshell (shoulder), Tony Springmann (knee), Mike Heuerman (hernia) and Tarean Folston (hamstring), there’s been at least some minor gains.
Folston pulled his hamstring during that 36-yard run against Oklahoma and was slowed during the week of Arizona State. Folston practiced during Notre Dame’s bye week.
“He's a lot better,” Kelly said. “I think he's 100 percent. He feels a lot better, and he looked really good in practice yesterday.”
Kelly said Hounshell, who suffered a second shoulder injury during spring practice that required surgery, is two weeks from returning to light practice. Springmann, who blew out his knee early in training camp, is much further from returning after battling an infection in the surgically repaired joint.
Both defensive linemen figure to challenge not just for two-deep positions next season, but inclusion into a starting lineup that could lose Louis Nix, Kona Schwenke and Stephon Tuitt. Hounshell could be in line for a rare sixth-year of eligibility because he’s missed two years due to injury.
“I think (Hounshell) is close to 10 days, two weeks maybe where he's going to have some pads on him,” Kelly said. “Tony Springmann is still early on in the rehabilitation process from the knee injury. He suffered an infection, and he had to battle through that but has made some progress here in the last couple of weeks.”
In the freshman class Kelly spoke highly of Hunter, who’s returning from a broken leg suffered in non-contact drills during the U.S. Army All-American Bowl more than 10 months ago.
“Torii Hunter has been very impressive,” Kelly said. “He's a young man, probably without the injury, would probably be competing for playing time as well. Great speed and quickness, very sure-handed, has a lot of the attributes that we thought he did. So we're very excited about him, but he will not play this year.”
Beyond Day, there isn’t a player on that injury list who likely would have been a serious factor against USC this weekend, but the sophomore’s return could be significant, even with Kona Schwenke proving himself better than a stop gap at defensive end.
Still, without Day the Irish lost not only a starter in their base defense, but also their preferred nose guard in sub packages against the pass. Day had been logging snaps comparable to Tuitt and Nix when healthy. He’s unlikely to see that workload restored Saturday night, but it could let the Irish rely on deep reserves Jarron Jones, Isaac Rochell and Tyler Stockton less.
The significance of that fact shows in the statistics against Arizona State.
During the first half the Sun Devils ran 18 plays against the Irish when Tuitt, Nix and Schwenke were on the field. Those snaps gained 95 yards, a 5.3 yards-per-play average. Against any other defensive line combination Arizona State averaged 7.5 yards per play during the first half.
“(Day) is a guy that early in the season was a great pass rusher and wasn't staying blocked,” Kelly said. “He'll figure into our game plan on Saturday.”
Notre Dame’s injury list might not be getting much shorter heading into the season’s second half, but the Irish could at least be closer to one significant return.