Brian Kelly is finally getting his roster back to functional health.
Naturally, this seems like the perfect time for Notre Dame's head coach to put the Irish through a physical battery of practices in preparation for the Music City Bowl against LSU. Despite finishing the regular season with two healthy safeties, one functional middle linebacker and one physically fit defensive tackle, Kelly plans to roll the dice during the next three-plus weeks.
Notre Dame will begin bowl practices on Friday with eight local workouts before shipping out to Nashville. If the Irish lose a starter or two during that prep to injury, Kelly will roughly consider that the cost of doing better bowl business.
"We're going to practice physical even if we have to (work) guys that are not going to play this year," Kelly said. "We're going to bang and play physical because that's the kind of football we're going to see. It can't be flag football here for the next eight practices."
Kelly joked, at least partially, that he'd even practice offensive linemen on the defensive front to get a full look. He might not have a choice, even with several defensive players on the mend after the collapse at USC.
Sheldon Day missed that game with an MCL strain. Jay Hayes left it with a high ankle sprain, Jacob Matuska departed with a pinched nerve in his shoulder and Daniel Cage gutted out his own knee injury. Kelly expects all four back for the Music City Bowl, with only Jarron Jones lost for the year with a ligament tear in his foot.
Linebacker Greer Martini is expected back from the lower body injury that knocked him out against USC before halftime. In the secondary, Kelly suggested that corner Cody Riggs (stress reaction) and safety Max Redfield (fracture rib) would also play against the Tigers.
Safety Austin Collinsworth won't see action after dislocating his shoulder for a second time this season. Safety Drue Tranquill is also out for the season following an ACL tear. Linebacker Joe Schmidt won't be back until spring ball at the earliest following his dislocated ankle suffered against Navy.
"I don't think (the youth) is difficult to adjust to, I think it's exciting," said nickel back Matthias Farley. "It's unfortunate for the guys who have gotten banged up, but it's exciting moving forward that we have so many young guys that have gotten game experience."
Kelly added that running back Tarean Folston will be fine for LSU after limping off against USC.
The commitment to physical bowl prep continues Kelly's departure from the BCS National Championship Game two years ago when the Irish did not hit full speed during the run up to Alabama. Then the Irish got blown out within minutes, eventually falling 42-14.
Kelly was gun shy to go physical that postseason after the Irish limped out of USC, with starting left tackle Zack Martin fitted for a walking boot after the fact. The gulf in physicality wasn't the only reason why Notre Dame was demolished, but it gave the Irish little shot.
Notre Dame is actually in worse shape physically now than back then, although Kelly acknowledges pulling back is no longer a gamble he can afford. Maybe Sheldon Day, Nick Martin and Jaylon Smith don't take all the full speed reps, but they'll at least get a refresher in physicality.
"Essentially, you're talking about another spring ball," Kelly said. "When you get that opportunity with these younger players, it's invaluable in their growth and development. We need that. We need it desperately, especially for a lot of our players across the board."