Next man in may actually be first man back.
On Sunday afternoon Louis Nix underwent an MRI on his aching knee after the nose guard missed the past two games with tendonitis and a partial meniscus tear. The Irish had hoped to survive Air Force and Navy without the All-American middleman and did, but just barely.
Nix will return to practice this week after the Irish lost Kona Schwenke (high ankle sprain), Ben Councell (knee), Sheldon Day (ankle) and Ishaq Williams (knee) during its two-week defense of option football. On the decisive drive to close the 38-34 win over Navy, Notre Dame relied on Justin Utupo and Tyler Stockton on the line, a pair that had spent most of their careers on the scout team.
“We are running out of next men,” said head coach Brian Kelly. “We're at that point where from a defensive standpoint, and particularly the defensive line, we're left with very few options.
“It becomes an issue now where we have to be very creative in what we're doing and how we're doing it. That's why I don't want to commit to anything today on Sunday because we have some more work to do in terms of looking at our personnel.”
At the time of Kelly’s teleconference Nix was having his knee checked out by team doctor Brian Ratigan in the hopes of the nose guard getting cleared for practice. A couple hours after Kelly’s call with reporters, Notre Dame announced Nix would be back to work in preparations for Pitt.
The Panthers might be an ideal team to get healthy against considering Pitt won’t statistically stress Notre Dame’s front seven on the ground. The Panthers average just 122.5 yards rushing per game, which ranks 104th nationally. Among Notre Dame opponents, only Pursue is worse.
Without Nix in the lineup the Irish would have had to likely bump defensive end Jarron Jones to nose guard to off set the personnel losses, although that would have kept outside linebacker Romeo Okwara at defensive end. The traditional cat linebacker might have had to back up Prince Shembo, Jaylon Smith and Isaac Rochell at the same time this weekend.
Backup dog linebacker Councell has been lost for the season with the knee injury suffered against Navy while backup cat linebacker and stand-in defensive end Williams is out until at least BYU with an ACL injury. Day’s return this weekend is questionable, although Kelly was optimistic the day after the Navy game.
“Romeo Okwara is doing the best he can flailing away there at 245 pounds playing defensive end,” Kelly said. “So it's a little bit of everybody contributing across the board.”
Notre Dame’s injury list shouldn’t get longer, in theory, with option football off the board until next season, at which point the Irish will only have Navy to defend. Air Force is not on future schedules. Army could pop up as a future Shamrock Series opponent.
Kelly did not duck questions about the academies’ cut blocking contributing to the injury list.
“I can attribute it to Kona Schwenke's injury. He got cut, and it caused that injury,” Kelly said. “I can contribute it to Ishaq Williams' ACL. He was cut, and it caused that injury. And Sheldon Day, his re-injury, all of them contributed specifically to those. You know, it's unfortunate. It's the style of offense that the academies play. It is what it is.”