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All hands on deck for Stanford

Nov 22, 2011, 12:36 PM EDT

manti-teo getty images

At this time of year, no football team is entirely healthy. (Just ask the guys in Palo Alto.) But as the Irish head into their final — and most important — game of the year, let’s take a look at the positional depth chart and see just how well the Irish are hanging on.

Brian Kelly called this Saturday a “one-game season,” and his Tuesday press conference this afternoon will give us a better idea of where the Irish stand from a health perspective. But let’s run down the position grouping and see how well the Irish have kept things together.

QUARTERBACK

Tommy Rees, Soph.
Dayne Crist, Sr.
Andrew Hendrix, Soph.
Everett Golson, Fr.
Matthew Mulvey, Sr.

Everybody’s healthy for the Irish, though you have to wonder if the knee injury Tommy Rees suffered against USC is still limiting his mobility. (His mobility was never a strong suit, but he’s still wearing a knee brace.) Behind Rees, Crist seems ready for action, and I fully expect to see a package with Andrew Hendrix on Saturday as well. There’s a better chance you’ll see Mulvey than Golson, as the freshman has saved a year of eligibility this fall.

RUNNING BACK

Cierre Wood, Jr.
Jonas Gray, Sr.
George Atkinson, Fr.
Cam McDaniel, Fr.
Theo Riddick, Jr.

The Irish depth chart took a big hit with Jonas Gray going down on Saturday. The Irish will miss his power, explosiveness, and ability to get in the end zone on Saturday. Bryan Driskell of IrishSportsDaily.com wrote a nice piece on the Irish’s running attack without Jonas and he points to several reasons to be optimistic.

Of course, we’ll probably find out more today on the status of Theo Riddick joining the running back depth chart for Saturday. The first step in that process will be making sure he’s healthy enough to play, especially on a rain-ravaged playing surface that makes the grass at Notre Dame Stadium look like Augusta National.

If Riddick is unable to go, expect to see a ton of Cierre Wood. The junior is coming off his least prolific game of the season against Boston College, but will need to carry the workload. Looking for more optimism? In the five games Wood has carried the ball over 20 times, he’s averaging 5.3 yards per carry.

As for Atkinson and McDaniel, it’ll be interesting if they’ll be used truly as the “next man in,” or if the offensive game plan will be tailored to their strong suits. I don’t know if there’s any reason to think Atkinson has the comfort, vision, or size to successfully run the ball between the tackles, but we’ll find out on Saturday.

WIDE RECEIVER

Michael Floyd, Sr.
TJ Jones, Soph.
Theo Riddick, Jr.
Robby Toma, Jr.
John Goodman, Sr.

As we just mentioned, this group may or may not be missing Riddick, either because of injury or because of a shift to running back. Either way, it’s going to depend on utilizing Michael Floyd both in the short possession game, and also springing him vertically. We’ve hit on it multiple times, but Rees is going to need to have an accurate day down field to take advantage of a Stanford defense that’s banged up.

Robby Toma has shown himself a capable fill-in at slot and a quick friend of the quarterback, but if the Irish passing game is going to get on track, they’ll need some consistency out of TJ Jones, who looked better on Saturday, logging the most catches he’s had in a game since Purdue.

TIGHT END

Tyler Eifert, Jr.
Mike Ragone, Sr.
Alex Welch, Soph.
Ben Koyack, Fr.
Jake Golic, Jr.

A week after making eight catches for 83 yards and a touchdown, Tyler Eifert had one of his quieter games of the year, making only two catches against Boston College. The Mackey Award finalist is one of the best tight ends in the country, and against a team that utilizes its tight ends proficiently, the Irish will need to target Eifert consistently on Saturday night.

Obviously the loss of Mike Ragone isn’t a new one, but his in-line blocking is severely missed. Sophomore Alex Welch and freshman Ben Koyack are doing admirable jobs and the future looks bright even if Eifert decides to look at the NFL after this season.

It hasn’t been publicly talked about by Kelly, but it sounds like Jake Golic has a serious back injury. The news comes via an IrishIllustrated.com interview with blue-chip recruit Tyler McNamara, who explained where the Irish sit at the position.

“It all depends on if Eifert leaves for the draft this year, which is very possible, and then (Jake) Golic has a back injury, a real severe one, so if those two don’t play they don’t have too much tight end depth,” McNamara said. “If Eifert comes back playing early isn’t an option, but if he elects to go in the draft then it’s a pretty distinct possibility.”

Losing Eifert would be a big loss to the Irish, but they have solid depth behind him and are obviously planning for the future.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Zack Martin, Jr.
Chris Watt, Jr.
Braxston Cave, Sr.
Trevor Robinson, Sr.
Taylor Dever, Sr.
Mike Golic, Sr.
Andrew Nuss, Sr.
Christian Lombard, Soph.

The offensive line had done a very good job of staying healthy until Cave went down against Wake Forest, pushing little used Mike Golic into the lineup at center. Golic has filled in admirably, but the offensive line hasn’t played to the level that it did in October, when it didn’t allow a sack and put together several impressive rushing performances.

Against Stanford, the focus should be on the Irish front five, who will absolutely need to win the line of scrimmage and get the Irish in favorable down and distances if they’re going to have a chance at beating the Cardinal.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Kapron Lewis-Moore, Sr.
Sean Cwynar, Sr.
Louis Nix, Soph.
Ethan Johnson, Sr.
Aaron Lynch, Fr.
Stephon Tuitt, Fr.
Hafis Williams, Sr.
Kona Schwenke, Soph.
Brandon Newman, Sr.

The most impressive thing about the performance of Mike Elston’s defensive line is just how good they’ve played with how many injuries they’ve suffered. There have been lines through names like Cwynar, Johnson, and potentially Tuitt, but the front line hasn’t missed a beat thanks to great play by youngsters Nix, Lynch and Tuitt.

We’ll likely find out more on the status of Tuitt this afternoon when Kelly gives the press a health update.

LINEBACKER

Darius Fleming, Sr.
Dan Fox, Jr.
Manti Te’o, Jr.
Prince Shembo, Soph.
Steve Filer, Sr.
Carlo Calabrese, Jr.
Kendall Moore, Soph.
Danny Spond, Soph.
Troy Niklas, Fr.
Ishaq Williams, Fr.

The loss of Steve Filer robbed the Irish of a potential pass-rush specialist, but for the most part the Irish linebackers are intact. If the Irish have a weakness in the linebacking corps, it’s at the drop linebacker position, where the Irish will be tested this week with Stanford possessing a strong running game, but an even stronger quarterback that’ll test the Irish linebackers in their drops and put Prince Shembo in a position where he’ll need to quickly identify run or pass, often times in play-action.

The Irish have gotten steady but uneven play from the combination of Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese opposite Manti Te’o, and Darius Fleming hasn’t put together the kind of numbers people had hoped for this season. That said, this group is getting better at this time of year, aided by the ascent of Troy Niklas.

SECONDARY

Robert Blanton
Jamoris Slaughter
Harrison Smith
Gary Gray
Zeke Motta
Lo Wood
Austin Collinsworth
Bennett Jackson
Dan McCarthy

After getting bitten by injury last season, the Irish secondary has stayed relatively healthy this year, allowing Jamoris Slaughter to play like the difference-maker the coaching staff thought they had last year. Robert Blanton and Gary Gray both have had their moments of weakness this year (with Gray’s a bit more visible), but both corners will likely be asked to match-up one-on-one with a wide receiving corps that lacks game-breakers, especially after injuries have taken their toll on the Cardinal depth chart.

If you’re looking for someone that’s made their move up the charts, look at Austin Collinsworth. The sophomore was a dynamic special teams player last year, but has found his way into the nickel and dime package, giving the Irish another safety that’s capable of playing in coverage, allowing Jamoris Slaughter to slide down into the drop linebacker spot to make plays close to the line of scrimmage.

  1. bernhtp - Nov 22, 2011 at 1:46 PM

    One tiny nit: you have Cierre listed first at RB while it’s clear that Jonas had worked himself into the starting position. The loss of Jonas is such a heart-breaker on so many levels.

  2. fitz79 - Nov 22, 2011 at 2:22 PM

    Let’s win this for Jonas Saturday boys! He’s gonna be a glorified assistant coach on the sideline. Stanford is good but Not unbeatable. Their defense is banged up. We can do it!

    • NDfan1224 - Nov 23, 2011 at 9:20 AM

      I say Jonas gives the pregame speech gets them fired up like no one else can

      http://ndgdn.com/

  3. 808raiderinparadise - Nov 22, 2011 at 2:53 PM

    Its time for Rees to make some downfield throws. Stanford will bottle-up the underneath stuff, you need to challenege them over the top as they are so good at limiting big plays and after the catch yards.

    Michael Floyd is playing for his draft status … they should release him downfield and target him at least 5-7 times past 20 yards.

    That will leave Eifert and Toma to cut into gaps underneath.

    You can’t beat stanford in chunks, you HAVE to have some big plays, they are very disciplined.

    With that being said we haven’t even touched the defense. Anyone going to guard those 2 TE’s? gulp.
    could get ugly.

  4. Michael Steinberger - Nov 22, 2011 at 3:29 PM

    This game is actually a pretty good litmus test for where the state of the program is two years into the Kelly era: we’re playing on the road against a BCS team, led by the possible Heisman Trophy winner, who beat up on us last year in our house.

    What’s more, it’s a chance for a signature, program-has-turned-the-corner win. We haven’t had one of those since Holtz. Maybe it’s a little too soon to expect that kind of success, but the opportunity is right there before us. We’re missing a few key guys, but so are they.

    Anxious to see how this one plays out. Go Irish!

    • nudeman - Nov 23, 2011 at 10:07 AM

      Agree that it’s a great litmus test. And definitely agree that it’s badly needed.

      As far as it being “a little too soon”, if not NOW, then WHEN? I’m tired of beating the hell out of the ACC and losing to the Big10 and Pac 12. It is time to WIN, period.

      My head says they are outmanned. My head also says that this Irish team isn’t capable of going on the road and beating a team like Stanford. Especially with #11 taking the snaps.

      But my heart says somehow they find a way.

      ND 28
      Stanford 25

      • domer77blowsgoats - Nov 23, 2011 at 12:04 PM

        Such insight, so riviting!

        Can’t go a day w/o bashing Rees huh? So does Crist then have what it takes to knock off Stanford? Hendrix? You’re dillusional at best…

        Last time we played a physical team we got trounced…

        What it will take come Saturday night:

        1. Throw the damn ball to Floyd – over and over again – no less than 15 times
        2. Show some imagination in play calling – I hate resorting to trickeration but it will be needed
        3. Keep Luck off the field – two tight ends, I-formation – running downhill
        4. Throw the ball to Floyd….

  5. irish4222 - Nov 22, 2011 at 6:35 PM

    Remember when it seemed we regularly sealed the Heisman campaigns of our opponents? Or made opponents’ best player look like a Heisman candidate?

    It’d be nice to knock Luck off that pedestal. Go Irish!

  6. 10of14 - Nov 22, 2011 at 9:54 PM

    Decisive underdogs and rightly so, however with no mistakes (and I mean NONE) and a linebacker core that must play way above themselves, we can compete. The reason I mention linebackers and I know I have not been popular for saying this, but Te’o is not playing to an All American status and he needs to get going. On top of that, Fox and others are horrid when having to cover a tight end or back and Stanford is prolific at this part of the game. This will take the best effort of an ND defense in 20 years to win this game. I see it the same as the USC game if not worse if we can’t play 4 quarters of defense.

  7. pwt3 - Nov 25, 2011 at 4:12 PM

    Tuitt has mono and is out for the year, from what I’ve heard. Nix’s dad had a heart attack, so Nix could conceivably be out as well. If so it would leave the d-line in a tough spot.

    Other than that the accumulated injuries aren’t too terrible. Gray and Cave are the two that really hurt.

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