Pregame Six Pack: Battling Louisville in Senior sendoff

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And just like that, Notre Dame’s season is nearly over.

While losing three of four games has dampened the spirits of fans and detoured the team’s postseason hopes, the Irish will play their final game at home on Saturday, a senior sendoff in Notre Dame Stadium for a large group with a still-to-be-determined future.

A 7-3 Louisville team comes to town, the first ever matchup in football between schools that reunite in the ACC. With Bobby Petrino’s defense still ahead of an offense that’s playing a true freshman, a winning blueprint is available for Brian Kelly if his team can execute it.

“We have to eliminate big plays defensively. We can’t give them big play runs and passes,” Kelly said Thursday, searching for solutions as his defense is in the middle of its worst five-game stretch in school history.  “And then offensively we have to run the offense that we’ve run without the mistakes that we’ve made in terms of turning the football over.”

Both challenges seem steep, especially after watching the Irish struggle against Arizona State and Northwestern. But Kelly has rallied his troops before, as dark moments haven’t seemed to hang around too long these past five seasons.

Before an important Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium, let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack.

 

The redshirt is coming off Jay Hayes. 

Without Sheldon Day and Daniel Cage at defensive tackle, Brian Kelly made the difficult decision to remove the redshirt from freshman Jay Hayes. After not playing in the first 10 games of the season, Hayes will see his first action of the season on Saturday.

“Jay Hayes has been ready every week, but we were hoping not to play him,” Kelly said. “It was a difficult decision. I’ve had to weigh a lot of factors.”

The most important factor seems to be opportunity. While fifth-year senior Justin Utupo will get the start, Hayes is going to get approximately 30 snaps, according to Kelly. That number will ramp up against USC and in the bowl game, with hopes of getting him to 100 snaps this season.

“If we can get him up to 100 reps and a couple weeks of practice, we’ll feel as though we did by him the right thing to get him enough reps and enough work to make it worthwhile.”

After seeing Hayes compete all season, both on the scout team and this week with the No. 1 defense, Kelly expects Hayes to hold his own. Not to mention have a career on Sundays.

That could’ve been one of the bigger factors in taking the redshirt off. The Irish haven’t been able to utilize that fifth-season with their best defensive linemen, anyway.

“We think Jay Hayes can play at the next level. We think he’s that good of a player,” Kelly said, before bringing up the early departures of Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt. “We haven’t had a lot of NFL defensive linemen hang around here for five years.”

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As we look at this senior class, it’s hard not to notice the defense that never was. 

Saturday will be about honoring the senior class. (We’ll get to that in a few minutes.) While Kelly would prefer that group to just include the three fifth-year players in their final collegiate action, the goodbye on Saturday will be to a group that came in together in 2011 with high expectations and leaves not necessarily fulfilling them.

In February of 2011, most Irish fans looked to the future, and this particular football season as the one that’d feature a ferocious defense featuring a bludgeoning front seven. That’s clearly not been the case.

But let’s take a look at the hard-luck that’s hit this group, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

Aaron Lynch lasted just a season in South Bend, before quitting the team and fleeing to South Florida. While his career seems to be back on track in San Francisco, Lynch’s collegiate career at two different stops never ascended past his promising freshman season.

Stephon Tuitt played just four snaps last week for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the second-round draft pick still learning how to be a professional he transitions to life in the NFL. After a breakout sophomore season where Tuitt made a run at Justin Tuck’s single-season sack record, Tuitt’s junior season was plagued by injuries and inconsistency, and we only saw one great season from the blue-chip recruit.

Injuries also crushed this group. Senior linebacker Jarrett Grace is still recovering from a harrowing leg injury suffered last season. Ben Councell has just crossed the 12-month mark on his torn ACL. Eilar Hardy opened his Irish career with a major knee surgery that set him back nearly two seasons.

Things have been even less kind to Chase Hounshell, who three shoulder surgeries later will likely leave Notre Dame playing his most significant minutes as a true freshman. And Tony Springmann’s promising career was cut short after never fully recovering from knee injury that cost him the entire 2013 season. Brad Carrico, the class’s first commitment, had a foot injury end his career two years ago.

Matthias Farley has been a great success story, his rebound 2014 season a breakthrough. And former walk-on Joe Schmidt has been the most productive (un)recruit of the group, leading the Irish in tackles this season before breaking his ankle.

While the final chapter won’t be written on this class until we know what players will return for a fifth year, it’s a sad reminder that even the best recruiting classes don’t turn out as you’d hope.

 

Interested in Florida? Only for the weather, Brian Kelly jokes. 

With Will Muschamp already fired, many have speculated that Gators athletic director Jeremy Foley was trying to get a jump-start on the hiring process. And that means that Brian Kelly’s name will once again be included in a high-profile coaching search.

Some Irish fans will offer to pack Kelly’s bags for him after last week. But Kelly sounded more like a coach knowing he has to do a better job with his current gig than a coach looking to make a move elsewhere.

“I’m going to Florida… iIn about two weeks to get some sun,” Kelly cracked. “I’m getting out of here with this weather, are you kidding me? So you can write that down. I’m going to Florida. Write it down now, get it out there get it on the news waves.

“What else am I up for? Anything else? Can I be up for the Notre Dame job because we are 7-3 right now. I’m hoping to hold onto this job.”

With a 2015 team that could return 19 starters — as well as KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams — Kelly doesn’t look like a guy that would want to go rebuild a decimated Florida program. And while the NFL still likely looms large this time of year after Kelly’s flirtation after the 2012 season, it’s hard to think that the allure of Gainsville would be enough to tempt Kelly.

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For the Irish defense to succeed, they’ve got to focus on stopping the run. 

While Irish fans should look out for Louisville receiver DeVante Parker, the Cardinals will likely try to beat Notre Dame with the run game. And they’ve got some star power there as well, with former Auburn national champion Michael Dyer playing out his star-crossed career under head coach Bobby Petrino, a guy who knows quite a bit about career rehabilitation.

But if you’re wondering why Kelly would take a redshirt off of Jay Hayes with just two regular season games to go, it’s because the Irish absolutely need to find a way to play good run defense. As Kelly and Brian VanGorder search for something to hang their hat on, stopping the run seems like the first step in rebuilding the base of the defense.

Through the season’s first five games, they were able to do that, playing stout against the run. Against Florida State, they managed to turn the Seminoles one-dimensional as well. But the struggles against the run of late have opened the flood gates. And while the Irish will still  be susceptible against the pass — especially if Cardinals receiver James Quick has his suspension resolved before Saturday — the young and inexperienced secondary can get by if the Irish are able to hold their own against the run.

“I think first and foremost, we have to be more effective against the run.,” Kelly said. “We’ve lost a very good player inside with Sheldon Day. We have to be committed to stopping the run.”

It doesn’t look like the Irish will be able to do that with a three-man front. That’s just too much pressure on linebackers Nyles Morgan and Jaylon Smith, two guys that lack the heft to play on the inside.

So while that make for some high-wire work on the back-end of the defense, it’s clear that Kelly would rather put the challenge on the shoulders of his pass defenders — especially against a freshman quarterback — than his young front seven.

 

After another safety shuffle, Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate have some ground to make up. 

Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate seemed like the optimal players for the Irish defense. Both heralded recruits, Redfield’s athleticism is well-discussed, and his five-star pedigree had Irish fans ready to welcome their first ball-hawking safety since Harrison Smith.

Elijah Shumate looked like the sledgehammer Irish fans coveted as an aggressive, in the box safety. After an impressive season playing in the slot as a true freshman, and an up-and-down sophomore season dragged down by nagging injuries, Shumate’s improving early-season play showed a lot of promise.

But both seem to be in the doghouse right now, turning the safeties many thought were the future of the position into guys that’ll have to find their way back into the present.

Kelly said Thursday that his starting duo will be Austin Collinsworth and Drue Tranquill Saturday, two cerebral players who won’t get confused for the best athletes on the field. That much was apparently last week, as the Irish pass defense struggled to defend in space against a Northwestern offense that had previously been one of the least explosive offenses in college football.

Eilar Hardy will also have a chance to move into the mix, with the senior safety finally up to speed after his suspension. But for Shumate and Redfield to work back into the mix, they’ll need to match their mental game to the strengths of their physical skill-sets.

 

Another senior class, another great collection of stories. 

There’s no better time to tip the cap to the sensational work of the Observer, the student-run newspaper that pays tribute to every member of the senior class. In a gauntlet of a feature that’s taken place for a few years now, the Observer writes profiles features on every senior on the roster, a great collection of reads that give you a great look inside program.

Hear from Joe Schmidt, who (not surprisingly) hasn’t lost any optimism as he recovers from injury. Listen to Jarrett Grace talk about the four weeks he spent in the hospital after breaking four bones in his leg, celebrating his 21st birthday from the hospital.

Walk-on Eric Lee is on his way to med school. “Grandpa” Justin Utupo is enjoying his fifth year, playing a lot more football than ever before. Tony Springmann is going to transition from an unlikely student-coaching experience to the ACE teaching program.

You can read all 27 stories on the senior class here. Nice work, Observer Sports team. Now get some sleep.