SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish returns a fumble against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Smith’s surgeon speaks optimistically about nerve issue

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For the first time since suffering the injury against Ohio State, Jaylon Smith pulled back the curtain on one of the most talked about knees (and nerves) in all of football. USAToday’s Tom Pelissero spent a day with Smith—and spoke with his surgeon, Dallas Cowboys’ team doctor Dan Cooper, about the progress Smith has been making, less than four months removed from the life-altering injury.

Cooper, a veteran of 30-plus years and one of the world’s top specialists in the repair of complex knee injuries, sounded optimistic in his assessment of Smith’s injury. He also addressed the dreaded “foot-drop,” with Smith using an ankle-foot orthosis (AFO) to assist moving his left foot as the nerve slowly returns.

This from USA Today:

A checkup by NFL teams last weekend in Indianapolis showed Smith remains unable to raise his left foot or swing it out to the side because of an issue with his peroneal nerve. But the “foot-drop” isn’t a surprise at this stage, said his surgeon, Dr. Dan Cooper, who is “optimistic that his knee itself will be stable and a good knee and he’ll get all his strength back. And I also think he has a very good chance of getting his nerve recovery back.”

That’s because the lateral damage stretched Smith’s nerve “enough to make it go to sleep, but it wasn’t stretched enough to be structurally elongated or visually very damaged” like more severe injuries, Cooper told USA TODAY Sports. There’s normally a one-month lag time before the nerve regrows at all, and once it begins, the rate is only about 1 inch per month.

“He’s had time for his nerve to regrow 2 inches, and the area of where his nerve was injured is 6 inches above the muscle that it innervates,” said Cooper, who’s also the Dallas Cowboys’ head team physician. “I wouldn’t really expect him to get much innervation back into that muscle for two or three more months. Then once it does – I’ve seen kids who are completely paralyzed like him on the lateral side and not able to pick their foot up at all (that) wind up being totally normal.”

Smith expressed optimism to Pelissero—as he has to everyone he’s come in contact with. He’s also continued to work out diligently, back up to 240 pounds and squatting and leg pressing like an All-American linebacker, not a man roughly 3.5 months post surgery. Smith also performed 24 reps on the bench press during Notre Dame’s Pro Day.

Perhaps more promising, Smith also says he’s making progress with the nerve, feeling tingles down his leg and moving closer to the foot.

“I feel different sensations every day,” Smith told Pelissero. “But it’s a thing where it’s patience, so you don’t try to hype yourself up too much.”

BK on Jaylon: “Going to be one of the best linebackers in NFL.”

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates with Cole Luke #36 after recovering a fumble against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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As the NFL Draft approaches rumors continue to swirl about the health of Jaylon Smith‘s knee. Notre Dame’s All-American linebacker and Butkus Award winner tore his ACL and LCL in the Fiesta Bowl, ending his college career in nightmarish fashion.

The recovery process on the injury has been slow going, pushing Smith out of the first round in many mock drafts. The concern about nerve damage has some believing Smith might never look like the player many thought could in consideration as the draft’s top pick.

Don’t count Brian Kelly among those doubters.

Notre Dame’s head coach caught up with Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman, and talked about his unflinching belief that it’s not a matter of if with Smith, it’s when:

“First, I would be careful to not jump to any kind of conclusions based upon the information that you’re getting right now,” Kelly said. “Jaylon will play in the NFL. It’s just a matter of time. He’s going to come back from this injury, and when he does he’s going to be one of the best linebackers in the NFL. He has that kind of ability.

“This is an injury that we’ve seen before. We’ve had them on our team. They take time, but Jaylon is somebody that has had an incredible positive attitude.”

Kelly’s belief comes from both knowing Smith’s work ethic and unflinching focus, but also having the knowledge that while structural timelines after surgery have accelerated with technology, there’s only so much you can do to speed up the nerve’s process.

With Smith covered with an insurance policy that will pay him handsomely every pick he falls after the end of the first round, Smith also gets the added benefit of having one-less year guaranteed on his rookie contract if he’s taken in round one.

“He’s a smart business decision when you’re thinking about Jaylon Smith, because he’s going to get back on the field just because of his ability to heal,” Kelly told Feldman. “He’s an incredible athlete and a positive guy. We’re not in that mindset of disappointment or concern that he’s not going to play again.”

Making sense of the Blue-Gold game

Notre Dame’s Equanimeous St. Brown, left, moves by Andrew Trumbetti during the Blue-Gold spring NCAA college football game, Saturday, April 16, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP
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Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold game is in the books. Punter Tyler Newsome was named MVP, both Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer made compelling arguments to be named the team’s starting quarterback, and the Irish defense seemed to make progress during spring ball.

We’re not done covering that game here by any means. But for those of you who enjoy podcasts, here’s the latest episode of the newly-named Blown Coverage, my partnership with Newsweek’s John Walters.

Both John and I are Notre Dame grads, enjoy talking about Notre Dame football—and plenty of other stuff, too.

Give it a listen, you might enjoy it.

 

Shamrock Series likely to skip 2017

BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 21:  A general view of Fenway Park before the game between the Boston College Eagles and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on November 21, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s Shamrock Series is about to take a break. The yearly staple—set for San Antonio in 2016—is likely to take a year off as the Irish prepare to move into the fully-renovated Notre Dame Stadium in 2017.

With the $400-million Campus Crossroads project expected to be finished by then, athletic director Jack Swarbrick discussed the value of keeping a seventh home game on campus, eschewing the annual neutral-site game.

Swarbrick spoke to ESPN’s Heather Dinich at the College Football Playoff’s spring meetings:

“In all likelihood we will not do one in ’17, because that’s the opening of the Crossroads and we want to maximize the number of home games, but we anticipate doing it in subsequent years,” Swarbrick said. “It’s been phenomenal. We have a lot of people who annually target that game and make it one where they get together with former classmates and really plan their years around it. It’s been good.”

Notre Dame’s schedule has been a subject of much debate. After former athletic director Kevin White‘s troubled 7-4-1 scheduling paradigm made it difficult to find partners (especially throughout conference realignment), Swarbrick took over the athletic department and adjusted the Irish’s scheduling parameters. The result was, surprisingly, one less home game—leaving potential revenue on the table while keeping the Shamrock Series in place.

That decision highlights some of the benefits of the barnstorming tour that’s historically in Notre Dame football’s DNA. It’s also allowed Irish fans to have iconic experiences, Yankee Stadium, Soldier Field, last year’s Fenway Park visit, all stemming from the unorthodox decision to play Washington State in San Antonio way back in 2009.

“I wasn’t sure we could brand it successfully, that it would develop its own identity, so that’s probably been the biggest surprise in that it has done that more than I thought it would,” Swarbrick told UND.com back in 2013. “I knew given our national following, and the commitment of the university in so many ways, I knew logistically and operationally it would work great but to what level it would be embraced was my concern.”

Expect the Shamrock Series back in 2018. But a 2017 slate that expects visits from headliners like Georgia, Michigan State and USC will benefit from a seventh home game.

The good, the bad, the ugly: The Blue-Gold game

Notre Dame’s Dexter Williams (34) breaks away from Josh Barajas, left, and Max Redfield on a touchdown run during the Blue-Gold spring NCAA college football game, Saturday, April 16, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP
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With the spring game in the rearview and a successful Blue-Gold weekend in the books, it’s time for another edition of good, bad, and ugly. Full disclosure: No column is more subjective. Nor is there any column more difficult to write.

Football writing ain’t exactly Nietzsche. So when singing the praises of Torii Hunter or Jay Hayes, you’re also singling out a lost snap by Nick Coleman or Alex Bars. That’s the double-edge sword of intersquad scrimmages, when wins and losses are basically the same as losses and wins. (I feel like Yoda just writing that sentence.)

But jumping to conclusions after two 12-minute quarters and a second-half running clock that disappeared in the blink of an eye? It’s never stopped me before.

So let’s perfect the swan dive as we go head first into the last competitive football we’ll see until the Irish take the field against Texas.

 

THE GOOD

Dexter Williams & Justin BrentThe third and fourth running backs on the roster sure didn’t look like guys who couldn’t crack the two deep. And after watching both Williams and Brent make some nifty plays, it’s hard to think that they won’t at least find a couple touches for each of them.

Williams is more likely a player in contention for a game-to-game role. Brent, who redshirted last season so still has three years of eligibility remaining, could be a dominant mop-up time performer, blowing up Cam McDaniels’ sterling 2012 season where he dominated games when the result wasn’t in doubt and the offense needed to churn through clock.

Both Williams and Brent showed some nice flashes, each catching their head coach’s eye.

“I thought Dexter ran extremely hard,” Kelly said. “I was pleased with Justin Brent.”

Brent made a nice play on a scramble drill when Malik Zaire evaded a blitzer then threw a 50-50 ball that Brent attacked for a big gain. Williams only averaged 3.3 yards per carry, but carried the load and showed the type of burst and decisiveness you want from a back running inside zone.

Remember when third and fourth backs in the spring game usually had a jersey that was three-sizes too big and a Bengal Bouts nickname that usually played off a Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out underdog? Well Williams and Brent certainly aren’t those guys.

 

Shaun Crawford. Rewatching the game, I came to appreciate even more what Crawford was doing. It felt like there was a level of disgust in Crawford’s play, the limitations of a green jersey forcing him from making a few big plays after he had diagnosed them early and had to wait around and avoid doing what comes naturally for him.

Playing on the edge and out of nickel isn’t preferential. Right now, he seems good enough to start opposite Cole Luke, and he’s already pushing Luke to be better. That’s a testament to just how unique he is athletically Crawford is. There has been no shortage of gushing about him, crazy when you consider:

a) He’s yet to take a snap in a real game.
b) Nobody is mentioning he’s 5-foot-8.

 

Alex Bars. I was happy that Bars was able to finish off spring at right tackle, the proper home for him all along. That he made it through the spring game without being exposed or suffering a setback with his foot and ankle is a victory by in itself.

The line makes better sense with him at right tackle. It allows the Irish to plug in Hunter Bivin or Colin McGovern on the inside. It allows the Irish to get even bigger across the front, a far cry from a group that played for the national title that looked like “five guards.”

 

Kevin Stepherson & Torii Hunter. A freshman and a senior were the two most intriguing pass catchers featured in the game. And they both play similar positions.

What’s that mean? Finding a way to move Hunter all over the field so Stepherson can grasp just one job. Kelly talked about that challenge postgame.

“We’re going to take it slow with [Stepherson], and find what’s best for him,” Kelly said. “It’s harder inside, because there’s so many more variables in terms of what he has to do and adjust his routes. He’s probably better suited to be on the outside.

“Then if he’s on the outside what do you do with Torii? I think Torii has more experience where we can flop Torii around more so with not swapping KJ around. I don’t want to move him all over the place.”

We’ve seen a lot of promising freshmen wide receivers arrive in South Bend. None have been able to make an impact under Kelly. But with a leg-up thanks to early enrollment—not to mention, three jobs vacating—putting Stepherson into a specific role should help him break the mold.

“We’ve got to really figure out what we want to do with him and stick with that and say, this is where you’re going to play next year,” Kelly said.

 

 

Limiting scores and big plays on defense. 

Torii Hunter needed one hand for a 50-yarder. Kevin Stepherson got loose for 25-yards, and Justin Brent made a nice play for a 28-yard gain when Malik Zaire got outside. But other than those three plays, the Irish defense didn’t give up anything overly back-breaking and managed to keep the offense in check.

That was most noticeable in the running game. There wasn’t a ton of emphasis on getting the ground game going, but it certainly didn’t look easy out there. That’s a big step in the right direction, following up good plays with not-easy opportunities for the opponent.

 

Tyler Newsome. Last spring game, Newsome’s shaky punting had some of us (read: me) worried that life after Ben Turk might not be grand. Well last season’s solid debut erased that. And this spring game, Kelly named Newsome the MVP. The rising (redshirt) sophomore showed off a rocket leg kicking both directions, pinning the football inside the 20, multiple kicks of 50+ yards and excellent hair as well.

Notre Dame’s sophomore specialists are a strength.

 

THE BAD

Navigating this quarterback dilemma. We’ve talked about the decision Brian Kelly has to make. And it’s not going to be easy. Not necessarily because he could be picking the wrong horse in a two (plus)-horse race, but rather because of the human ramifications that come along with making a decision like this.

I find it hard to see how a choice like this doesn’t split the locker room. I also find it hard to believe that even a trio of brains as wise as Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford can a way for this to work mixing and matching components, though I think that’s the best way to keep everybody at least close to happy.

(Don’t get me wrong, I’m super intrigued by the duo of Kizer and Zaire both playing. It’s a way better scenario than anything Ohio State tried last year, and it’d be a complete nightmare to game plan for, especially on just a week’s notice.)

Kelly said quite a bit late this spring about the state of this battle, and he’s never shied away from saying it’ll go into the fall. More and more that feels like the best sign that he’s doing everything he can to let Malik Zaire have a fair shake, knowing it’s hard to ask a guy who missed 90 percent of the season with a broken ankle to step in and compete. But making things fair doesn’t necessarily tip the scales in favor of Zaire—he still needs to find the calm and control that Kizer displays so effortlessly.

One thing I’m happy to report for sure: Zaire and Kizer officially do away with the ridiculous notion “if you have two quarterbacks you really have none.”

 

Bad Bullets:

These weren’t game-ruining for me, but a few things I didn’t like seeing.

* Josh Adams, you need to do a better job picking up the blitz.

* Drue Tranquill, that “panic P.I.” makes Irish fans worry about the half-field part of your game. It wasn’t necessarily the strongest part of your first two seasons and if Tranquill wants to spend 2016 in the starting lineup, he needs to make sure he can play comfortably in space at safety. Otherwise, he’s more likely to be a specialist deployed near the line of scrimmage.

* There was a lot of good play from Max Redfield on the field Saturday. But after making a sure-handed stop at the line of scrimmage, Redfield followed it up with a critical miss on Dexter Williams as he scampered into the end zone.

* Do we choose to think that the defensive line made improvements or that Malik Zaire’s starting right side struggled to slow down the Blue front seven?

 

THE UGLY

A clear-blue sky, football, and no injuries? Not to mention a Notre Dame win? Even if it’s one of the least memorable spring games in recent memory, chalk this up as an ugly-free football game.