There’s a tricky line to draw when you write about injuries. They are a certainty in football (not unlike death and taxes off the field), but there is also a line where you’ve got to take injuries into account when adjusting your expectations for a team’s ability to perform.
There’s a school of thought that argues (probably successfully, I’d add) that regardless of injuries, Notre Dame shouldn’t lose to Navy or Tulsa. A simple look at the star-ratings and offer list of Notre Dame’s second string would support that claim, though it doesn’t take into account the development that happens after you’ve arrived on campus.
If there was a No. 1 knock on Charlie Weis as a collegiate head coach, it was probably his ability to develop his roster. Elite offensive talent seemed to thrive under Weis’ tutelage, but the middle of the roster — the long-term development of players in years three, four, and five of the program are the players that determine whether or not you’ve got a BCS team or a team filled with NFL prospects. (We’ll get to this later, I promise.)
As we saw plainly in 2007, Charlie Weis did little to develop the second level of his roster in the early years of his tenure, and his career never recovered when his teams in 2008 and 2009 failed to get better than mediocre results, struggling to replace veteran offensive and defensive linemen, safeties, or linebackers.
Brian Kelly entered Notre Dame with a reputation for developing talent, and he quickly set about implementing a practice system and approach that tried to strengthen and ready the depth on the roster. That approach has been put to the test this season, as Kelly not only had to implement new offensive and defensive systems, but also had to instill in his team a “Next Man In” attitude that was often preached by Weis, but never truly implemented.
Kelly started his first spring practice with only two players in “protected” status: Quarterback Dayne Crist, who was recovering from a torn ACL and running back turned wide receiver Theo Riddick, who was recovering from shoulder injury. Tight end Kyle Rudolph was also battling to stay healthy, being monitored by his position coach as a “restricted” player in Kelly’s training system. The Irish excited the Blue-Gold game without a major injury, getting Dayne Crist through every snap of spring practice even while he was less than five months removed from knee surgery.
From there, it was practically all down hill.
Nine games into the season, the Irish have lost a litany of players to injury. Major injuries have ended the seasons of starting quarterback Dayne Crist, senior tailback Armando Allen, and tight end Kyle Rudolph on offense alone. The loss of Rudolph robs the Irish offense of an All-American, the loss of Allen robs it of one of its most productive, and the loss of Crist removes the most indispensable players on the Irish roster. Three catastrophic losses any way you slice it.
Offensively, the Irish also lost presumed starter Dan Wenger for the season before it ever started, inserting first-timer Braxston Cave into the lineup at center. After finding his form at the slot receiver, Theo Riddick finds himself in the midst of a major ankle injury, robbing the Irish of it’s second most explosive offensive threat, and a player absolutely instrumental to Kelly’s spread attack. Starting right tackle Taylor Dever missed significant time, forcing redshirt freshman Zack Martin to flip over to the right tackle position, and pushing senior Matt Romine into the left tackle position, a spot he’s taken limited snaps in during his four years on campus. Running back Jonas Gray also has missed a significant portion of the year with an injury, turning a four-headed position that was the deepest position on the roster into a 1-2 punch of Cierre Wood, playing his first football since his senior year of high school, and Robert Hughes, a jumbo-sized back that’s a square peg in the round-hole mold of spread running backs needed for Kelly’s system. Finally, wide receiver Michael Floyd, the Irish’s best offensive player, battled hamstring issues of his own before sitting out the Navy game, watching from the sideline the Irish’s ugliest loss of the season.
On the flip side of the ball, no injury took a greater toll on the defense than the strained MCL of senior nose tackle Ian Williams, who could’ve player his last game in a Notre Dame uniform after being injured against Navy. The Irish battled depth and injury issues at middle linebacker from the beginning of the year, losing senior Steve Paskorz to a knee injury and Anthony McDonald to a variety of ailments, paving way for Carlo Calabrese, who suffered a major hamstring injury of his own. A position that was already incredibly thin forced the Irish to counter with true freshman Danny Spond and Prince Shembo in the middle, but Spond’s been out with injuries for the past few weeks and Shembo suffered a concussion Saturday afternoon. The Irish plugged senior Brian Smith in at inside linebacker, a move Kelly would barely concede to during spring ball unless it was an extraordinary emergency situation.
In the secondary, the Irish safeties have been decimated by injury. Both Jamoris Slaughter and Danny McCarthy have struggled to stay healthy all season, with Slaughter injuring an ankle that’s been incredibly slow to heal and McCarthy having a nagging leg injury that robbed him of the speed necessary to cover the back-end of the defense. With two of the four scholarship safeties on the roster sitting out, the Irish were forced to play the odd couple of Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta in the defensive backfield, two maximum effort players that leave some coverage skills on the table.
Irish fans have likely been spoiled during the transition years of the past two regimes, where a veteran roster stormed out of the gates quickly. Kelly wasn’t dealt the same hand, playing with a deck of cards short some very important faces. For all the struggles the Irish have faced along the offensive line since Charlie Weis took over the program, the line play has been decent considering three new starters at the positions most vulnerable and two veteran guards who have hardly taken the leap to elite that many had hoped. Defensively, outside of the game against the Naval Academy, the Irish have played a much better brand of football than they did last season, limiting explosive plays by the opponent and surviving with a more structurally sound, bend, don’t break, defense.
On the road to a 4-5 record through nine games, the Irish can easily look back at losses to Michigan and Tulsa and wonder if a healthy Dayne Crist couldn’t have gotten them through two opponents that had sizable flaws. And since losing Riddick and Rudolph, the Irish have lost every game not played against Western Michigan. It’s the ultimate game of “what could’ve been,” but the Irish are likely playing it after seeing their training room filled with some of the most important players on the roster.