The rough draft of this weekly segment is usually written Sunday, either in the late morning or early afternoon. When saying “rough draft,” what should really be said is, “hardly legible scribbles on a legal pad consisting of names followed by nouns with no verbs anywhere to be seen.”
Some examples: “Cam Smith? Another ND TD?” or “Stepherson up the depth chart?” or “Dexter? Ankles, man.”
Then those haphazard pieces typically become more coherent thoughts either very early Monday morning (2 a.m.) or early Monday morning (9 a.m.). This week, however, Irish coach Brian Kelly answered most of the intended questions before they could even be asked in this space. There no longer seemed a rush. Thus, this delay. But now, as something of a mid-week update, let’s rehash.
Will senior linebacker Greer Martini actually be able to play only two weeks after arthroscopic surgery to repair a slight tear in his meniscus?
Yes. Kelly has a reputation for projecting quicker recoveries than reality allows, and, instinctively, that seemed the case when he said Sunday that Martini was cleared to practice this week. Yet, Martini apparently did Tuesday.
“I’m full go,” Martini said Wednesday. “I had practices all yesterday, didn’t take any reps off, and I’m feeling really good.”
Martini’s return does not have the dire feel to it like it did before the rout of USC. Junior Te’von Coney could not have acquitted himself better in Martini’s absence. Nonetheless, the return of the senior captain allows Notre Dame to trot out three talented linebackers — those two along with senior Nyles Morgan — to fill two spots, meaning fresh legs should not be a rare commodity.
“Whether it’s Te’von or I or Nyles starting, we all kind of have had enough reps that we feel like we’re all starters,” Martini said.
What about junior running back Dexter Williams and his sprained ankle?
After saying the Irish coaches made a conscious decision not to play Williams until he is 100 percent recovered from an ankle injury, Kelly either created some wiggle room in that regard Wednesday or returned to those optimistic recovery pronouncements mentioned earlier.
“Dexter looked good,” Kelly said on an ACC conference call, referring to Tuesday’s practice. “I think to say he’s 100 percent, I wouldn’t. I would say he could impact the game for us. He’s ready to play on Saturday.”
With or without Williams, Notre Dame will have a difficult time running against North Carolina State. The Wolfpack gives up a mere 3.04 yards per carry, No. 14 in the country. For context, Georgia ranks No. 7 in allowing 2.82 yards per rush and Michigan State comes in at No. 8 at 2.89 yards.
North Carolina State’s rush defense is so stout, opponents have tried to avoid challenging it. In getting to a 6-1 record, the Wolfpack have truly blown out only one opponent — a 49-16 win over FCS-level Furman. Opponents have not had to lean entirely on the passing game in fruitless attempts to come from behind, yet they have rushed only 210 times against NC State, an even 30 carries per game. The Irish, meanwhile, average 45 rushes each week.
Will sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson move up the depth chart now that he is fully-integrated back into Notre Dame’s offense?
Officially, no. Stepherson did not crack the two-deep released this week, but that two-deep hardly changes midseason. Let’s expect Stepherson to be one of the top three Irish receivers moving forward, along with junior Equanimeous St. Brown and sophomore Chase Claypool.
“What I liked the most was [Stepherson’s] energy and his assignments, getting all of his assignments correct,” Kelly said Sunday. “There was just an overall focus in a terms of getting lined up, having the right energy, really being locked into the game. A maturity that he continues to work on playing here at Notre Dame.”
Whatever the reason Stepherson spent the first four weeks of the year on the sideline, he certainly sounds ready to play now. Oh, and he’s pretty good at the football thing, too.
“It’s pretty easy to point out his athletic skills,” Kelly said. “We’ve never questioned those.
“… You’re going to see more and more of him on the field.”
With more of Stepherson on the field, that will inevitably mean less of fifth-year receiver and Arizona State-transfer Cam Smith, who missed the game against the Trojans due to a hamstring strain.
Notre Dame is now 9-1 under Kelly after a bye week. What about the week after that?
The Irish are 6-3 in such a situation, with two of the losses coming after a second bye week in one season and the third coming last season against Navy.
This may seem a narrow grouping to single out, but it is intended to show whether the bye week’s rest and focus carry over to a second game. For the most part, it appears a typical bye week’s does.
How many hurricane references will this week hold?
Too many. Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren got the first chance to reflect on his victory over Notre Dame a year ago, played in a literal hurricane.
Kelly offered a similar view of that contest.
“We didn’t even look at the film,” he said Tuesday. “It wasn’t even part of our breakdown because it really didn’t give us anything. It was a poorly-designed game plan by me. There was nothing that we really wanted to go back and look at.”