When a three-year starter and captain is lost for the season with a major knee injury, it should be expected for questions to swirl about who will replace him. No. 6 Notre Dame (5-0) does not have many such wonderings following the loss of fifth-year left guard Alex Bars.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly has already indicated senior Trevor Ruhland will handle the lion’s share of that burden with sophomore Aaron Banks filling in a bit, as well. Heading to a rowdy venue against a top-25 opponent, Banks’ time this week may be little, but that will presumably change soon thereafter.
Speaking of Virginia Tech’s Lane Stadium, how many times will chaos be heard this week? Multiple players mentioned it immediately following Notre Dame’s 38-17 victory over No. 7 Stanford this weekend. The exact wording arises frequently, rather than just an allusion to the concept, as a byproduct of “chaos periods” this spring, when Kelly would throw a wrench into a usual drill. The soccer balls, the removal of a player, the head-splitting soundtracks were all an attempt to prevent another wide-eyed reaction to a crowd much more animated than usually seen at Notre Dame Stadium.
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After the Irish fell apart at Miami last November, adjusting for a hostile road environment became a priority for Kelly and his staff. As soon as the next day, Kelly was shouldering the onus for the Notre Dame collapse amid the noise.
“This one was a little bit different,” Kelly said. “A number of these kids hadn’t played in a game of this magnitude … We’ll have to take a good close look at that of making sure we prepare our guys. I have to do a better job of making sure they are in the moment.”
What set Hard Rock Stadium apart that night from most electric road games was not the noise, but how early it began and how long it sustained. The Hurricanes fans were in party mode 30 minutes before kickoff and their celebrations did not ease up until well after the 41-8 shellacking was settled beyond a doubt.
Many stadiums and crowds come alive in the second half with a lead or in a close game. Few truly do so before the game even begins. The Hokies’ entrance to “Enter Sandman” assures Lane Stadium will not need a goal line stand to ignite cheers. How the Irish react to that chaos cannot be known until the time comes, but it will undoubtedly be discussed at length this weekend.
Will Tony Jones be healthy enough to factor into the offensive game plan? The junior running back sprained his ankle last week. That may seem a small concern, but a sprained ankle limited Jones extensively last year, and can be a debilitating ailment for any running back. (See: Love, Bryce; most of 2017.)
If Jones is in a reduced role, that only further increases senior Dexter Williams’ workload. Williams played well in his debut against the Cardinal and his legs should be in better shape than if he had not been sidelined for the season’s first four games, but asking Williams to be the only Notre Dame running back of note is still a risky proposition.
Sophomore Avery Davis has not yet shown the abilities that will be needed this weekend, and freshmen Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister are unlikely to see competitive action against a Bud Foster defense unless absolutely necessary.
But speaking of freshmen, how much progress has linebacker Shayne Simon made? The continued emergence of senior rover Asmar Bilal has reduced the anticipation of a Simon role to nearly none. And Bilal should be lauded.
“Those instincts sometimes require repetition, real live repetition,” Kelly said of Bilal on Sunday. “He hadn’t had a lot of it. The more he plays, he sees things better, and he is a gifted athlete. He had always been, but a little bit slower in reacting. He’s now closing that reaction time down with much more instinctive movements. That’s just attributed to playing time and a young player getting more reps is starting to show the skill set that he has.”
Bilal finished with six tackles including one for loss against Stanford. It is his pass defense, though, that hardly shows up on the stat sheet (one breakup), but has solidified his role and diminished any immediate need for Simon.
That is, until fifth-year Buck linebacker Drue Tranquill broke his hand last week. Tranquill will play with a cast and is not expected to miss any time, but should he need to, Bilal or Simon could fill in. Both have cross-trained at Buck, so either could step inside while the other handles rover duties. Sophomore Jordan Genmark Heath is also a Buck option.
Notre Dame prefers to keep Tranquill on the field, and barring further injury or drastically-impaired performance he will stay there, but if need be, Simon may need to grow up quickly.
Looking elsewhere, is it too early to start doubting the bowl hopes of Northwestern and Florida State? Both are double-digit road underdogs against ranked opponents this weekend. Presume both lose. The Seminoles would be 3-3 with games against four more top-25 teams remaining. The Wildcats would be 1-4 with visits coming from Wisconsin and Notre Dame; Northwestern would have to win its four other games, including a trip to Iowa, to reach 6-6.
This is nothing but forward-looking conjecture that hardly affects the Irish, but it goes to show how much the 30,000-foot view of Notre Dame’s schedule has changed. These were supposed to be two of the better teams on the slate, and both very well could end up 5-7 or worse.
If it is not too soon to ponder others’ bowl eligibility, then it is not too soon to wonder when the first College Football Playoff selection committee poll comes out. At least one individual asked as much while waiting for Kelly to speak in Saturday’s postgame. (It was yours truly.)
A quick check of the “Reference” folder in one’s phone gallery reveals that first poll comes out Oct. 31.
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