There are certainly some aspects of the 2013 Notre Dame football team that Fighting Irish fans aren't enamored with. The offense struggles to produce at times, the young wide receivers have been inconsistent or even nonexistent, the running game is improving but has not been as reliable as perhaps Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly would have hoped for, and the heralded defensive front hasn't truly lived up to its preseason press clippings.
One thing that can't be held against this year's team is its willingness to battle continuously through any adversity, and that continued Thursday, as Kelly announced that a pair of critical players would not be in action Saturday at Air Force (5 p.m., CBS College Sports).
All-American defensive lineman Louis Nix III will not travel with the team after missing practice this week with tendonitis in his knee. But that is actually good new compared with the offense losing right guard Christian Lombard to back surgery for the remainder of the season.
But what else is new for this year's Irish? They've been decimated by injuries since training camp.
Just on the defensive side of the ball, Notre Dame (5-2) has lost defensive back Nicky Baratti, end Chase Hounshell, lineman Tony Springmann and linebackers Danny Spond and Jarrett Grace. Add Nix (and earlier Sheldon Day, who missed most of three games) to that list, and many players who weren't in the picture when the Irish faced Temple to open the season will now be counted on significantly.
One of those players is linebacker Joe Schmidt, who replaced Grace and made an impression on Kelly with his play in last week's win over USC.
“He's mistake-free,” Kelly said. “He's smart. He knows his role and how to do his job.”
Against the Trojans late in the game, Notre Dame “had eight guys out of our two-deep on defense,” according to Kelly, so he looked to Schmidt, a former walk-on, to back up starter Dan Fox.
“We'd like (Schmidt) to be bigger, faster, and we'd like him stronger,” Kelly explained. “But we knew putting Joe Schmidt in the game, he was not going to get us beat. And that is the mark of the next man in.”
That “next man in” philosophy has been relied upon too often this season in South Bend. And studying the depth chart from August to this week makes that point abundantly clear.
Senior Kona Schwenke has gone from a depth provider behind Springmann and Nix to a starter against the Falcons (1-6). Fifth-year senior Tyler Stockton has gone from nearly out of the picture along the defensive line to possibly getting reps Saturday.
Sophomore linebacker Romeo Okwara is on the field a lot and wasn't even in the two-deep against Temple. And freshmen defensive backs Devin Butler and Max Redfield are now going to see a decent number of snaps, but they weren't involved outside of special teams earlier in the season.
“Defensively, we'll be challenged in different ways,” Kelly said of Saturday's game. “Assignments. Discipline. You know, this will be another important test for our defense and the growth of our defense. A lot of young players playing.
“Now we'll have to test them and make sure that their assignments are correct and make sure that they follow the details of assignment football, when you're playing option (football against Air Force).”
Young man, step up
With the loss of veteran offensive lineman Lombard, the task of filling that position falls on true freshman Steve Elmer.
Elmer will line up along side redshirt freshman Ronnie Stanley (right tackle).
Those two will be protecting starting quarterback Tommy Rees, who Kelly said on Thursday took all of the first team snaps during practice that day after suffering a sprained neck against USC.