Remember all the preseason talk about how dominant the Notre Dame defensive front was going to be throughout this football season? The Fighting Irish had All-American candidates Louis Nix III in the heart of the defensive line, flanked by All-American candidate Stephon Tuitt and younger stud Sheldon Day, who Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said he “wouldn't trade for anybody.”
Well, that group and its production hasn't really panned out like the Irish faithful had envisioned due to injury recovery (in Tuitt's case) and plain old injuries (in the case of Nix and Day), but it might be at least getting to some form of itself for the team's final three games.
Notre Dame (7-2) will travel to Pitt (4-4) on Saturday (8 p.m., ABC) and that intimidating threesome appears to be ready to line up next to each other.
“It has been difficult,” Kelly said. “We played some good stretches of football. We put together some good football against some very good offensive football teams and never getting the three of those guys on the field at one time says a lot about the (entire defense) coming together.”
Nix has missed the last couple of games with a tendonitis issue in his knee, which will require postseason surgery, and will probably prevent him from being the “Irish chocolate” that Notre Dame Nation has come to know and love.
Day has missed essentially three games with an ankle problem. While he and Nix missed five games, it nearly took Tuitt that long to get into condition following offseason surgery to become, well, Stephon Tuitt, in his play. But after the three of them practiced together on Wednesday, all of that should be remedied this weekend.
“At what level of health, we will see where it is,” Kelly explained. “I think everybody at this time of year isn't at 100 percent, but I think we're getting close where we may get all three of them on the field at one time.”
What the absence of the starters has done throughout the Irish defense, on a positive note, is enable some players who never thought that they would be in the picture an opportunity to get on the field. And some have performed admirably.
“Isaac Rochell, Jarron Jones, Justin Utupo, Anthony Rabasa are going to have to do some things for us,” Kelly said. “But the guys that have been in our defensive meeting room are going to have to be those guys that step up and perform in roles that are expanded.”
When faced with an ever-changing roster that has been depleted by injuries – particularly on the defensive side of the ball – Kelly and Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco have often found ways to improvise.
Linebacker Ben Councell lined up at the defensive end position against Navy last week (until he blew out his knee and was lost for the season), middle linebacker Dan Fox is taking practice reps at multiple linebacker spots just in case he is needed, former walk-on Joe Schmidt is filling in for Notre Dame's one-time leading tackler Jarrett Grace (who was also lost for the season), and Tuitt has moved from the outside of the front to inside at times of late as the problem-solving continues. But Kelly does believe that along the defensive front, at least this week, the players should be at their positions of regularity and strength, and not trying to survive in unfamiliar roles.
That should really be integral against the Panthers, who have allowed nearly four sacks per game this season and rank 118th nationally in that category.
“We're hopeful about Louis being able to play a role (against Pitt),” Kelly said. “We're hopeful that we're going to see more of Sheldon. He will continue to practice and see where that takes us.
“Then Stephon moving out to more of his natural role outside is going to be a benefit for us, as well.”