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Notre Dame notes: Kelly explains Wood suspension

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Notre Dame notes: Kelly explains Wood suspension

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame will be without its leading returning rusher when the team opens its season Saturday in Dublin, Ireland. And the decision to suspend senior back Cierre Wood was entirely coach Brian Kelly's call.

"This is strictly an independent decision that I made relative to the decisions that those young men made," Kelly said Tuesday. "And they violated the rules that our players know, and the rules that they know every single day about being in this program."

Wood and defensive lineman Justin Utupo are suspended for the Navy and Purdue games, while quarterback Tommy Rees and linebacker Carlo Calabrese are suspended for just the Navy game. Last year, Kelly didn't suspend star wideout Michael Floyd for any regular-season games following an arrest for DUI, but he was suspended for most of spring practice. Floyd was reinstated to the team for fall camp Aug. 3, and went on to become a gameday captain by the end of the season.

Kelly lauded Floyd's transformation off the field last season, and hopes the same scenario plays out with his four suspended players for Week 1.

"The ultimate goal is we want them all to turn out like Michael Floyd's situation, where they make life decisions to change the way they are," Kelly said. "And so the ultimate goal is to get -- with any kind of sanctions or any kind of suspensions, we want better citizens. We want more accountable citizens. We want people representing our program in the right way."

With Wood out, Theo Riddick and George Atkinson III will take on increased roles in the Notre Dame offense, while running back-turned-cornerback Cam McDaniel has returned to the backfield. However, USC transfer Amir Carlisle will not be available Sept. 1, Kelly said.

Still, the Irish have enough running back depth to shoulder the loss of Wood, especially against a pair of teams that ranked in the bottom third among rushing defenses in 2011.

"You understand that as a head coach with 18 to 22 year olds, that you hope that everybody makes good decisions all the time. I hope my son makes good decisions and my daughter," Kelly said. "I think we all get disappointed, but we also know that they are young and we want them to learn from the mistakes that they made. And in this instance, we are hoping that's the case for Cierre and Justin, I'm very confident that they will learn from their mistakes."

Now lining up at wideouteveryone?

Notre Dame's two-deep depth chart was released this week, and none of the team's talented young pass-catchers were listed as starters. But that hardly means they're pigeon-holed into a No. 2 or No. 3 slot in the X, Y or Z positions.

"You're going to need your media guide as it relates to the wide receiver position, because they are all playing," Kelly said. "Each one of them right now has a different skill set. Nobody is polished to the level where they are a stand alone player at the receiving core other than Tyler Eifert. He's a stand alone player."

There's no single receiver likely to replace Michael Floyd's 2011 numbers -- 100 catches, 1,147 yards, 9 touchdowns. But Kelly is hoping Notre Dame's fairly deep crop of wide receivers -- and a hybrid back in Theo Riddick -- can do the job just as well as one player did in 2011.

"You also have veterans that are going to get an opportunity: John Goodman, we know about Robby Toma; Danny Smith who has been with our program, he's going to get an opportunity to play -- DaVaris Daniels, Chris Brown, Justin Ferguson, Davonte Neal, and I've probably left out a couple others," Kelly said. "They are all going to have to play collective roles in our offense."

Te'o, Eifert headline Irish captains

Last year, safety Harrison Smith was Notre Dame's only permanent captain, with other players cycling in as gameday captains during the season. In 2012, the Irish will have four captains, all seniors: Manti Te'o, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Tyler Eifert and Zack Martin.

"What struck me more than anything else was when they got up before their teammates, the things that they said about being a captain at Notre Dame, and in one particular instance, Kapron Lewis-Moore was brought to tears," Kelly said "You love the see the passion and love for Notre Dame, their teammates, and they are great representatives.

"I think that's what I'm most excited about is we have got great leadership, not only amongst our seniors, but our veteran football players, and it's set a great model for our younger players to follow."

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

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Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

There hasn't been a more dynamic duo in the NHL so far this season than Kucherov and Stamkos, who have combined for 68 points (27 goals, 41 assists) through 20 games, and sit first and second in the scoring race.

They've each recorded a point in every game except three — which coincidentally have been the same games — and they've lost all three of those contests. Kucherov has also scored a goal in 15 of 20 games this season. That's absurd when you consider he's scoring on a consistent basis; it's not like they're coming in spurts.

To put all that into perspective, he reached the 17-goal mark in his 36th game last year and still finished second in the league with 40 goals. He hit the 17-goal mark in 16 fewer games this season. How many can he realistically finish with? 60?

2. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

Tampa Bay knows how dangerous Chicago's dynamic duo can be as well, as evidenced in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. The Blackhawks' superstars know how to get up for a big game.

In 13 career regular-season games against the Lightning, Kane has 18 points (six goals, 12 assists). Toews has 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 14 games.

They're both producing at or above a point-per-game pace, and they're going to need more of that against this powerhouse Lightning team.

3. Something's gotta give.

Tampa Bay's offensive prowess is off the charts up and down the lineup. It has four lines that can come at you at waves, and a strong, active blue line led by potential Norris Trophy finalist Viktor Hedman and Calder Trophy candidate Mikhail Sergachev.

Although Chicago allows the fourth-most shots per game (34.0), it actually hasn't been bad at preventing goals — a large reason for that is Corey Crawford. 

The Lightning rank first in goals per game (3.95) and first in power play percentage (28.0) while the Blackhawks rank sixth in goals against per game (2.65) and four in penalty kill percentage (84.9).

Who's going to crack first?

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

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USA TODAY

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

The news on Tuesday wasn’t really any sort of surprise: Brian Urlacher being selected as a semifinalist for the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Some of the immediate thoughts were, however, for one writer who covered Brian from the day he was drafted on through the unpleasant end of his 13-year career as a Bear.

Good thoughts, though. Definitely good.

The first was a flashback, to a Tuesday in late August 2000 when the ninth-overall pick of the draft, who’d been anointed the starting strong-side linebacker by coach Dick Jauron on draft day, was benched.

It happened up at Halas Hall when Urlacher all of a sudden wasn’t running with the 1’s. Rosie Colvin was in Urlacher’s spot with the starters and would be for a few games into the 2000 season. I caught up with Brian before he walked, in a daze, into Halas Hall after practice and asked about what I’d just seen.

"I'm unhappy with the way I'm playing and I'm sure they are, too," Urlacher said. "I don't think I've been playing very well so that's probably the cause for it right there. I just don't have any technique. I need to work on my technique, hands and feet mostly. I've got to get those down, figure out what I'm doing. I know the defense pretty good now, just don't know how to use my hands and feet."

Urlacher, an All-American safety at New Mexico but MVP of the Senior Bowl in his first game at middle linebacker, had been starting at strong side, over the tight end, because coaches considered it a simpler position for Urlacher to master. But he was not always correctly aligned before the snap, did not use his hands against blockers effectively and occasionally led with his head on tackles. His benching cost him the chance to be the first Bears rookie linebacker since Dick Butkus to start an Opening Day.

It also was the first time in his football life that Urlacher could remember being demoted.

"It's not a good feeling," he said. "I definitely don't like getting demoted but I know why I am. I just have to get better."

Coaches understood what they were really attempting, subsequently acknowledged privately that the SLB experiment was a mistake. While the strong-side slot may have been simpler than the other two principally because of coverage duties, "we're trying to force-feed the kid an elephant," then-defensive coordinator Greg Blache said.

"So you see him gag and what do you do? You give him the Heimlich maneuver, you take some of it out of his mouth, try to chop it up into smaller pieces. He's going to devour it and be a great football player. But he wouldn't be if we choked him to death."

Urlacher didn’t choke and eventually became the starter, not outside, but at middle linebacker when Barry Minter was injured week two at Tampa Bay.

We sometimes don’t fully know the import or significance at the time we’re witnessing something. Urlacher stepping in at middle linebacker was not one of those times – you knew, watching him pick up four tackles in basically just the fourth quarter of a 41-0 blowout by the Bucs.

That was the beginning. Over the years came moments like Urlacher scooping up a Michael Vick fumble in the 2001 Atlanta game and going 90 yards with Vick giving chase but not catching him. Lots of those kinds of moments.

And then cutting to the ending, in 2013, when he and the organization came to an acrimonious parting after GM Phil Emery managed to alienate the face of the franchise both with the one-year contract offer and the way it was handled. Butkus had a nasty separation at the end of his Bears years, too, and Bill George finished his career as a Los Angeles Ram after creating the middle linebacker position as a Bear. Maybe that’s just how Bears and some of their linebackers wind up their relationships.

In any case, while there is no cheering in the pressbox, the hope here is that Brian goes into the Hall in a class with Ray Lewis in their first years of eligibility. Somehow that just seems like it all should close out for that confused kid from New Mexico who lost his first job out of college, but responded to that by becoming one of the all-time greats in his sport.