SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Nobody’s going to take it easy on Notre Dame because it has lost five starters due to season-ending injuries over the last month. That’s been Brian Kelly’s message to his team since quarterback Malik Zaire and tight end Durham Smythe suffered injuries that’ll sideline them for the remainder of the year on Saturday against Virginia.
The merciless rash of injuries that’d make a “Game of Thrones” episode look tame began in mid-August, when nose guard Jarron Jones suffered a torn MCL after right tackle Mike McGlinchey shoved linebacker Joe Schmidt into his leg during practice (Showtime’s cameras caught and aired how the injury occurred). Later in the month, freshman cornerback Shaun Crawford — who was in line to be the team’s No. 1 nickel back — tore his ACL during practice.
Three carries into Notre Dame’s season opener against Texas, Tarean Folston tried to cut outside on a run and tore his ACL. Zaire fractured his ankle in the third quarter against Virginia, and Smythe tore his MCL on Notre Dame’s penultimate offensive play in Charlottesville (Smythe’s injury, which slowed him getting off the field, is why Notre Dame was forced to run down the clock before calling for DeShone Kizer’s game-winning pass to Will Fuller).
[MORE NOTRE DAME: TE Durham Smythe the latest Notre Dame starter out for the season]
Notre Dame players embrace the “next man in” mentality, but after seeing so many teammates go down, Kelly felt it necessary to remind them that a top-20 Georgia Tech side will still try to pulverize them Saturday in South Bend.
“I think any team kind of looks at it and says, 'Boy, why us?' But as I told our team, no one really cares,” Kelly said. “Certainly those that do are happy that you got more injuries. Because they're in it for their own teams. So just no excuses, you know? Let's go play.
“We've got players that will step up, and we'll get through it. Everybody's got to deal with some adversity, and this is our end of it and we'll be stronger for it. I just don't want to hear any excuses about it. We'll find a way, and that's what I want to hear from our team, and that's what we're going to make sure our team understands that.”
The primary question for Notre Dame is how aptly it’ll be able to replace all those injured players. Sophomore Daniel Cage and freshman Jerry Tillery have been solid filling in for Jones, while redshirt junior C.J. Prosise looks like an emerging star at running back with Folston out. KeiVarae Russell took over No. 1 nickel duties after Crawford's injury and had a sack/strip blitzing from there against Virginia. Kizer has the most pressure on him, having to prove his game-winning touchdown against the ‘Hoos wasn’t a fluke over the next 10 regular-season games.
[MORE NOTRE DAME: Who is DeShone Kizer?]
But another area of concern is why these injuries have happened, and if there’s any way to prevent them in such a violent sport. Kelly said it’s tough to control if an injury is going to occur, though, especially outside of practice.
“I look at each injury because there are certainly areas as coaches we all want to make sure and prevent injuries to our players,” Kelly said. “We never want to see a young man lose a season. But you look at each one of them. Two of them, there were no contact at all, and in this one (Smythe’s) it was a play, actually the play right before the touchdown at the end of the game against Virginia that Durham got rolled up on by one of his own players. He wasn't even part of the play.
“So it's just one of those things that is there anything that you could have done differently in that situation. That's certainly what I try to do in each one of these situations, and that one there was nothing you could do about it. It was just part of the game. I do, in fact, look at all of them. If there is anything we do with injury prevention.
“They're generally ones that would happen in practice that probably hurt the most that did we do something in practice that could have put us in a better position? But during games, very rarely is it something that you can control."