When Brian Kelly arrived at Notre Dame, one of his main goals was to build depth at the defensive line. Having that area of strength is never more important than the week the Irish face Navy.
But Kelly's depth has certainly been hit as Notre Dame looks to bounce back from a 31-17 loss to USC when it welcomes the Midshipmen to South Bend Saturday afternoon at 3:30.
Kelly announced on Tuesday that defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore is out for the season with what Kelly described as an 'unusual' knee injury. Lewis-Moore didn't tear his MCL. It was instead detached from his knee, something Kelly says he's never seen in 21 years as a football coach. The recovery period is 4-6 months.
Freshman Stephon Tuitt is listed as starting in place of Lewis-Moore.
This comes with Notre Dame's other defensive End Ethan Johnson having missed the last two games and three weeks after injuring his ankle early on against Purdue. Kelly says Johnson is still not 100% but should be able to play this week.
Johnson is still listed as a starter but expect the bulk of the work to go to another Notre Dame freshman--Aaron Lynch.
Kelly admits it will be difficult relying on freshman this week because Lewis-Moore and Johnson have the most experience against the optioned based Midshipmen, who torched Notre Dame last year in Jersey.
Kelly says he doesn't have to remind his guys of that game, "they were there."
But Lynch and Tuitt were not. Having little experience against a disciplined Navy rushing attack will be a major challenge, especially for Lynch who has issues with personal foul penalties this season.
"He's maturing," Kelly said of Lynch on Tuesday. "He's learning how to handle his emotions. He's growing up as a young man. We have to expect him to continue to progress into the complete player we want him to be."
"He's a really good athlete right now, we have to mature him into a complete player. That takes a little bit of time. He's only 18. I'm not excusing him from personal fouls but we have to develop that young man and are working hard on that."
Lynch and Tuitt will have their hands full with Navy fullback Alexander Teich.
"He's not a guy that just drops his head and runs up inside, he's extremely athletic," Kelly explained about Teich. "You have a big, physical kid. He has the heart of a lion. He's just a competitive kid. He makes it very difficult to defend because inside out they are very very dangerous."
Despite five straight losses, Navy has the 3rd best rushing attack in the country.
"We have to get into a routine where we practice similar to the way we play without putting our team in risk of injury. We have to have a very spirited practice during the week so football team is prepared for Saturday," Kelly said.
Kelly said the team will hit on Tuesday and Wednesday after it looks to correct its sluggish play last week against USC. Kelly said the unusual nature of having a bye week followed by fall break may have thrown his team's structured schedule off too much.
"I told our team [Monday], I'll take full responsibility for the preparation, you have to take full responsibility for the way you played," Kelly explained.
Kelly says he ran a lot of players on Monday, wanting to see his guys mental state and attitude. He says their heads were in the right place and reinforced to him that the team needs that kind of discipline and structure.
"It was a disciplined day [Monday] and they were dialed in," Kelly said.
With Navy's ability to control the clock, the Irish will need more out of its running game this week after that position produced its most lackluster performance of the season.
Kelly says Jonas Gray, who had a 25 yard touchdown run that pulled the Irish within seven, warrants more playing time. For the 2nd year in a row, starter Cierre Wood struggled against USC.
"Part of my job is to get to the best out of my players and I didn't get the best out of him," Kelly explained. "He's got to figure it out."
Kelly also addressed a growing controversy after he decided not to use any of his timeouts late in the game without Notre Dame down two touchdowns.
Criticism came from USC players, who declared after the game that Notre Dame quit.
Kelly says he thought about using a timeout late but it never worked out.
"I didn't pull the trigger on a timeout," Kelly said. It had nothing to do with we quit or we give up. I thought about it by not calling a timeout but it had nothing to with throwing in the towel."
Kelly said USC coach Lane Kiffin called to apologize for the accusations from the Trojans players.
"That was a very professional thing to do and it was appreciated," Kelly explained.
Kelly says Dayne Crist remembers Notre Dame's backup quarterback despite a fumble at the one yard line against USC that turned into a 99 yard touchdown for the Trojans instead of a game tying score for the Irish.
"Certainly he's disappointed," Kelly said. "He's got to get through that and he's got to bounce back. He's got to be ready if he's called upon to come out and play. Dayne is a big boy. He's 22, 23 years old. He's got to shake that off and comeback and be ready."
Kelly says he was happy with what he saw from Crist on Monday.