During Notre Dame's improbable run to last season's BCS National Championship Game, the Irish were fortunate to steer clear of the injury bug. They can't consider themselves as lucky in 2013.
Meeting with the media Thursday afternoon at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly announced two rather significant injuries (via IrishIllustrated.com). The most costly injury is that of starting right guard Christian Lombard, who has been lost for the season due to a back injury that required surgery.
Christian Lombard out for the season. Had back surgery yesterday. Had 4cm of a herniated disk removed.— Jim Johnston (@JJohnstonWNDU) October 24, 2013
Across the line of scrimmage, starting nose guard Louis Nix was among those listed as "out" for Saturday's game at Air Force due to knee tendinitis according to Matt Fortuna of ESPN, though the mammoth defender will only miss one week.
Louis Nix will not travel with Notre Dame to Air Force. Out for the game.— Irish Illustrated (@NDatRivals) October 24, 2013
While losing Nix would typically be met with despair from the fanbase, it may actually be a blessing in disguise.
With two consecutive games against service academies—Air Force and Navy—upcoming, the injury potential for defensive linemen against the cut-block scheme the academies employ is high. Losing the 6'3", 357-pound nose guard for an extended period of time would be a devastating blow to the Irish defense, which is the key to Notre Dame's BCS hopes.
Concisely, everything defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's 3-4 scheme does begins with Nix.
Because of his incredible size, Nix possesses the ability to dictate what opposing rushing attacks by clogging either of the A-gaps (either side of the center). Thus, Nix's value in the lineup against Notre Dame's final three opponents of the regular season—Pittsburgh, BYU and Stanford—will be increased exponentially.
Essentially, the Irish don't necessarily need Nix against triple-option offenses, as Kelly noted earlier this week, via Mike Huguenin of NFL.com.
Option football is not [Nix's] cup of tea. There's a lot of low blocking, a lot of cut blocking. Just for a big guy, that's not the game you'd like to play. He's going to be going against the guy who is 245 pounds. And he's probably going to be fending off cut blocks for most of the game.
For those still fretting Nix's absence Saturday, fear not. A scratch from the lineup this late in the week, barring unforeseen circumstances, is typically an indicator the coaching staff isn't afraid to allow that player the opportunity to gain some rest.
As I alluded to, a healthy, rested Nix for the homestretch will be crucial for the Irish.
While Nix will miss just one week, Lombard being out for the season has a much more profound effect. Starting in Lombard's place will be a freshman short on experience, but teeming with potential.
Steve Elmer moves into the starting lineup at right guard in Christian Lombard's absence.— Irish Illustrated (@NDatRivals) October 24, 2013
Elmer, a 4-star prospect in the Irish's 2013 recruiting haul per 247 Sports, cracked the two-deep at the conclusion of fall camp, though he wasn't expected to be a major contributor in 2013.
The original plans for Elmer seemed to be to replace current left tackle Zack Martin when the fifth-year senior exhausts his eligibility following the season. Redshirt freshman Ronnie Stanley has gained a solid foothold at right tackle through his first seven career starts.
While the insertion of a true freshman into the first unit would typically be met with a dose of skepticism, such is not the case with Elmer, a 6'6", 317-pound lineman capable of running with the No. 1 offense, as Kelly noted during his season-opening press conference.
"We like both [Stanley and Elmer] and they're both really good," Kelly said. "There are some young players now that are physically ready to compete at a high BCS level. That's surprising."
Thus, the challenge facing Elmer is how quickly he can pick up the the Irish's blocking schemes and protections. Given Stanley's rapid progression over at right tackle, the outlook for Elmer at right guard is bright.
The great news for Notre Dame is that neither injury has devastated the Irish, a testament to the program's tremendous recruiting efforts under Kelly.
How the team performs Saturday will be a direct representation of that notion.