Pre-season accolades regarding increased depth along the Irish defensive front have proved relevant, as head coach Brian Kelly's squad could once again be played without, or with a very limited, Ethan Johnson
"No, I think again, he's a guy that's going to dress out," Kelly said of his senior defensive end. "If we can get a little bit of play out of him, I think we'll be happy. But I think you'll see him back to full-go by Navy (next week)."
Freshman Aaron Lynch will make his second start in Johnson's stead – the pass-rushing terror will encounter another relative newcomer to college football, Trojans redshirt-sophomore right tackle Kevin Graf. All-America candidate Matt Kalil occupies the opposite side of scrimmage for what should be a good battle with Irish senior defensive end, Kapron Lewis-Moore.
Another freshman, defensive end and three-technique DT Chase Hounshell, remains in the rotation. Look for the rookie to spell Lynch at times if Johnson proves unable to compete.
"Chase is a guy not afraid to mix it up; you don't know that he's a freshman," Kelly offered mid-week. "Just his demeanor, he's a football player. Sometimes freshmen, you (can) kind of sense they're a little hesitant or they want more."
Kelly also noted backup nose guard Sean Cwynar is back at full strength for the first time this season following a broken hand suffered in the opener. "He's been great," Kelly said of Cwynar. "No questions relative to his ability to go in and play every down."
Cwynar started last season vs. the Trojans and in tandem with Johnson, produced a key 3rd and 1 stop at midfield late in the third quarter. The surge forced a USC punt following 10 straight Trojans points off Irish turnovers.
Back in the saddle?
Redshirt-freshman quarterback Andrew Hendrix
earned his first playing time in the Week Six blowout of Air Force. The dual-threat produced the fifth-best rushing game for a QB in program history, ripping off 111 yards on just six carries.
With a bye week following, it's been widely speculated Kelly could add more wrinkles and plays to the "Hendrix Package."
"We try to add as much as we believe he can handle," Kelly said of the new fan favorite. "We don't want to be the same necessarily when he's in there either. We don't want to duplicate. We want you to defend all the versions of our offense.
"He's 4-for-4 throwing it in one game. He's run it effectively. There will be great balance when he's in the game."
Whether its Hendrix or starter Tommy Rees, the backfield tandem of Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray will be counted upon heavily – both Saturday and through season's end.
"I think we're pretty good there," Kelly said of the natural distribution of carries the pair has received in recent weeks. "But I do feel as though with (only) six games remaining; I don't know that we're going into games saying (Wood's) going to get ‘X' amount of carries," he noted of possible attempts to lighten Wood's full-season workload.
"Jonas Gray could get more carries and we wouldn't be concerned with that. I think it's more that they can share the load, more so than pacing somebody else."
Removing Week Four from the equation, Wood has carried the ball 44 times since the Irish returned home from Ann Arbor; Gray 34. (Wood earned 23 of the team's 26 carries in Week Four at Pittsburgh).
New helmets. Rumors of a uniform tweak (green or otherwise). 80,000 towels passed out to those entering the Stadium gates, and of course, 16 prospective student-athletes officially visiting campus with around 30 more in tow.
A master-plan for the season's most attractive football game? Maybe not.
"You know, I think all that just came together coincidentally," Kelly said of the myriad gimmicks surrounding the weekend. "I don't think it was a grand scheme (of) ‘Okay, let's do this and let's do this, let's get all these things to come together at once.' At the end of the day, this is about playing exciting football.
"You know what? You can cry all you want and use those towels if you don't play well," he continued of the blue towels with which a rabid fan base will be armed. "But if you're playing well, now you've got a great atmosphere and those towels mean something.
"So for me, we hadn't sat down and said, ‘Let's try to get all this for the USC game.' It's been more of a coincidence. Those helmets were supposed to be something that we were going to use at the start of the season. So I just think it was more of these things coming together as a coincidence. The football game for us is enough."
Kelly comments Johnson's status, the interchangeable combo of Gray and Wood, and offers his thoughts on the incredible confluence of pomp and circumstance for Saturday's matchup with USC.
Kelly on Johnson's injury, distribution in the backfield, and Hendrix's expanding role.