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December 30, 2012SOUTH BEND, Ind. | There was a flash of fear as DaVaris Daniels ran a pass pattern through the middle of the Notre Dame defense Friday, followed by a predictable thump that reverberated throughout his body.
But once the Fighting Irish sophomore wide receiver picked himself up after being tackled for the first time in 48 days, he was awash in normalcy.
"It was almost like a confidence boost," he said Saturday.
And, perhaps a big boost for the Notre Dame offense heading into the BCS National Championship Game between the top-ranked Fighting Irish (12-0) and second-ranked Alabama (12-1), Jan. 7 in Miami Gardens, Fla.
The 6-foot-2, 190-pound Daniels finished the regular season as Notre Dame's fourth-leading receiver (25 receptions for 375 yards), despite missing the final 2? games with a broken collarbone suffered at Boston College on Nov. 10.
More telling than those numbers is how he stretches opposing defenses, as his 15-yards-per-catch average - best among Notre Dame's top five pass-catchers - suggests.
"We've got to get big-chunk plays," Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly said. "I'm telling you that right now. They know that. We know that."
And Daniels knows that.
He also knows that if Notre Dame were playing in just about any other postseason game, he'd been questionable at best, if not completely unavailable. The Fighting Irish, for instance, played their bowl game on Dec. 29 last season. Daniels' first day of contact practice since the injury was Dec. 28.
"When I broke (the collarbone), I didn't even know what I had done," he said. "I just knew it was bad. It was difficult, because I didn't know at first if I'd be able to come back. I was just hoping I'd be in this position."
He'll be welcomed back into action by an Alabama team that ranks first nationally in total defense and second only to the Fighting Irish in scoring D.
"We would not put him out there unless he was free from injury," Kelly said. "Now he practiced the last three weeks, but in a red jersey. We just didn't want any contact. I usually don't put jerseys on guys, but I wanted him to be involved in all the timing work, but nobody could touch him.
"Now, he's out of the red jersey. He's good to go out and play, jump, get hit, fall down. He's a really good player who understands his reps are going to be based upon how he practices and how he performs. I'm certain that he'll play a role in the game."
Safety Austin Collinsworth was never expected to be a late-season option to play, but Kelly at least figured he'd have the junior available for scout-team duty in preparation for Alabama.
But as Collinsworth recovered from June shoulder surgery that effectively wiped out his 2012 season, he began to experience back discomfort.
The day before the Fighting Irish closed the regular season Nov. 24 at Southern California, Collinsworth underwent back surgery, Kelly revealed Saturday.
"It's similar to what (tight end Tyler) Eifert had," Kelly said. "He needed that attended to. He feels great, so we think we've got him put back together, and he's champing at the bit."
Collinsworth, a possible starter for 2013 who will have two seasons of eligibility left, is expected to be full-go in the spring, Kelly said.
Season-ending surgeries for backup offensive linemen Ronnie Stanley, Tate Nichols and Matt Hegarty have knocked the Fighting Irish down to three healthy scholarship tackles and limited options on the interior of the line if one of the starters goes down Jan. 7.
Against Alabama, sophomore Nick Martin will be the lone reserve tackle. Sophomore Conor Hanratty will be the first guard in off the bench.
True freshman Mark Harrell, who has yet to play this season, has been taking No. 2 reps at center. But if starter Braxston Cave goes down, Kelly will likely shuffle right guard Mike Golic Jr. to center and plug Hanratty in at guard.
It's also shifted his approach in practice.
"If you take an hour-and-a-half practice, we're probably taking 10 minutes of that time to go ones vs. ones," Kelly said. "I would go a little bit more, but we're thin on the offensive line, and I can't afford to lose a guy there."
Notre Dame's relatively ordinary special teams might get a boost for the title game from a personnel standpoint.
"It's all hands on deck," said Kelly, who was reluctant to play many starters on special teams during the regular season because of injury concerns.
"I'm not going to get into specifics. I'm just saying we're going to put all guys on deck in terms of trying to get the best players on the field, because it's a one-shot deal. I don't have to worry about the next week or the week after."
The Fighting Irish spent a few of their practices earlier in the month rotating in their young players for reps, though not as much as in previous years.
Two up-and-comers who grabbed Kelly's attention were Jarron Jones, a redshirting freshman defensive lineman, and sophomore linebacker Jarrett Grace, the leading candidate to replace All-American Manti Te'o next season.
There will be few photo ops and even fewer late nights this time compared to Notre Dame's previous postseason ventures under Kelly.
"I've always felt like in bowl games, you let your guys go down and the first night or two, you kind of let them get out and have a little fun and kind of reward them for the bowl game," he said.
"Maybe I had a 2 a.m. curfew or something like that. We're 11 o'clock (this time). This is not a bowl game.We're playing for a national championship. We're there on a business trip, and that's kind of how we've approached it."
The Fighting Irish practice today and Monday, take New Year's Day off, then travel to the Miami area Wednesday afternoon.
They'll hold practices in South Florida on Thursday, Friday and next Saturday, with a walk-through at Sun Life Stadium on Jan. 6.