The best sign Ian Williams is back is the fact his teammates joke he's not.
"He's a little out of shape still, but he'll be in shape by the time we get to the bowl game," laughed Ethan Johnson. "He definitely looks good out there. It looks like he's been working on his game even while he's been injured."
When Williams went down against Navy with a sprained MCL that seemed sure to end his Notre Dame career based on the tears flowing from the sideline, the status of the team's starting nose guard was no laughing matter. In Utah, Army and USC the Irish were about to face back-to-back-to-back Top 30 rush offenses needing two wins for bowl eligibility.
In other words, the goal of Notre Dame's defense without arguably its best player was to survive more than improve. But the Irish did both, allowing just 280 yards rushing total to close the year. That 93.3 yards allowed per game would have ranked Notre Dame's rush defense No. 4 nationally if extended throughout the season, and that's with Army's option game mixed in.
The fact Notre Dame's defense got better without Williams doesn't make much sense, but the story heading into the Sun Bowl against Miami is how the Irish take another step forward with him.
"Very excited because I knew we had it in us all season," Williams said of watching the defense soar without him. "It's a breath of fresh air to see Sean (Cwynar) and Hafis (Williams) step up their level of game and I was very excited to be a senior on the sidelines watching."
Not that the coaching staff didn't make a few adjustments with Williams out.
Hafis Williams switched positions from end to nose guard, backing up Cwynar. Brian Smith moved inside after Carlo Calabrese's hamstring injury, suffered on the same play against Navy as Williams' knee sprain. And the coaching staff asked its new line to play more gap control and let the linebackers run free.
Smith matched his career high with 10 tackles against Utah. Fleming matched his career high with seven tackles against USC.
"It was more about the other players playing at a higher level," said head coach Brian Kelly. "We've got Darius Fleming playing really well late, Brian Smith playing really well late. It was more about the other guys around him playing very, very well.
"Now you can get Ian back in there and if we can keep the same level of play, we can't have those guys drop off, we can obviously feel good about our defense going into Miami."
A bowl win would also send Williams and the rest of Notre Dame's senior class out on a four-game streak. The class hasn't won four-straight games in one season during their careers.
"I was a little emotional knowing that these were my last few practices and I've grown so close to all these guys being around them every day they're like my brothers," Williams said. "I feel great, I feel like I'm 110 percent."
Just don't ask Johnson for his analysis.
"I'm just excited to get out there and play with him, just knock some heads around with him one last time before he leaves," Johnson said. "We've got a special bond because we've been through so much, how many coaching changes or whatever. I just really enjoy playing with the guy."