Notre Dame football: Pains, gains for Irish
Two weeks after the national uproar and debate over Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly’s sideline manner had crowned and subsequently receded, the subject popped up again near the end of his gathering with the media.
Kelly’s deftness in preventing his head from exploding Tuesday indirectly illustrates that playing so many freshmen and in such big situations hasn’t sapped either his patience or his sanity.
“They are going to be used,” Kelly said as his 2-2 Irish hit the road this weekend for a Saturday night clash at Purdue (2-1). “We are getting closer on a couple of guys that we think can give us some quality reps.”
The next three in, if it indeed comes to that, figure to come from a group that comprises quarterback Everett Golson, wide receiver DaVaris Daniels and kick returner George Atkinson III’s twin brother, Josh, a cornerback.
Some of the most impressive freshmen in practice won’t see action this season, barring a barrage of injuries, simply because of depth at their respective positions. That group includes offensive linemen Nick Martin and Conor Hanratty, inside linebacker Jarrett Grace and nose guard Tony Springmann.
Kelly has played eight freshmen to date - defensive linemen Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt, outside linebackers Troy Niklas and Ishaq Williams, special-teamers George Atkinson and Cam McDaniel, kicker Kyle Brindza and tight end Ben Koyack.
McDaniel and/or George Atkinson could soon see some playing time at running back, Kelly said Tuesday.
The freshman story line that has the most influence with ND’s bigger picture, though, has to do with how much the roles of the four active front-seven defensive players expand.
It’s not just about depth. It’s also about oomph.
The skill sets of Lynch, Tuitt, Niklas and Williams will definitely factor into ND’s postseason trajectory. But so does their consistency, or sometimes lack thereof.
“It’s very challenging,” ND defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said about the process of building trust with those freshmen. “Every day is a new day. It’s not just, ‘OK, they went in, they played pretty good.’
“They’re not used to going to school. They’re not used to midterm exams at college. They’re not used to being this long away from home. So there are moments that put trust in their bank account. There are moments that take trust out of their bank account.”
Complicating the picture are offenses some of them match up well against and offenses that they don’t. Michigan State was a game that didn’t require a lot of complicated reads and keys. Michigan was. Pitt was not. Air Force will be.
“A younger player may not have that level of discipline and detail yet,” Diaco said of certain matchups. “Every week is different when you’re looking at the offenses and how we need to place our chess pieces to take advantage of their formations ... and personnel.”
And just when you have that formula figured out, the target moves again. The weather gets colder, classes get harder, the grind of the season pushes the freshmen into a wall.
And sometimes they push back.
“(Last week in practice), we were seeing a heightened level of urgency,” Diaco said of Tuitt, who had some breakthrough moments at Pitt in his first extensive playing time. “A heightened level of detail, a heightened level of focus.
“He’s always had great tangible traits. He’s big, he’s fast, he’s strong. But you saw a heightened level of maturity and intensity. But every day is a new day when you’re a freshman.”