SOUTH BEND - Ishaq Williams still has just one tackle to show for three reserve appearances for the Notre Dame football team.
But when the 6-foot-5, 255-pound freshman outside linebacker rotates into the game, Notre Dame second-year head coach Brian Kelly’s heart beats a little harder, a little faster - for good reason.
The same lack of trepidation is true when defensive ends Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt, running back/kick returner George Atkinson III and the five other true freshmen who have seen action so far for the Irish (1-2) end up on the field in meaningful situations.
“I don't know that you ever want to play as many freshmen that we're playing, but times are changing,” said Kelly, whose unranked team visits Pitt (2-1) on Saturday. “College football is such that these kids are coming in physically so much more mature, that they can come in and physically handle the rigors of playing major college football.
“I always thought it to be a great weakness within your program when you had to play true freshmen. Not when they run as fast as George Atkinson or are as physical as Aaron Lynch.”
Redshirt is still considered a four-letter word at Notre Dame, even though the practice of preserving a year of eligibility for a potential fifth year has become more rule than exception at ND.
Protocol, not practice, is what makes Kelly uttering the term a no-no. Advanced development of high school players is making a slip of the tongue less likely.
“I think Brian Kelly is correct in looking at high school players as being more capable these days at earlier stages of their careers,” said recruiting analyst Allen Wallace, publisher of SuperPrep Magazine. “The world is moving so much faster in so many areas. Good players are now really thinking seriously about their college careers when they’re high school freshmen.
“There are camps and combines, 7-on-7 tournaments all over the United States that have really elevated both the expectations and performances of these athletes, who are so hugely overexposed, so well-known. And those higher expectations drive better training.”
So are more sophisticated recruiting networks.
Ten years ago, Williams’ high school, Abraham Lincoln in Brooklyn. N.Y., was more known from its Nobel Prize winners (Paul Berg, Jerome Karle, Arthur Komberg), pop singers (Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka, The Tokens), actors (Lou Gossett Jr., John Forsythe) NBA stars (Stephon Marbury, Sebastian Telfair) and even despotic billionaires (Leona Helmsley) than its college football prospects.
New York City, as a rule, underproduces when it comes to college football players and is thus underrecruited for its population base. Williams, was decidedly not underrecruited. And his decision to enroll early brought his potential to light quicker.
Since Notre Dame’s admissions office opened the doors to January enrollment for freshman football players in 2006, 21 Irish players have walked through it - 10 in the past two recruiting cycles in which Kelly has been the head coach.
Overall, 57 percent of them have played as true freshmen, with quarterback Everett Golson and offensive lineman Brad Carrico still in play for this year.
“I think early enrollment is a big part of the movement with freshmen,” said CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming. “That not only helps with their development, but I think it makes coaches more comfortable with playing freshmen. But freshmen have been a part of the mix since 1972.”
Kelly did play just as many true freshmen (nine) last season as this year so far. Former coach Charlie Weis also played nine in his final season (2009), eight in 2008 and 10 in 2007. So the shift is really more about the impact of and the comfort level in playing them than raw numbers.
“The last four or five years, these guys are weight-training all year,” Kelly said. “Nutrition is important to them. They're taking care of their bodies. (Strength and conditioning) coach (Paul) Longo said this ... was physically the most impressive group relative to their conditioning level when they came here.
“Usually, they come in a few weeks after the veterans are here. They come in and they're lost. They're so far behind. This group was not. They were physically ready to compete right away.
“So I think in the recruiting process, we're now - our eyes are wide open to ‘this guy can play right away.’ If we continue to recruit like we did this past year, we're going to have more of those stories moving forward.”