"We'll need them all..."

Freshman outside linebacker Troy Niklas

Irisheyes.com looks at the staff's oft-referenced motto – one that proved invaluable in Week Three.

Roster heroes abound for Brian Kelly's Irish through the season's opening three contests. Last Saturday's special teams stalwarts included unlikely candidates such as a fan-favorite freshman sprinter in his first start, a walk-on in his fifth season at the school, and a senior linebacker best known for the exploits of his older, NFL stalwart brother.

Further, the team's smallest wide receiver has offered the season's best block – one in which he sealed then smashed a trio of Wolverines defenders to spring his position-mate for a score.

And the Next Man In motto popularized by Kelly's Irish last fall? Already factored into the 2011 equation with a freshman pre-season third-string linebacker earning his first career start in mid-September.

"I think if there is one thing that I took away from the Michigan State game, other than the victory, is that we played so many players," Kelly said of the game's 52 participants that included seven freshmen and three walk-ons.

"(Chris) Salvi and (David) Posluszny: Poz hasn't played much football; he had two great tackles on kickoff," Kelly noted of the oft-injured senior who entered the contest with just four career stops but saved a potentially huge return with his second kick coverage stop vs. the Spartans.

As for Salvi – he of the pinball-effect block that felled two Spartans to pave a path for George Atkinson's kick return score – Kelly offered that the effort was not unexpected.

"Well, we had noticed him for the last couple years. I'll give you an example," he began. "We were running a kickoff coverage drill in camp, and he concussed himself on that. We weren't in a live situation, and here's as guy that's just champing at the bit to get out there.

"He's just going so hard he knocked himself out. He carries that with him. He loves to play; his energy is high."

Salvi was a regular on the kick coverage units last fall, recording his first career tackle, coincidentally, vs. Pittsburgh.

"Salvi is kind of the guy that everybody looks to when it comes to that walk-on that really exhibits that kind of determination that walk-ons would have," Kelly said of the 5th-year senior.

"He's a pretty special player in our program."

Special block: Leading 17-7 over Michigan with just over two minutes remaining in the third quarter, sophomore receiver T.J. Jones caught a two-yard crossing route from quarterback Tommy Rees. His ensuing sprint to the left side and around the edge for a 9-yard score was made possible first by a seal block from 5'9" junior slot receiver Robby Toma – then made easy by Toma's second blocking effort, one that knocked down two Wolverines in chase.

Quick after the catch and sure-handed, the unfortunate early surprise contained within Notre Dame's 76 completions and 876 passing yards is that Toma has secured zero of either category.

"Robby is a valuable player; it's just trying to get him on the field. We're trying to get Theo (Riddick) right and confident," Kelly offered of Toma's sparse playing time through three weeks.

"I think we're getting to that point where we really want to get him on the field because (Toma) can help us win. So I think the circumstances (with Riddick) have been such that it's held him back a little bit. He's a great team player and anxious to get on the field, and we're really going to try to get him some more playing time, because he can help us win."

Toma finished the 2010 season with 14 receptions for 167 yards – 12 and 161 of which were accumulated during a late-season four-game stretch.

As offensive coordinator Charley Molnar offered of Toma in August: "He's a playmaking dude…"

Toma showed his wares as a downfield blocker – it's time for the Irish offense to involve the natural possession receiver in their passing attack as well.

Back in the saddle; thrown to the fray

In his 2008 freshman season, linebacker Anthony McDonald's likely redshirt was forced upon him – a knee injury truncated his season, even affecting his efforts the following spring.

As a sophomore in '09, McDonald was a regular on the Irish kick coverage units – that is until a blind side concussive hit took the better part of two contests away at mid-season.

Last year, McDonald was considered a 50/50 challenger vs. Carlo Calabrese for the starting WILL linebacker spot opposite stalwart Manti Te'o – a hyper extended knee ended that competition in mid-August. And in the spring of 2011, with Te'o sitting out the session rehabbing from a knee injury, opportunity was lost again, this time to a torn pectoral muscle.

McDonald was the lone Irish player to make his 2011 debut in Saturday's victory, entering in the second quarter for Te'o at MIKE ‘backer.

"I think we've been trying to get McDonald some more work, and he's really good in pass coverage," Kelly offered. "As the game kind of unfolded (54 passes thrown by the visitors), he's a pretty savvy guy in coverage. So that worked well for us."

Also earning time at linebacker was McDonald's classmate Steve Filer – the latter had seen action in the team's nickel package at right defensive end, but Saturday marked his first work in the base defense.

"He made a nice tackle," said defensive coordinator Bob Diaco of Filer's three-yard tackle for loss on a wide receiver screen pass. "He continues to improve; he's a multi-trained position player. He's competitive and diligent and professional in his approach…which you expect, he's a senior and he's bright and he's tough."

On the opposite end of the experience spectrum is freshman Dog ‘backer Troy Niklas. The newcomer earned his first start Saturday due to the absence of sophomores Prince Shembo (family emergency) and Danny Spond (hamstring injury).

"Considering the circumstances I was pleased with how he played," Diaco offered of Niklas. "At the end of the game he probably had the most to clean up. If you're looking at (his performance) in relation to one of the 11 (starters), it was probably ‘11.'

"If you're looking at it in relation to the circumstances for him, it was fantastic."

Diaco noted Shembo returned to practice this week. He's expected to start Saturday in Pittsburgh.

"Yes, really good news," Kelly added of Shembo's emergency absence. "That family matter that we talked about has really turned out to be quite remarkable, so we're happy for Prince and his family."

On the corners...

Kelly offered clarification (so to speak) regarding third cornerback Lo Wood's leg injury.

"It's more of a chronic acute tendon in the quad that has fired up," he explained. "There's no structural damage. When he decelerates and engages the quad he's got a lot of soreness there. We think we can get him through that. We'll manage him this week. But our expectations are that he's going to continue to get better and he'll be available for us this weekend."

To that end, senior safety Jamoris Slaughter will continue to see more time in a coverage role with No. 4 cornerback Bennett Jackson receiving increased practice reps this week.

Jackson, of whom cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks noted has cross-trained since the off-season at both boundary and field CB, won't be the only youngster seeing more snaps leading up to the contest in Pittsburgh.

"Josh Atkinson will definitely get some work during practice, because (he needs) just pure reps, he's got to get in there with the two-deep and get some work."

Streak? It's not even a trend yet…

In what will likely be the first of several "jump-the-gun" questions in the coming weeks, Kelly was asked Tuesday if he was worried the team would look ahead after its first win of the season, or if he needed to remind the group that they began 0-2.

"I'll worry about that when they win six, seven, eight, nine in a row. We're certainly not at that point yet. We have not been infected with success yet," Kelly deadpanned.

"I'll know when that happens."

IrishEyes.com Recommended Stories