Not Done Yet
Eight Irish freshmen have debuted through the seasons first four games; seven have played a major role. Leading the charge is defensive end Aaron Lynch, who’s considered a nickel package starter on the defensive line and also the No. 1 backup defensive end, usually spelling senior Ethan Johnson.
Yet to appear from scrimmage but making a special teams splash is George Atkinson, he of the 89-yard kick return score that provided a key early cushion in the season’s first victory, a 31-13 win over visiting Michigan State. Also earning his first playing time on special teams was linebacker Ishaq Williams – the technical first freshman to hit the field as Williams opened the season on the kick return unit for the first kick-off. Williams has also played sparingly from scrimmage as a Cat linebacker (behind senior Darius Fleming) and made his presence felt in the nickel package, drawing a holding call vs. Michigan State with a speed-rush in the fourth quarter.
Defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt has seen his playing time increase as an interior pass rusher in the nickel defense – he played extensively in that role Saturday vs. Pittsburgh. And Notre Dame’s pair of wins over the last two weeks included the first start of outside linebacker Troy Niklas’ career; Niklas has appeared often on the kick return team and spelled Drop linebacker starter Prince Shembo as well. Also in a rotation role is tight end Ben Koyack. Now the No. 2 tight end (or at least 2A in competition with sophomore Alex Welch), Koyack caught the first pass of his collegiate career Saturday in his home state.
Finally, freshman kicker Kyle Brindza has served as the team’s kick-off specialist, booming four touchbacks over the last nine quarters. Classmate Cam McDaniel also appeared on the return unit in the season’s first game, though his absence since would allow for a potential 5th-year should he not see field time again.
But McDaniel might earn more time, so too could other freshmen, as indicated by head coach Brian Kelly Sunday. “They are going to be used, it's just a matter of time,” Kelly said. “We are getting closer on a couple other guys that we think can give us some quality reps.”
The safest assumption for one of those guys is wide receiver DaVaris Daniels. Notre Dame has played just six wideouts to date; the fifth, John Goodman, has played an estimated five (scrimmage snaps), while the fourth, Robby Toma, has seen his playing time increase each week including his first catch of the season vs. Pittsburgh, a 16-yarder to begin the go-ahead, 85-yard scoring drive.
Daniels could give the Irish a faster player to rotate outside and stress the back line of the defense – Notre Dame’s longest pass play of the season has covered a mere 36 yards.
Barring injury, it would be prudent for each of the freshmen offensive linemen to be withheld from action; likewise for defensive line prospects Tony Springmann and Chase Hounshell. The only other rookie that appears to be knocking on the door is cornerback Josh Atkinson – part of the team’s 70-man travel roster for both road contests.
Expect a decision on each during Notre Dame’s forthcoming bye week (following Game Six vs. Air Force); injuries over the team’s final six games will also play a role, but the safe bet is that two of the McDaniel, Daniels, J-Atkinson trio will earn time with the rest of the group withheld to preserve a 5th-season of eligibility for 2015.
Set Under Center
While one sect of Irish fans continues to grow restless over turnover-prone quarterback Tommy Rees, the remainder is more concerned with another singular statistic the sophomore has produced throughout his brief career.
“I mean, right now, Tommy is 6-1 as a starter,” Kelly said when asked if it was ‘important’ to get another quarterback ready. “You know, he's led two very huge drives for us late in the game against Michigan and of course against Pittsburgh. He's obviously not a finished product; nobody is. He'll continue to get better and better and we'll continue to help him in terms of play calling and getting him in the right kind of situation so he can be successful.
“But no, we're not in a situation right now where we need to think about what other quarterbacks are going to get in the game,” Kelly concluded. “Tommy is the starter.”
Reminded that development of the team’s depth could be part of the equation, Kelly noted, “(If) we get up by three or four scores, (we’ll) think about getting somebody in there. But I don't think that we are in a situation where we need to worry about the depth at that position, because we have Dayne (Crist) who can go in there and do very well for us.”
(And now readers know why freshman quarterback Everett Golson wasn’t included in the previous section’s breakdown.)
Rees regained his form Saturday with a string of completions – nine in a row – to conclude the contest, but Kelly offered that one of the sophomore’s necessary areas of improvement remains mental: finding the right matchup on the perimeter, thus allowing one of the team’s five outside weapons to win an athletic mismatch in space.
“I think one of the things that we'll want to continue to get better at is some of the one-on-one matchups that we have got to be able to take advantage of. And that means driving the ball into tight coverage once in awhile, as long as it's the right read.”
Saturday’s pass distribution was the season’s most balanced to date, with seven targets catching passes including Game MVP Tyler Eifert’s career-best eight reception/75-yard afternoon, with Rees finding tight end Tyler Eifert. Each member of the team’s starting trio of wideouts caught at least three passes including six from Theo Riddick – his second six-reception outing in two road games this season.
Regarding his quarterback's greatest strengths, Kelly offered, "(He's) very competitive. Somebody that can settle down into the flow of the game; that is not impacted by the moment. (It) doesn't matter how much time is left on the clock, they don't rush or get rattled. He's just got the right demeanor to be able to go out there in late games on the road and put it together when we need to.
"It's his personality. It's his makeup."
Definitively: 1 and 2
Saturday offered three first for the Irish running attack:
- The first touchdown of senior Jonas Gray’s Irish career was also the first touchdown run in excess of 50 yards since the 2003 season (Julius Jones). Gray’s 79-yard burst down the right sideline was the program’s best since Terrence Howard ran for 80 and a score in a 2000 victory at West Virginia.
- The game marked the first in excess of 65 yards in Gray’s career, though staked to a 79-yard head start, it appeared the senior from Detroit was on his way to much greater numbers than 3 carries/84 yards on the final stat sheet. Among Gray’s three carries was a key third-down conversion of three yards through a scrimmage tackle attempt.
Why didn’t Gray see more field time following the best run of his Irish career?
“One is the starter (Cierre Wood), one is the backup (Gray) and the starter is going to be in there, and if he needs a blow and we feel like there's an opportunity to get the No. 2 back in there, we will,” Kelly stated. “We have great confidence in Jonas to go in there, but Cierre is going to get the lion's share of the work.”
Kelly added the scheme suggests both can run out of any formation, and that Gray is not necessarily the “power option” with Wood the “spread runner.”
“Both of them are capable of doing the things that we need the ‘backs to do. We can't call plays that are just designed for getting Cierre on the perimeter or Jonas up inside,” Kelly offered. “We have to be able to run our offense and not (care) which ‘back is in the game.
“Now if it's a freshman or somebody else, we'll be more careful with the calls but those guys have got to be in there no matter what we call.”
Gray has rushed for 235 yards on 24 carries since his season-opening carry was fumbled and returned for a field field score by South Florida.