Youthful Exuberance

Younger-than-usual Irish defense enjoying an early-season high.

Two contests, 17 total points, and one touchdown allowed in competitive game action.

Those are the relevant statistics regarding the 2014 Notre Dame defense. A closer look shows the following two encouraging (or pending your viewpoint, sobering) realities:

  • Through two games, the Irish defense has already recorded almost one-third as many sacks (5) as did the 2013 defense over the entire regular season (17).
  • The youth-filled Notre Dame secondary has picked off nearly half as many passes (4) as did the 2013 group (9) over 12 games.

A logical question was thus posed to Kelly that compared the energy of the 2014 Irish to their more highly rated predecessors. While the head coach declined comment on the latter, he offered a glimpse into his mindset regarding the present crew.

"It's the mix of personalities that you have on the team. We don't have a lot of seniors. We have a lot of juniors. A lot of juniors want to play, they want to win. They're not thinking about graduation. They're not thinking about anything else but winning games.

"We have a lot of sophomores who just want to play. We got a lot of freshmen that just don't know any better. That's usually a good mix."

The infusion of freshmen talent is most evident on the defensive side of scrimmage where dime package defenders Drue Tranquill and Kolin Hill have forged roles, as have backup defensive linemen Daniel Cage, Andrew Trumbetti, and Grant Blankenship.

Sophomores populate both sides of scrimmage: 17 regular participants over the first two contests are in their second seasons. Five more first or second-year players have played on the Irish special teams to date.

That much-needed infusion of youth is balanced by hungry, not-yet proven veterans, a collection that includes Sheldon Day -- a potential star well-known among Irish fans though not a national household name.

"We're trying to grow confidence every week. Now you see those young guys out there having fun. We're growing the depth of the D-Line," said Day. "They (rookies) know their jobs; we (veterans) know our jobs. We count on them and they count on us. We play together as one."

It was Day who gathered the Irish defensive line in July in the wake of a litany of off-season opinion columns that posited the team's defensive front would be its weak link. The unit's massive shoulders formed a collective chip.

To date, the front seven has accounted for 10.5 of the defense's 12 tackles for loss. (Nickel Matthias Farley accounts for the remaining 1.5.) No opposing running back has gained more than 15 yards on a carry.

The team's most critiqued unit has rallied around that status.

"We're feeding off each other," said Day. "You make a play, (a teammate) celebrates with you. Feeding off our brothers."

Losing it, for once

Senior middle linebacker Joe Schmidt has quickly earned the reputation as a coach-on-the-field -- an extension of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and his chief conduit from headset to huddle. Belying his status as one of the team's top 10 playmakers over the first two weeks is his role as a calming influence -- the sage voice that directs traffic and keeps youthful exuberance in line.

Enter the Elijah Shumate interception touchdown.

"I was running down the sidelines screaming my head off," said Schmidt of Shumate's later called-back Pick Six to conclude a 31-0 win over Michigan. "I just completely discombobulated in the end zone, punching the air. I wasn't sure, did he think we were losing?" Schmidt joked of Shumate's speed. "He was moving so fast. I met him in the end zone, he got mauled, and I took off my helmet and took it all in.

A true junior, Shumate was starting his fifth career game against the Wolverines. It was his easily his best to date. It was the first and second games played, respectively, for fellow defenders/athletes Kolin Hill and Drue Tranquill. The latter has played a key role in both Irish victories this season as a mainstay in the Irish dime package.

Hill made his debut in prime time Saturday amid rave reviews -- well, relatively speaking.

"He's explosive; first-step explosiveness," said head coach Brian Kelly of the freshmen rush end. "He can come off the edge. He gets there quickly. He forces you to pull up in the pocket; can bend around the edge, a really, really good athlete."

Kelly tempered that scouting report with a dose of rookie reality.

"One missed fit, I don't know if you're watching, but (Michigan) went hurry-up and he got caught on the field with our regular calls, and it was like his hair was on fire he wanted to get off the field so fast. It's that kind of, 'This is too much.  I know, third down, I know what to do in this third-down package, but I don't know all the base calls.'

"When they know what they know, that's when we're ready to play them.  And Kolin knows what he knows relative to our third-down package.  When those freshmen get that knowledge base down, then we're ready to play them."

Hill finished with 1.5 sacks, sharing his second with Tranquill. In total Saturday night, Irish sophomore and freshmen defenders combined for 36 tackles including 3.5 for loss with a fumble recovery, an interception, three QB hurries, and the aforementioned two sacks.

Among the 18 regulars that played defense for the Irish Saturday night, only two will exhaust their eligibility at seasons' end.

"There's not individuals on this team," said sophomore standout Jaylon Smith, the reigning LOTT IMPACT Player of the Week. "We're young, but we can do it. There were a lot of errors that we can still clean up and get better at. And that's what we hope to do. It's not just the coaches that want it. Ultimately it comes down to us."

A new NCAA practice rule gave Smith's defense a head start, and they've benefited greatly from it.

"One of the things that we took full advantage of is the ability to install the entire package, our entire defense in the spring, then took full advantage of what we considered our OTAs (eight June practice hours) installing the defense again a second time, and then a third time in preseason camp. We think that has benefited us greatly," said Kelly.

"I think we have some kids that have really done a great job of picking up these schemes and have been extremely conscientious. I think both of those things combined. There's still a lot of room for improvement. We made some mistakes out there that we didn't get exposed."

Schmidt and Day referenced the same reality. Smith did as well. So too did Cody Riggs and Max Redfield, the quintet of defenders that spoke following the team's invigorating Week Two win. A 5th-year senior transfer, a senior, a junior, and two sophomores.

On the night Notre Dame muckled Michigan, the late Bo Schembechler's epic speech to his 1983 Wolverines seemed to resonate with the victors -- the young, 2014 Irish.

"We're all eager to learn and improve our football IQ's," said Smith. "And just doing stuff outside of football together, whether it's team bonding, or studying together. It all boils down to the whole fact of being a team."

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