To Sit or Not to Sit: Special Situations

Part 2 of our series on freshmen redshirts during Brian Kelly's five years in South Bend focuses on a quartet of positions that often debut in special situations: the kicking game and otherwise.

The initial installment of this week's "To Sit or Not to Sit" series examined the best players to develop under Kelly at Notre Dame, detailing who among them redshirted (standouts included Zack Martin, Tyler Eifert, Harrison Smith, and Louis Nix) and the myriad that did not.

In the sections below we'll examine related but disparate positions -- quarterback, kickers, linebackers and tight ends. While their on field job duties are polar opposites, the need for freshmen year services from each is often related.

PRESSED INTO DUTY? QUARTERBACK & SPECIALISTS
Need is the operative word, and Kelly has largely avoided it at quarterback, with only Tommy Rees appearing as a true freshman in 2010 among six Kelly-era quarterbacks (seven if 2008 signee Dayne Crist is included; Crist redshirted as a freshman under Charlie Weis).

Rees' acumen for the game afforded him a chance at rookie season success, but the opportunity presented only because Crist was lost to a season-ending knee injury (torn patellar tendon) in the ninth game of Kelly's initial season, a 30-28 loss to Tulsa.

Rees nearly helped the Irish rally to beat Tulsa (kick the field goal) and finished 4-0 as a starter thereafter, though Kelly greatly changed his offense to fit Rees' skill set, and perhaps more important, Notre Dame's defense hit its stride, dominating their final four foes.

None of Kelly's remaining five quarterbacks -- Andrew Hendrix, Everett Golson, Gunner Kiel, Malik Zaire, or DeShone Kizer -- came close to playing time as rookies, though Zaire might have if not for illness (mononucleosis).

Kelly's succession of redshirted true freshmen triggermen should continue this season with 2015 pledge Brandon Wimbush -- it's essential that Kelly create an extra season of eligibility separation between Wimbush and his 2014 redshirt, Kizer.

With the exception of the offensive line, a redshirt campaign for a top-level quarterback is generally far easier to broach in conversation for a head coach than any other position Though most top tier collegiate and NFL quarterbacks do not sit for their entire freshmen seasons, the modern-era example to which all coaches to point is 2012 No. 1 NFL Draft pick Andrew Luck, who patiently sat behind a pair of lesser signal-callers at Stanford as the 2008 Cardinal plodded toward a 5-7 finish.

Program History as and Indicator? Notre Dame has had 13 quarterbacks start more than 10 games for the program since the 1980 season: Blair Kiel, Steve Beuerlein, Tony Rice, Rick Mirer, Kevin McDougal, Ron Powlus, Jarious Jackson, Matt Lovecchio, Carlyle Holiday, Brady Quinn, Jimmy Clausen, Tommy Rees, and Everett Golson.

Among them, only McDougal, Holiday, and Golson redshirted as true freshmen due to a *coach's decision, with Zaire a likely future addition to the list.

(*Tony Rice sat out his freshman season due to Proposition 48, while Ron Powlus broke his clavicle shortly after winning the starting job prior to the 1993 season.)

There's a natural, business-first argument to be made for sitting a true freshman quarterback -- it, at least briefly, delays transfer discussions. A potential future starter is more likely to stay if he can see the light at the end of the backup tunnel.

But in general, the best of the best don't stay for a fifth season anyway. Of the 29 quarterbacks to start a game for Notre Dame since 1980, only two, Ron Powlus and Tim Koegel, did so as fifth-year seniors -- and both because of a prior season lost to injury.

If in 2015 Golson joins the pair, he would be the first due (in part) to coach's decision.

The verdict on redshirting freshmen quarterbacks? If they're legitimately second string, put them in. Competition is crucial at every position and game experience is a valuable teaching tool. Conversely, third-stringers should likely sit for the betterment of the team and individual development.

A final note, however: Had Jarious Jackson redshirted as a true freshman in 1996, Notre Dame might have finished undefeated with Jackson at the helm, rather than 9-2, in the 2000 regular season.

SIT THEM IF YOU CAN
Prior to incoming kicker Justin Yoon's pledge on Feb. 4, two from Kelly's trio of of signed specialists over his first five cycles sat out as true freshmen: long-snapper Scott Daly, in favor of fellow scholarship senior Jordan Cowart, and 2014 K/P Tyler Newsome, who sat behind senior specialist Kyle Brindza.

Brindza won the kickoff job as a 2011 freshman over David Ruffer but -- from the files of hindsight is 20/20 -- Brindza averaged 65.3 yards per kickoff with a a 3/1 touchback/ to out-of-bounds ratio (12 touchbacks/4 out of bounds) in 2011. One season prior, Ruffer averaged 64.3 yards per kickoff with a 5/1 (10/2) ratio. Not much was gained, if anything, in Brindza's debut season over the fifth-year senior.

In retrospect, the potential 2015 fifth-year that Brindza "forfeited" by winning the kickoff specialist role would have been beneficial to his professional future, as the formerly clutch kicker struggled in 2014, his final season in South Bend.

The verdict on redshirting freshmen specialists: Unless they're clearly better than their veteran competitors, redshirt them across the board. Unlike quarterback and skill position options, college coaches have the upper regarding specialists, as kickers/punters will rarely forgo a fifth-season of eligibility at Notre Dame for a shot at the NFL Draft down the line.

ALL ABOUT THAT BASE: TIGHT END & LINEBACKER
Or in this case, it's all about the frame.

The following tight ends and linebackers pledged to Notre Dame over Kelly's five full recruiting cycles, plus the initial 2010 class he took over following the ousting of Weis:

Tight Ends: Aliz'e Jones, Tyler Luatua, Nic Weishar, Durham Smythe, Mike Heuerman, Ben Koyack, and Alex Welch.

Luatua and Koyack both played as true freshmen (Jones will likely join them) while the others did not. Weishar, Smythe, and Heuerman sat because he they were in need of weight/strength, and because Notre Dame was well-stocked at the position. Welch sat mainly because Kyle Rudolph, Mike Ragone, and Tyler Eifert were active and ahead of him on the depth chart.

Luatua was a weekly contributor in 2014, albeit in spot duty, while in retrospect, Koyack's inclusion as the No. 3 tight end for the 2011 Irish seems superfluous. (In fact, it seemed that way at the time as well.)

The verdict on redshirting freshmen tight ends: Would Ben Koyack help the 2015 Irish (and likely start?) Yes. Would he be interested in extending his college career past graduation? We'll never know. Playing Koyack as the third tight end as a true frosh in 2011 (one reception, two targets on the season) probably lacked foresight, but it was hardly an egregious roster error.

Over the last 30 seasons, a handful of quality tight ends and future pros have returned for a fifth season in South Bend (John Carlson, Dan O'Leary, and Pete Chryplewicz top the recent list), but it's a position in which a legitimate Notre Dame tight end is usually ready to contribute heavily, if not start, entering his junior season. Two more years are rarely needed thereafter as the recruiting pipeline appears never-ending.

As long a special teams role exists -- that is, as long as the freshman tight end in question possess a game-ready frame -- and if there's a chance of contribution from scrimmage at some point in their rookie seasons, let them play.

KELLY-ERA LINEBACKERS
Nyles Morgan, Nile Sykes, Kolin Hill, Greer Martini, Doug Randolph, Michael Deeb, Jaylon Smith, Romeo Okwara, Troy Niklas, Ishaq Williams, Ben Councell, Jarrett Grace, Anthony Rabasa, Kendall Moore, Prince Shembo, Derrick Roback, and Danny Spond. (Arguably, Jhonathan Williams, a likely defensive end, could fit here as well, but he'll be discussed in a future column.)

Roback and Sikes transferred before the opening game of their respective freshmen seasons while Morgan, Hill, Martini, Smith, Okwara, Niklas, Williams, Shembo, and Spond all earned field time as rookies. Smith and Shembo carved out crucial roles from scrimmage while Niklas and Williams served as backups (Niklas was also a special teams standout with 16 tackles as a true freshman in kick coverage -- five more than any Irish player recorded in 2014. He moved to tight end between his freshman and sophomores seasons.)

Spond was needed on special teams from the outset, but an illness truncated his 2010 rookie campaign. Four years later, Martini and Morgan played every week, mostly on special teams, then later as starters due to veteran injuries. Hill won a pass-rushing role in the September 2014 dime defense, though he struggled as the season progressed after a hot start.

In retrospect, it's clear Williams (2011) and Okwara (2012) would have benefitted from a redshirt season, especially the then 17-year-old freshman Okwara. (He won't be 20 until July 2015.) Okwara was plugged in early because there was a chance Spond's career was over following his initial bout with migraines during the 2012 training camp.

Williams? Likely played because sitting a five-star prospect can have an ancillary effect off the field -- Williams was adjusting to life at Notre Dame, and making him an active part of the team was likely a wise decision by Kelly.

Among the remaining six (Randolph, Deeb, Councell, Grace, Rabasa, and Moore), it can be argued that only Moore (pre-suspension) and Grace greatly benefitted from sitting as true freshmen -- a fifth college football season in South Bend is hardly guaranteed to the others.

Then again, they weren't ready, either.

The verdict on redshirting freshmen linebackers: Similar to tight ends, the great equalizer is strength, or more accurate, strength plus ballast. (Young linebackers aren't getting much faster in 4-5 years, but they can get much stronger.)

As current team MVP Joe Schmidt illustrated, football acumen and instincts are essential at the position, though those sharpen as careers progress as well, especially when the oft-referenced speed of the game because less overwhelming.

Redshirting a freshmen linebacker that a staff envisions as a future standout is a risk -- he's unlikely to need a fifth year as much as the coaches need him.

In short, if he can run at an elite level, get him out there in some capacity. If not, a fifth season will likely be agreed upon, not to mention a necessity, down the line.

Note: PART 3 will examine players in the trenches on both sides of the line of scrimmage.


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