Irish Notes: Freshman Futures

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly was asked Thursday night if he’d made decisions regarding eligibility of his yet-to-appear freshmen and sophomores this fall.

ELIJAH, WE HARDLY KNEW YE

Three seasons as a key contributor at two positions, consistent run support, a relentless attitude, a memorable (called-back) sprint down the Irish sidelines against Michigan, and countless questions about his ability to direct the back line of a defense.

Throw in one mid-season hamstring injury, an end-season suspension, and an impressive assortment of trash talk between the lines and you have the Cliff’s Notes version of Elijah Shumate’s football resume since he earned the starting nickel role as a Notre Dame freshman in 2012.

It’s been a mixed bag of results for the Don Bosco Prep product to date, but count Irish head coach Brian Kelly among the many that wish Shumate had more time to add to his career dossier.

 “Sky-rocketing,” said Kelly of Shumate’s 2015 arc. “Wish I had him another couple years. Is really coming into his own. Really proud of him.”

Purportedly diligent in his efforts to improve throughout his first three seasons, Shumate is finally enjoying the fruits of his labor.

“Some guys it just takes longer to get to that point,” said Kelly. “He was still cooking. He just wasn’t done yet. He’s one of those guys that’s ascending for us. It’s really nice to see, such a nice kid, cares so much, he was working so hard at his craft and he was struggling and it was wearing on him.

“To see him start to breakthrough, it’s one of the gratifying things as a coach, that you get to see a player break through that wall. He’s just been banging at the wall and you can see that it’s coming down for him.”

Irish Illustrated tracks a “Drive MVP” following each offensive and defensive possession each week. Shumate ranks third among Irish players in that regard, trailing only Sheldon Day and Jaylon Smith.  Among his 23 tackles are eight for loss or within two yards of scrimmage.

BETWEEN YOU AND ME

As Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister mused on Monday’s podcast, “Sometimes we get too caught up in the backups.”

No doubt, but that’s what football message boards are for, and Kelly catered to that cacophonous collection Thursday night when asked if he and his staff were at a decision point in terms of redshirting yet-to-play roster members this fall.

“I think if we were sitting down, having a bite to eat, we would have that conversation off the record about players,” Kelly offered. “For me to publicly talk about a specific kid, I don’t want to take their competitive spirit away from week to week. But I could tell you I’ve formulated in my mind those guys that we want to protect.

“But you can never say ‘I’m not gonna play him regardless of the circumstances because if injuries show themselves we’ve gotta be ready.”

In 2014, freshman defensive end Jay Hayes was inserted for the first time for Game #11. Four seasons prior, Kona Schwenke debuted as a pass-rusher on third downs in Game #9. Daniel Smith made his on field debut in Game #7 of 2010 and #8 of 2011, respectively.

Hayes has not yet played this season, one of only four sophomores – Jimmy Byrne, Corey Holmes, and Justin Brent the others – not to appear through the first six contests. Holmes and Brent both played as true freshmen last fall. The latter moved from wide receiver to running back in August Camp.

“What we want to do is prepare them without having the conversation that, ‘Hey, look, you’re in the two-deep, we’re gonna take you to all the games, we’re gonna give you significant reps, but I don’t think we’re gonna play you,’” Kelly continued.  “I don’t have those kinds of conversations. I have them to myself. I’d have them to somebody off the record. But publically I wouldn’t have those types of conversations with the individual.”

Freshmen yet to appear include wide receivers Miles Boykin and Jalen Guyton, offensive linemen Tristen Hoge and Trevor Ruhland, defensive linemen Micah Dew-Treadway, Brandon Tiassum and Elijah Taylor, linebackers Josh Barajas and Asmar Bilal, cornerbacks Ashton White and injured teammate Shaun Crawford, and safety Mykelti Williams.

Kelly noted in late September that he had reached the point in the season where freshman wouldn’t appear solely on special teams if he didn’t believe the player could likewise help from scrimmage.

NEITHER SNOW, NOR RAIN, NOR GLOOM OF NIGHT…

Notre Dame ranks 13th nationally and fifth among Power 5 Conference teams, at 238 rushing yards per game. (Pause for random moments of rapture through Irish nation.)

Kelly’s crew likewise averages a whopping 5.93 yards per carry (only five Power 5 squads can claim superiority in that regard) and has scored 17 times via the rush through six games, a number just eight touchdowns short of his high-water mark for a season in South Bend.

Asked Thursday if his Irish offense was better prepared for the colder weather that awaits over the next seven weeks, Kelly threw a curveball: “The only thing (affected by conditions) is that the kicking game is affected with wind. Other than that, we can throw it in any conditions. Regardless of what the situation is, we’re prepared for anything.”

In other words, five yards and a cloud of dust isn’t necessarily Notre Dame’s new M.O.

USC’s rush defense has surrendered just 3.92 yards per carry this season. For the sake of comparison, Notre Dame yields 4.76.

Of note, each of Notre Dame’s five remaining foes has fared better than the Trojans in that regard.

NEWS AND NOTES

-- Kelly offered that redshirt freshman Quenton Nelson received “some first team reps” at left guard this week but his status for Saturday night will be a game-time decision. Classmate Alex Bars started in his stead against Navy last week after Nelson suffered a sprained ankle on Oct. 3 at Clemson. (Nelson returned and finished the contest against the Tigers.)

-- Kelly informed the media Thursday night that a pair of Hall of Famers – Notre Dame and NFL alike – will be on hand this week. “We’ll have Tim Brown and Jerome Bettis speak to our team tomorrow, which we’re pretty excited about.”

-- According to NBC Sport’s Keith Arnold, USC has played just 20 “Cold Weather” games in its history, last winning in 1939.

Asked for his ideal weather conditions Saturday night, Kelly attempted to curry favor with the Midwest Football gods.

“Look, we’ve had it the other way last year. It was 89 degrees in the shade when we played at Arizona State,” he said. “We’re just fine. If it dips to 38, that would be OK too.”

-- Asked about the progress of backup quarterback Brandon Wimbush since the freshman’s first, and only, taste of game action Sept. 26 vs. Massachusetts, Kelly dangled a carrot to those that favor the occasional change-of-pace behind center.

“I think we’ve had enough time with him in developing to the point where we could play him if we feel like there’s a spot in the game that can increase our opportunity for success on offense.

“Stay tuned.”


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