Brian Kelly won’t know until Sunday night, probably about an hour before kickoff. That’s when Notre Dame’s head coach will start to see about his freshmen after spending the past month just hoping about them.
Based on how Kelly filled out his first depth chart of the season, the hunch is making a meaningful college debut at Darrell K Royal Stadium is something Notre Dame’s staff would like their freshmen to avoid if possible.
Devin Studstill won’t start at safety, giving way to sixth-year senior Avery Sebastian, who missed last season with a broken foot. Despite it requiring Sebastian switch safety positions to pair with Drue Tranquill, Kelly opted to go with a modicum of experience over none at all.
At defensive end, Kelly was quick to tamp down expectations on Daelin Hayes, who’s Notre Dame’s best hope for a natural pass rusher. The Irish just want Hayes, who’s barely played 10 competitive games in the previous three seasons, to head to the correct sideline.
“So settle into the game, get lined up right. Don't jump offsides. You know?” Kelly said. “Put your jersey on the right way.
“We're not asking him to change the complexion of the game, but just to get into the flow of the game. And I think if he does a good job of settling down and getting into the flow of the game, I think he’ll have some success.”
What complicates this scenario for Kelly is a lack of experience in it. This will be his first true road opener at Notre Dame and just his second in the past 10 years. Kelly opened his final season at Cincinnati with a 47-15 win at Rutgers. Notre Dame’s last true road opener was a grinding win at Georgia Tech 10 years ago, a game so dated it’s hard to remember it made Charlie Weis enamored with Jon Tenuta.
That means for all Kelly’s experience – he’s the winningest active coach in FBS football – he doesn’t have a lot in this department.
Beyond Studstill and Hayes, Notre Dame will likely debut receiver Kevin Stepherson in meaningful snaps. Cornerback Julian Love, safety Jalen Elliott, linebacker Jamir Jones and offensive tackle Tommy Kraemer are also listed in the two-deep among freshmen. Defensive end Julian Okwara could factor in pass rushing situations as well.
Beyond that group, cornerback Shaun Crawford, receiver Miles Boykin, defensive tackle Elijah Taylor, guard Tristen Hoge and linebacker Asmar Bilal are all expected to make their debuts after red-shirt freshman seasons.
And a sellout crowd of more than 100,000 gets to watch it all in primetime.
“You’re definitely taking all of that into account as how they prepare this week, what you’re pushing them through,” Kelly said. “Then when they get out there in pregame … I always get a sense of how kids respond to the moment. And we’ll adjust accordingly. If we feel like somebody’s having a problem at the moment, we’ll adjust accordingly.”
While Kelly wouldn’t spill names, he said that pre-game read has changed lineups in past seasons.
“More than you would know,” he said. “You’d (ask me afterward), ‘Why didn’t he start the game?’ and I’d come up with some baloney answer for you later. But it was generally because I was looking in the back of his head during pregame and couldn’t see his eyes.”