If Brian Kelly means it, Notre Dame will play more guys on defense this weekend.
Part of that change is practical. The Irish can’t afford a short bench against Syracuse, which ranks fourth nationally in plays run, averaging 86.3 snaps per game. If the Orange hits that mark and Greg Hudson doesn’t rotate more than Brian VanGorder did, Notre Dame will be dragged over the finish line at MetLife Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Kelly talked about fatigue getting to Devin Studstill and Te’von Coney against Duke, partially blaming it for the missed tackles that gashed Notre Dame’s defense for big gains. Notably, Studstill flailed at Anthony Nash on the sideline as the receiver went 64 yards for the game-tying score.
“He’s a true freshman. Fatigue was part of that,” Kelly said. “We’ve got to do a better job there. I’m not laying it all on fatigue but we have to be smarter. We’ve got other players that can be in the game at that time.”
Kelly has promised this before, including earlier this year when he talked up Jay Hayes playing a big September role after an August ankle sprain. The junior defensive lineman took a DNP against Duke.
It begs the question why Kelly didn’t demand this earlier under VanGorder, showing a similar reluctance three years ago with safety Max Redfield. The national recruit couldn’t get on the field that fall in a defense struggling at safety. Then he started the Pinstripe Bowl after Bob Diaco’s departure for Connecticut.
Asked why he’s been hesitant to affect defensive personnel reps, Kelly defended VanGorder about as much as he defended Diaco three years ago. Basically, the head coach made the point that Notre Dame’s defense needed to fit a better breadth of the roster than it has.
“I think some of it is at times they're not prepared,” Kelly said. “They're not ready for this kind of scheme, and now that I have put in what I believe to be something that they can handle, it changes the view from this perspective.”
“Now there’s no excuse why they can’t be on the field.”
Defensively, there’s no question the Irish will rotate at least three safeties against Syracuse and probably four in Studstill, Drue Tranquill, Avery Sebastian and Jalen Elliott. All four played last week in base defense, but that hasn’t been the case much of the season.
Against Michigan State, Tranquill logged 79 real defensive snaps, which tied Cole Luke, Isaac Rochell and Nyles Morgan for the team lead. Studstill was on pace to match them but got benched following Gerald Holmes’ 73-yard run, with Sebastian taking over.
The defensive line rotation may be equally critical, another area where Notre Dame has struggled to find even ground. Against Texas and Michigan State, Rochell logged more real snaps than actual snaps, which includes snaps not recorded as official plays.
Yes, it’s hard to imagine Notre Dame’s best defensive lineman rotating this weekend. But this seems like the moment Andrew Trumbetti and Jerry Tillery begin to rotate with reserves. Jarron Jones and Daniel Cage already do at nose guard, with Cage having a strong junior year.
For Trumbetti, that means giving ground to Jay Hayes and Daelin Hayes. To date, Trumbetti had logged roughly triple the snaps of those two combined. Tillery could rotate more with Jonathan Bonner on the interior, where the sophomore has almost tripled up the junior in snaps.
“You can’t take somebody that’s had no reps and give them 70 on Saturday. That’s impossible,” Kelly said. “But what we can start to do is put a depth chart together that gives a young man a look at saying, ‘I got a shot, here. I’m part of the solution.’”
“I want guys to feel like they're part of the solution here. There is going to be a lot of those guys that are going to feel like that they now can be part of the solution both in a defensive standpoint and in some instances on the offensive side of the ball.”
If that’s true, Notre Dame will show it Saturday. The Irish can’t afford not to.