The late Al McGuire once mused, “The best thing about a freshman is he becomes a sophomore.”
Conversely, ardent followers of the recruiting realm often prefer not to wait. “We already know what the sophomores and especially juniors and seniors do wrong, let’s see if the 4-star freshman can do it better – and for the next three seasons before he gets drafted!”
Modern college football coaches land somewhere in between those disparate worlds, but in 2016, Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly seems a whole lot closer to the latter.
“There's going to be some ups and downs, and there will be some growing pains when you play 18 (combined redshirt and true freshmen)…in particular you play 11 true freshmen, there will be some of that.
“Going into now our sixth week, you're starting to get away from the ‘freshman’ tag. These guys have been around long enough now that they know what to do. They're just lacking some experience, but they've got to go out and play. If we're playing them, we trust them. We believe in 'em, and they're our guys for right now and moving forward into the future.”
TWO HANDFULS OF FROSH
The bulk of Kelly’s rookies reside on the defensive side of scrimmage where 10 have seen action (including nine from scrimmage) and three – cornerbacks Julian Love, Donte Vaughn, and Troy Pride – emerged last week in Syracuse as part-time starters/rotation regulars, joining safety Devin Studstill who notched his first start in Week Two.
“At first we were nervous, but when we step on the field we feel natural and we’re building off each other,” said Love of the trial-by-fire group.
Kelly moved Love in a reserve Nickel role following August Camp. That became the starting Nickel job by Game Two against Michigan State.
“I think for most young players, it's the learning process and retention,” said Kelly of the quick-study freshman from the Chicagoland area (Westchester, Ill.) “I think early on it was pretty clear that he was able to pick things up pretty easily and then go back out and retain it later. We knew his athletic ability was not going to be an issue for us.”
Injury (Shaun Crawford), inconsistencies (Nick Coleman), and, yes, the reality of three defeats and poor team defense played therein has Love on the perimeter, battling Pride, Vaughn, and senior Cole Luke – the latter of which has taken to the aforementioned Nickel role.
“He's just a smart kid,” said Kelly of Luke, the starting right corner and starting Nickel when the package is utilized in passing situations. “He's always had to be smart. He's not a blazer, and he brought a lot of experience and intellect. It was enjoyable for me to talk to him on the sideline and get really good feedback in terms of what was going on and be able to make the adjustments with him.”
Luke’s presence inside in the Nickel package pits Notre Dame’s freshmen trio against one another for playing time on the perimeter.
The lion’s share of those snaps went to Donte Vaughn last week. Vaughn broke into the lineup one week prior against Duke, picking off a pass in the end zone to quash a Blue Devils drive.
“Obviously he's a unique player in that he has the size and the flexibility to play that position,” said Kelly of the 6’2” Vaughn. “He's not afraid. He's not afraid to play. And I think that there were times that we were probably a little bit too far over the top in coverage in his instances, but he's going to be a really good tackler, and he's got really good ball skills. So for a guy that's long, fluid, athletic, he's not afraid, and he's going to play the ball well in the air and tackle.”
Making his collegiate debut last week was Pride – not coincidentally the first outing after Kelly made a change at defensive coordinator.
“I really was impressed with him. I wanted to play him,” said Kelly of Pride’s work in practice defending Irish receivers. “And I thought we should have played him, so I'm making those personnel decisions. One-on-one, we go one-on-one every day on scout team, and I was like, ‘That guy is as good as the guys we go against week-in and week-out.’
“His makeup speed is extraordinary,” Kelly continued. “He's smart. He wants to play. Those guys are going to play for me.”
The expectation and desire to play as soon as possible appears to be a common theme throughout the defensive backfield, one that currently consists of three freshmen and a senior at cornerback, two freshmen, a sophomore, and a junior at safety to fill out the two-deep.
“I think more than anything else, each one of them has different traits, but they all came here wanting to play,” said Kelly. “That’s a matter of confidence and belief. They all believe they can play. They're all confident in their ability.
“To me, that's half the battle, and then it's getting them ready relative to the speed of the game, the techniques necessary, and then just understanding game plan from week-to-week.”
Just wait until they’re sophomores.