There’s a difference between being inexperienced and being young.
This year Notre Dame is both, historically so in the former and maybe in the latter too.
With just seven returning starters – DeShone Kizer, Quenton Nelson, Mike McGlinchey, Isaac Rochell, James Onwualu, Cole Luke and Daniel Cage – it’s the least experienced Notre Dame team since 1972, the year freshman gained immediate eligibility.
That Notre Dame team went 8-3, played just two ranked teams (USC, Nebraska) and got blown out by both by a combined 85-29 score. The three losses were the most of any Ara Parseghian team in South Bend. A year later the Irish won a national title, led in part by a freshman class that included defensive end Ross Browner and cornerback Luther Bradley.
The Irish don’t have that level of incoming talent committed for next year, but they can hope to build on this year’s freshman class, which may challenge the record of most starts under Kelly in their first years.
The current senior class holds the Kelly-era record with 30 starts as a freshman class, although it’s also a warning of how much can change in four years.
Of the seven freshmen who started four years ago, five (Jaylon Smith, Steve Elmer, Max Redfield, Corey Robinson and Will Fuller) are no longer on the roster. A sixth, James Onwualu, changed positions from receiver to linebacker. The seventh, Tarean Folston, could finish with as many starts as a senior as he had as a freshman with two.
Setting aside the argument Kelly should not have to rely on so many freshmen in his seventh season here, the current freshman class has already logged 12 starts, spread among Julian Love (three), Devin Studstill (five), Donte Vaughn (two), Kevin Stepherson (one) and Troy Pride (one). Assuming Love and Studstill remain in the starting lineup for the rest of the regular season, that gets the Irish to 22 starts by the freshman class.
Rounding out the list of freshman starts by season are 2012 (17), 2015 (11), 2010 (10) 2014 (10) and 2011 (9).
Only Jaylon Smith and KeiVarae Russell started every game as freshmen, with 13 starts each. Even without a bowl game, Studstill and Love are on pace to become third and fourth among all Kelly era players in freshman starts. Studstill should finish with 10 in the regular season and Love should get eight. That would best TJ Jones (7) and Aaron Lynch (6) in that department.
It won’t be a surprise if a couple more freshmen make their first career starts during the season’s second half considering the potential in defensive end Daelin Hayes and receiver Chase Claypool.
Both have seen their roles expanded starting in mid-September against Michigan State when Hayes broke up a pass that Studstill intercepted while Claypool made a 33-yard grab and nearly caught a half-ending Hail Mary. Hayes forced his first fumble at N.C. State. Claypool played major reps on Notre Dame’s failed game-tying drive against Stanford.
If both got at least one start, this freshman class would match 2013 for the most freshmen to log starts under Kelly.
Should Notre Dame be in this position when the Kelly era should be maturing? Absolutely not. But at least the program can point to young talent getting experience as a way to show this season can lead to something better down the road.