The first young player who is getting some crucial playing time is freshman defensive end Victor Abiamiri. He made his first start in place of Justin Tuck and played most of the game. His biggest play was when he deflected a Jeff Smoker pass that was intercepted by backup safety Quentin Burrell. He made an athletic and instinctive move to get his hands up and take away the passing lane.
A defensive lineman can influence a pass play in two ways. The first is by getting pressure on the quarterback and forcing him into a rushed play that can result in a sack or even a turnover. The other is to help take away passing lanes so that the quarterback has to make a difficult throw.
These kinds of plays can put the quarterback in an uncomfortable situation and keep him out of rhythm. Abiamiri showed that he will be able to do both for the Irish in the near future. The passing game wasn't the only place where Abiamiri made an impact. He also made a couple of tackles on running plays showing his potential to be an all around defensive end.
Another player who showed great promise is freshman quarterback Brady Quinn. While he may or may not be the short term answer for offensive problems the Irish are facing, he can very well be the future of the quarterback position.
During the fourth quarter, he showed composure and fearlessness while under pressure. He showed an ability to throw the ball in an area where the receiver can make a play after catching the ball. He also showed that he was capable of making the quick decisions needed to properly execute the West Coast offense.
Other traits that Quinn displayed were his strong arm and surprising mobility. Quinn seems to have the intangibles and talent needed to be a great leader and a solid quarterback during his collegiate career.
There were a few other young players who made some plays and showed some promise. The Irish got a couple of good catches out of freshman receiver Jeff Samardzija and sophomore tight end Anthony Fasano.
Freddie Parish also got into the action and received some valuable playing time. But the most prominent of the young players was sophomore wide out Rhema McKnight. While McKnight has been receiving playing time since last year and had the only receiving touchdown for the Irish entering the game, this game might have been his coming out party.
It was obvious that the Irish needed someone to step up and make plays to take some pressure off the quarterback position and the running game. It does not help a struggling quarterback when he receivers are dropping balls that should be catched.
While receivers, running backs and tight ends all joined in on the act, McKnight started to emerge. He made a couple of difficult catches and started to establish himself as a go-to receiver. This is not the first time McKnight has made some plays. He had two touchdown catches against Washington State, one of which was called off because of a penalty.
McKnight took a couple of short catches and turned them into long gains, the last one resulting in an Irish touchdown. He did this with a combination of speed and power, while also displaying the ability to run off of his blockers. McKnight finished the game with career highs of 8 catches and 108 yards receiving to go along with his fourth quarter touchdown. McKnight might be ready to step into the role vacated by Arnaz Battle.
Head coach Tyrone Willingham will have the difficult job of trying to win this year while also trying to prepare the young players for the future. But as the year goes along expect to see these young players emerge and create a greater role for themselves.
These aren't the only talented young players on the squad. There will be others that could emerge through the year such as freshman center John Sullivan, sophomore wide out Maurice Stovall and sophomore defensive lineman Derek Landri. No one is sure how these players will perform throughout the year, but the fact is that Tyrone Willingham has planted the seeds of the future of his football program.