Youth Not Wasted

Critics have wondered aloud where all of the talent from Charlie Weis' highly-touted recruiting classes has been and on Saturday the critics got their answer.

There were plenty of key statistics in Notre Dame's 38-21 win over Purdue on Saturday.

The Irish finally got their ground game going by rushing for 201 yards on 40 carries. After missing a field goal in the second quarter, Notre Dame scored touchdowns on their final three red zone trips. Notre Dame did not commit a turnover and returned an interception for a touchdown to get on the scoreboard.

In the second half, the Irish defense stopped the Boilermakers on all four of their third-down attempts and both fourth-down tries.

Maybe the most telling stat of the game for Notre Dame's offense and defense was the fact that the Irish possessed the ball for almost 23 of the game's final 30 minutes. The Boilermakers ran just 26 offensive plays in the second half, while the Notre Dame offense took 45 snaps. The Irish were scoring points and pulling away and Purdue could not keep up because it couldn't keep its offense on the field.

There are plenty of numbers that explain Notre Dame's third victory of the season, but the ones that tell the story of 2008 and of the future of the program are 89 and 101.

89 of the Irish's 101 points this season have been scored by underclassmen.

Senior receiver David Grimes' touchdown grabs against San Diego State and Purdue represent the only Irish points this year not put on the board by freshmen or sophomores. Sophomore Golden Tate leads the squad with three touchdowns, while sophomore Robert Hughes and freshman Michael Floyd each have a pair. Second-year players Armando Allen, Duval Kamara and Brian Smith each have one touchdown while rookies Kyle Rudolph and Robert Blanton recorded their first career scores against Purdue.

"Not to mention the fact that the quarterback, he's in that group, too," head coach Charlie Weis said of sophomore Jimmy Clausen, who has thrown nine touchdown passes. "I think these guys are starting to show they can get some production."

While this season has a chance to be a great one if Notre Dame is able to limit the mistakes that young players will make, it is difficult not to marvel at the potential that this group has down the road.

The impact of the highly rated freshman and sophomore classes shows up in more than just the scoring column as well. Eight of Notre Dame's top ten all-purpose yardage leaders are underclassmen and that figure does not include Clausen, who has thrown for 901 yards. After Grimes and junior running back James Aldridge, who rank fifth and sixth on the team in total yards, the next upperclassmen to show up is senior David Bruton, who returned an interception 39 yards in the win over Michigan.

The infusion of young talent can provide a team with a spark.

"It's fun to watch Michael Floyd out there. It's fun to watch Golden Tate out there," said Weis. "It's fun because they play with such enthusiasm."

It's Weis' job to make sure that the veterans on the team don't get discouraged and that there are no divides are created.

"I think the older guys are all involved. They know that how things have gone in practice is really how it's going toward playing time. They go together," Weis said. "These two guys (Tate and Floyd) have done a really nice job while a couple of the other guys were banged up. Waiting for them to get really healthy, these guys just stepped up, stepped up and stepped up. Now it's going to be tough to take them out."

The players that don't show up on the stat sheet, the offensive linemen, are not as young as the skill players around them, but of the 11 linemen listed on the Notre Dame depth chart only two are seniors and only one of the seniors is a starter.

"One other positive framework is that the guys in the front are a year older than that," said Weis. "Most of them, except for (Mike) Turkovich, are all third-year players. I think even though some of them are only in their second year of playing, you're starting to get more experience built with those young guys, just coming and bringing some extra energy."

The starters along the offensive line feature four juniors – right tackle Sam Young, right guard Chris Stewart, center Dan Wenger and left guard Eric Olsen – and a senior, Turkovich at left tackle. Stewart, Wenger and Olsen are all playing for just the second year, meaning that the trio could potentially have two more years of eligibility remaining after 2008. Meanwhile the backups are comprised of a pair of sophomores – left tackle Matt Romine and right tackle Taylor Dever – and a couple of freshmen – center Braxston Cave and right guard Trevor Robinson.

The youth is showing up on defense as well, with Blanton and Brian Smith's defensive scores only highlighting those contributions. The Irish have been able to mix in youngsters at every level on defense and could put as many as eight freshmen or sophomores on the field at the same time.

Sophomores Ian Williams and Kerry Neal saw plenty of time on the defensive line in 2007 and continue to do so this year along with freshmen Darius Fleming and Ethan Johnson.

Smith is developing into one of team's leaders and is joined by classmate Harrison Smith at linebacker, although it seems like a good bet that Harrison will return to the secondary next year. This season, Notre Dame has already played Blanton, a freshman, and sophomore Gary Gray at cornerback. Both Blanton and Gray have interceptions.

Freshmen Steve Filer and Jonas Gray have shown up on special teams and while sophomore kicker Brandon Walker has struggled mightily, his 14 extra points and 41-yard field goal against the Boilermakers have him second on the team - behind Tate - with 17 points.

One of the reasons why the Irish struggled in 2007 was that most of the sophomores that are contributing this year were forced into duty as freshmen. This year's rookie class has proven that it can be counted on without needing to be relied upon, which is more in line with the natural order of college football.

"Last year, there were probably some guys playing before you'd like for them to be playing. This year, guys have been able, with the exception of rare situations like Michael getting out there so early, Kyle getting out there so early, and some of it is circumstantial, of course, but these guys have been able to get eased into it instead of thrown into it," Weis said. "Now you get a guy like Ethan… he didn't have to come out and play 50 plays in the first game. Each game after that, he's getting in more and more and more and more and more. Ideally, that's the way you'd like to do it."


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