SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brian Kelly has publicly vowed in the past to play plenty of players who ultimately saw sparing, or no, snaps during the season. But those claims have come during winning seasons in which at the least Notre Dame was all but guaranteed to reach a bowl game or, at the best, was a championship contender.
So this year is different, with the Irish off to a 1-3 start and in desperate need of a spark on both sides of the ball.
“You're going to see a lot more players playing,” Kelly said when specifically asked about the defense. “There is going to be some depth, some camaraderie. We need to get that morale up on defense, and we will do that with a lot more players involved in what we're doing on a day-to-day basis.”
While most of the players receiving increased volume are on Greg Hudson’s defense, there are a few on the offense that are in a position to play more, too. Kelly wouldn’t go into direct specifics about who would be the beneficiary of the team’s renewed push for better depth, but there are seven guys who can probably be earmarked for more snaps going forward:
1. RB Dexter Williams
Williams shed two unblocked tacklers on his way to a 13-yard touchdown against Duke and was praised after the game as “the only one” that Kelly saw play with emotion and fire in that embarrassing 38-35 loss.
Kelly pointed to Williams only playing 10 snaps against Duke against fellow sophomore Josh Adams’ 54, saying that “the cliff for me in terms of the number of reps that we're getting is too stark.” While Adams won’t see a significant reduction in snaps, expect Williams — perhaps at the expense of redshirt junior Tarean Folston, who’s only averaging 3.9 yards per carry — to see an uptick in use starting this weekend against Syracuse.
2. DE Jay Hayes
Hayes began taking first-team reps at weakside defensive end near the end of spring practice and held on to those through preseason camp until he suffered a high ankle sprain that sidelined him for a few weeks. Kelly said Sunday Hayes is fully healthy, but he hasn’t seen many snaps this year, with most of those going to junior Andrew Trumbetti.
“Jay Hayes had zero reps (vs. Duke),” Kelly said. “That can't happen.”
The 6-foot-3, 285 pound former four-star recruit could, at the least, probably help Notre Dame’s rushing defense. At the best, if he splits time with Trumbetti and gives Notre Dame 30-40 max-effort reps a game, he could grow into a factor in the team’s lagging pass rush.
3. LB Asmar Bilal
The redshirt freshman turned some heads during preseason camp with his outstanding speed trait, but hasn’t played much through Notre Dame’s first four games. With Kelly pointing to the guy ahead of Bilal on the Will linebacker depth chart — sophomore Te’von Coney — playing too much against Duke, perhaps Bilal (along with junior Greer Martini) has an opening to play more.
4. CB Donte Vaughn
Vaughn had an impressive interception in the end zone against Duke after not playing against Michigan State or Texas. Notre Dame needs its cornerbacks — whether it’s Cole Luke, Nick Coleman, Julian Love and/or Vaughn — to make plays in the absence of Shaun Crawford, Nick Watkins and Devin Butler. In picking that pass off against Duke, Vaughn likely earned himself some more snaps, and he could continue to carve out a larger role with more plays like that.
5. S Jalen Elliott
Kelly pointed to Devin Studstill playing 67 snaps against Duke — and on one of his final plays, he missed a tackle that wound up allowing a 64-yard game-tying touchdown. Elliott, a four-star member of Notre Dame’s 2016 recruiting class, is listed as Studstill’s backup on Notre Dame’s depth chart, so he’ll probably play a little bit more to aid in that quality-over-quantity concept.
6. DE Daelin Hayes
Hayes broke up a pass against Michigan State, but his five-star talent is best utilized as a pass rusher. Notre Dame needs to figure out a way to get Hayes on the field and in a position where he can be triggered toward the quarterback on passing downs. Maybe streamlining the defense and simplifying things will make it easier for Hayes to get on the field — and into the backfield — with more frequency.
7. WR Chase Claypool
After Claypool impressed with a 33-yard reception against Michigan State (and a near-grab of a Hail Mary to end the first half), Kelly said he and his coaching staff were looking at ways to get the Abbotsford, British Columbia native on the field. Claypool mostly saw special teams work against Duke — an area in which he’s done well, it should be noted — though he could get some more plays on offense going forward as Kelly aims to avoid over-working some of Notre Dame’s other underclassmen. It's also worth noting Claypool lined up as a tight end when Notre Dame had to air things out during its furious and futile comeback against the Spartans.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, and practice for Syracuse week — which began Tuesday — will determine plenty about who emerges on Saturday at MetLife Stadium. But Kelly made it clear Notre Dame needs to get more players on the field to pull out of its tailspin.
“I'm not saying everybody's gotta play and we all gotta go have a big, group hug at the end of practice,” Kelly said. “It's merit based, too. But there are too many good football players that haven't been playing, in my estimation, and I'm making the calls on both sides here and they gotta get in the game.”