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Brian Kelly on Notre Dame’s freshmen, reviving Michigan series

Notre Dame hosting Michigan is the most important game in Week 1, according to Pat Forde, and all eyes will be on Brian Kelly and Jim Harbaugh.

At this point, the questions for Brian Kelly hardly have any answers. He can discuss Notre Dame’s improved safety play or which freshmen may or may not debut this weekend, but the realities will reveal themselves at 7:43 p.m. ET on Saturday.

Even though it is game week, the lack of new reference points in the preseason has left little need to discuss intricacies, and being the first week, the Irish head coach is less inclined than usual to reveal depth chart pecking orders.

When facing a dual-threat quarterback like Michigan’s junior Shea Patterson, the Notre Dame defense’s rover position is typically tested with a few difficult reads in his assignments. As Patterson roles to the rover’s side, for example, the rover may to cover a tight end while keeping in mind Patterson may turn upfield at any moment.

That fine line is not one best toed by a freshman in his first action in primetime, even if Shayne Simon is more agile than presumed senior starter Asmar Bilal.

“Not to say that Shayne won’t be out on the field, but the last thing you want is a true freshman trying to sort this thing out, too,” Kelly said Tuesday. “He’s in the mix, certainly, but … there’s going to be some adjustments that need to be made and you want to rely on some guys that have some experience in those situations.

“Shayne’s going to have to be ready, he’s prepared to play, but again I think there’s certainly going to be those times where we’re going to be sorting some things out on the sideline and you would like to rely on some experience in those situations.”

That may not apply as inherently to the Irish safeties, though. Notre Dame has both more depth and more experience at the position, with three contributors returning from last season and a fourth FBS-level starter in junior Alohi Gilman now eligible after a year spent on the sidelines following his transfer from Navy, yet the Irish could insert early-enrolled freshman Houston Griffith this weekend.

“Alohi Gilman has been a guy that has changed [the position] immediately, and then I think all the other safeties that played for us last year are further ahead from where they were last year,” Kelly said before listing off juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill, seniors Nick Coleman and Nicco Fertitta, and Griffith. “You may see multiple players and us taking advantage of all of their skillsets on Saturday night.”

Freshman Kevin Austin may also see some time at receiver, though Notre Dame’s multiple packages could limit his contributions for the immediate future. Austin has joined sophomore Michael Young in the receiver rotation behind starters Miles Boykin, Chase Claypool and Chris Finke. Opting to utilize other positional possibilities could keep those reserves in minimal roles at this point.

“We play three and four tight ends, so I think you have to include that as part of what we do, then the multiple running back situation,” Kelly said. “I wouldn’t look just as being a wide receiver group as much as incorporating tight ends and running backs into all of that being pass receivers and touching the football.”

Seeing only a few snaps against the Wolverines will be more a reflection of the opponent and the timing than it is on the likes of Simon and Austin. Both can and should expect to play extensively this season.

“Any time a true freshman finds his way onto the football field, I don’t know if it’s a surprise any more, but you have to have maturity, you have to have athletic ability. You have to have a lot of the traits that are hard to bring to the table at a place like Notre Dame or Michigan,” Kelly said. “A guy like Kevin Austin, a guy like Shayne Simon, those guys are unique breeds, that can come in and are certainly going to be guys that are going to be playing as true freshmen.”

The greatest Irish health concern has been the lower leg inflammation of sophomore right tackle Robert Hainsey. Kelly said Hainsey has returned to his normal spot with the first-team and his week-plus of rest completely reduced the worrisome inflammation.

Kelly was asked directly if senior running back Dexter Williams will take the field Saturday. Williams has been the subject of much offseason speculation he could be suspended for the season’s first four games due to a violation of University policy, a violation such that privacy laws restrict possible comment from Kelly.

“He’ll be dressed and he’ll be on the sideline,” Kelly said. “We’ll see what happens when we kick it off.”

Kelly credited Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh for beginning the process of rekindling the rivalry, even if for only two games.

“Jim reached out to me, and we were both of the same opinion that we wanted to try to get this game back if we could,” Kelly said. “There are so many other things that make this difficult. I know we play next year, but after that, who knows how this might work again, given both of our limitations relative to scheduling.”

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