Leftovers & Links: Four Notre Dame freshmen set to play Labor Day at Louisville
Throughout the regular season, this article publishes Monday. It attempts to gather any tidbits from Notre Dame’s showing two days earlier that did not necessarily make it into the intervening stories. The hope is to put a bow on the weekend before moving onto the next opponent, waiting five days away.
The Irish season opener is five days away, despite today being a Wednesday. The Labor Day opener (8 ET; ESPN) may make for some odd timing, but it will also put all of college football’s eyes on No. 9 Notre Dame. No offense to Louisville, but hardly anyone from outside Jefferson County will be tuning in to see the Cardinals.
The first glimpse of the Irish will include the expected contributors: Senior quarterback Ian Book completing a pass to senior receiver Chase Claypool; senior defensive end Julian Okwara forcing a hurried throw to help senior cornerback Troy Pride break up the pass; etc. A few newcomers will also be seen in the competitive moments.
Four freshmen have established themselves in roles that guarantee they will not preserve a year of eligibility, barring injury. Certainly other freshmen will play more than four games, but this quartet has removed all doubt. Without impugning the fragile definition of “literally” any further than need be, there is literally no chance they do not play in a majority of Notre Dame’s games.
The headliner is safety Kyle Hamilton. He will be discussed ad nauseum for awhile yet; in the second half of this space’s 40 preseason predictions, coming Friday, his name will pop up at least twice. Without pulling from those plans, let’s turn to Irish head coach Brian Kelly for a rare moment of acknowledged hyperbole.
“As much as I’ve been trying to tamp down ‘Kyle Hamilton for Heisman,’ he’s a really good player,” Kelly said a week ago. “He’s a really good player that has shown up every day in some fashion. He has a unique skillset.”
Kelly is one to downplay hype around any player as much as possible until the achievements far exceed the conversation, especially when it comes to freshmen. He will praise a newly-signed recruit on National Signing Day, but once the player is on campus, Kelly looks to lower expectations. It is tactful, if nothing else.
The fact that he has given up that approach with Hamilton shows just how ready the Atlanta product is for collegiate competition.
Arguably more necessary to 2019 success than Hamilton, early-enrolled defensive tackle Jacob Lacey was within Notre Dame’s two-deep as soon as he arrived in January due to sophomore Ja’Mion Franklin’s torn quad. Franklin has returned to all activities, yet Lacey likely remains ahead of him simply due to the reality of recovering from such an injury. Make no mistake, though, Lacey would see playing time even if Franklin had never been injured and was ready for a heftier role.
“[Lacey is] big, he’s fast, he’s very athletic for his size,” Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston said. “That’s a skillset that I’m excited to see him grow and get better. Then, he’s also very intelligent. Coming out of high school he’s one of the top students in his class and he learns really well. He’s not a high rep guy who needs 50 reps to get it right. He makes one mistake, you show him on film, and he gets it right.”
Lacey will work behind junior Kurt Hinish. The latter made only eight tackles as a freshman as the primary backup to Jerry Tillery, before Tillery flipped to more of an attacking role last year. Tillery did not come off the field all that much in 2017, but Hinish still impressed in his moments. Lacey, and Franklin in time, should allow Hinish to keep his legs fresher than Tillery’s were, handling at least 10-15 snaps before Monday night gets out of hand.
Notre Dame might not generally need four running backs, but with the injuries to the receiving corps, Kyren Williams will quickly fill a role. Another early enrollee, it is Williams’ work as an underclassmen in high school that has him primed to contribute from the outset. He first played as a receiver before becoming a running back, not an uncommon path at the prep level as teenagers grow.
“He’s mature beyond his years,” Kelly said. “He’s picked up our offense. The versatility that we’re asking (of) him as a running back and a receiver, unique young man in that he’s been able to handle all this, and handle it in a manner that we’re going to lean on him to help us.
“Not a lot of guys that I’ve been around in my time that we could throw so much at, and he’s got the makeup to be able to handle it.”
Sophomore Jahmir Smith has also previously shown an aptitude in the passing game, but an injury putting a cast on his left hand makes that aspect of his game shakier for the time being. Sophomore C’Bo Flemister has yet to display complete comfort running routes. Thus, the freshman steps forward while the Irish work without three of their expected pass catchers in silently-suspended sophomore receiver Kevin Austin, injured junior receiver Michael Young and injured junior tight end Cole Kmet.
Practically speaking, getting Williams a catch or two both against Louisville and in the Sept. 14 home opener against New Mexico would force No. 3 Georgia to respect him coming out of the backfield on Sept. 21.
And, of course, punter Jay Bramblett will handle all punting duties for Notre Dame. That was always the plan, whereas there was no absolute certainty around the other three; there is now.
The rest of the freshmen will still have plenty of time to earn contributing roles, and the four-game flexibility makes it so even those on the scout team can impress in September, get practice reps in October and see first-team action in November without burning a year of eligibility.
If they preserve a season, they could see Louisville again. The Cardinals are next on the Irish schedule in 2023, when the current freshmen could be fifth-years. First-year Louisville head coach Scott Satterfield spent six seasons at Appalachian State. Looking at that run to gain a quick idea of what he could build in the ACC Atlantic …
The Mountaineers were 4-8 in Satterfield’s first season, and that was at the FCS level. His first year was their first in the FBS and the Sun Belt Conference, yet Satterfield immediately pushed to a three-game improvement, finishing 7-5. Across the following four seasons, Appalachian State won 41 games, four bowl games and one conference title. Of its 11 losses, six were against Power Five competition.
The Cardinals are in for a rough 2019, but do not be surprised if Satterfield has things humming by the time the current Irish freshmen are all wrapping up their collegiate careers.
INSIDE THE IRISH READING
— Ian Book, Julian Okwara headline seven Irish captains
— Notre Dame’s Opponents: Louisville fresh off a needed coaching change
— 40 Predictions: Will Notre Dame go undefeated at home?
— Things We Learned: Preseason provided partial answers at positions of greatest worry
— Depleted receiver depth distracts from Notre Dame’s rare calm offseason
— Led by Ian Book and an underrated defense, Notre Dame is set to dethrone the Power Five
— Notre Dame revamps Stadium concession menu for football season
— Guarantee games move millions, including $2.2 million from Notre Dame
— Reality check: Why your top 25 team could tank in 2019
— Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence leads AP preseason All-America team
— SI’s preseason 2019 All-America team
— Clemson and Alabama vs. the field: In the Playoff era, does ‘championship-or-bust’ still resonate? ($)— 2020 NFL mock draft
— Zack Martin intends to play every game for Cowboys after preseason back injury— Stephon Tuitt shows flashes of what Steelers hope becomes the norm