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Leftovers & Links: Lack of Playoff worry has Notre Dame in position to worry about the Playoff

Notre Dame v Virginia

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - NOVEMBER 13: Ramon Henderson #11 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish intercepts a pass intended for Dontayvion Wicks #3 of the Virginia Cavaliers in the first half during a game at Scott Stadium on November 13, 2021 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images)

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Notre Dame is not focused on the College Football Playoff, and that may be the reason the No. 8 Irish (9-1) are in a position where the Playoff is at all a possibility. Since Notre Dame lost to Cincinnati in early October, reaching a third Playoff in four years has seemed rather unlikely, particularly since the Irish still needed to get through a stretch that looked at one point like it might include two ranked foes in North Carolina and Virginia Tech, though neither ended up as such.

So Notre Dame focused on what was ahead of it, the chance at a fifth straight season with double-digit wins.

“I don’t know that the Playoff thing has really been much of a matter for them as much as they really focused on how they can develop as a football team to get better each and every week,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Monday. “... This team is a young team. The other night [at Virginia], we had eight true freshmen play, seven on offense, one on defense. There’s been a lot of young players playing out there. This is just the natural development of guys going out and developing and playing as they go, getting better each and every week.”

While many outside Notre Dame often speculate it will annually capitulate once its national title chances are dashed, supposedly a drawback to being an independent, the Irish have done the exact opposite of that more years than not during Kelly’s 12 years at the helm.

Neither the 2010 nor the 2011 teams ever had genuine title hopes, but they went a combined 6-1 through November. However, the next two teams without chances at a championship fell apart in November, going 3-6 in the month in 2013 and 2014, injuries in particular derailing the 2014 campaign. And, of course, the 2016 debacle concluded with a 1-3 November stretch that featured Notre Dame’s last loss to an unranked foe, Virginia Tech on Senior Day, the last time the Irish lost their home finale.

Since then, Notre Dame has gone 17-2 in the season’s final month, including 15 straight if excluding the 2017 season. Two of those years had the Playoff carrot remaining throughout the entire month, but 2019 did not, and one can argue 2021 has not, either, something Kelly subtly acknowledged while also beginning some politicking on the Irish behalf.

Yet, Notre Dame has found a winning recipe in November, the month less an arbitrary cutoff point than a natural one as it usually represents the final third of the season. The primary ingredient of that recipe has been bettered recruiting.

“That’s the depth in the recruiting process showing itself more so than in years past where we just didn’t have those players that we could count on later in the year to put them out there,” Kelly said.

In the early stages of this five-years-and-counting Irish resurgence, Kelly would point out the increasing depth on the back half of the roster. If about 44 players are part of the two-deep depth chart, those first few seasons included more contributions from the 45th to 65th players on the roster. At this point, Notre Dame is nearly reaching back to the 75th player and doing so without worry.

Quite literally, if skimming the Irish participation chart, 73 players can be considered contributors in 2021 if including those injured that would certainly be in the top half of the depth chart, players that are part of the attrition that makes such depth so crucial.

Those contributors go beyond the surprises from Notre Dame’s 28-3 win at Virginia — the season did include three notable quarterbacks, after all, along with five running backs seeing time when including freshman Audric Estime’s eight appearances on special teams, and a defensive-line rotation that goes 11 deep — but they still obviously include the likes of sophomore safety Ramon Henderson (pictured at top intercepting a pass) and sophomore defensive lineman Rylie Mills.

“Certainly it was necessary to have those guys out on the field,” Kelly said. “... The development during the year, some of them weren’t ready to play at a high level, and as the year went on, they were called upon.

“I look at Rylie Mills, may not have been ready to play at a higher level early, but he was later. Certainly, Ramon Henderson would be in that category, as well as [sophomore receiver-turned-safety Xavier Watts]. They were good players, but they just needed more time.”

Relying on a receiver at safety the last two weeks — and not a receiver a few years ago, but a receiver from earlier this season — may not have been a risk the Irish could have stomached if still unbeaten, yet by taking that risk, Notre Dame showed itself to be better now than it was in September.

“The depth of our football team is certainly called upon later in the season,” Kelly said. “They have to come through for us, and we saw that [at Virginia].”

Some of that depth has come from the Irish coaching staff disregarding the usual four-game threshold for freshmen who may preserve a year of eligibility. If appropriate, Notre Dame will still keep a player to that limit, but it did not enter the year with set plans, per Kelly.

“This year was like, ‘We’re not counting (games). We got to play them,’” he said. “So the process was let’s play them, let’s develop them, let’s get them ready and wherever they are in that continuum, let’s not worry about the games.

“Some of them, when we get to that point, we’ll decide whether we go past that threshold. Others don’t worry about it, let’s just play them.”

Estime might not have played eight games of special teams if there was the usual eligibility worry. Among freshmen — true freshmen, not sophomores or juniors who still have four years of eligibility remaining if including 2021 — 10 have played in more than four games this season: Estime, quarterback Tyler Buchner, receivers Lorenzo Styles and Deion Colzie, running back Logan Diggs, tight end Mitchell Evans, left tackle Joe Alt, linebackers Prince Kollie and Kahanu Kia, and cornerback Phillip Riley.

Leaning into their chances to play could be seen as another example of Notre Dame’s recruiting depth. Not only are those freshmen more ready to play quickly, but the Irish coaching staff has more confidence the coming recruiting classes will fill in ably behind them.

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