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How we got here: Redshirts

Nov 6, 2010, 2:30 AM EST

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Redshirt.

It’s an ugly word amongst Irish fans, as Notre Dame doesn’t officially redshirt anyone, but merely allows seniors to apply for a fifth year of eligibility and enroll in a graduate program.

But for the life blood of a competitive college football program, Notre Dame’s inability to utilize a fifth-year of eligibility among its offensive line and defensive front seven may be the number one reason why the Irish have struggled in recent history, and a major factor as to why the 2010 Irish football team has gone 4-5 in the first nine games of the Brian Kelly era.

If there’s one defining characteristic of the post-Lou Holtz era Notre Dame teams, it’s been a puzzling lack of physicality. While recruiting rankings always kept the Irish in the upper-echelon of college football (except for a few Davie and Willingham squads), Notre Dame never seems to develop the impact players on their roster that many Top 25 programs rode to major bowl games. Under Charlie Weis specifically, the Irish enjoyed some high-level recruits, but never produced top-flight offensive or defensive linemen.

To crystallize this point, let’s take a look at some of the best offensive line and front seven recruits that Notre Dame has brought to campus in the last seven years, who also turned into some of Notre Dame’s highest draft picks. Victor Abiamiri, Trevor Laws, and Ryan Harris were three of the most highly touted recruits in the celebrated 2003 class. Both Abiamiri and Harris played immediately for the Irish, with Laws only staying off the field because he missed the year with an injury. Harris became only the third true freshman in Notre Dame history to start along the offensive line, playing as an extremely undersized left tackle, getting by on his athleticism, quickness, and smarts. Abiamiri flashed talent, but played wasted much of his first year, contributing only 16 tackles and one sack during his freshman year. All three left Notre Dame after four seasons, with only Laws retaining the option of returning for a fifth year.

Under Charlie Weis, the trend was even worse. Starting with the heralded class of 2006, Weis played just about every freshman with a chance to get on the field. Offensive linemen like Sam Young saw the field immediately, potentially stunting his development by being thrown immediately into the fire. Guys like Eric Olsen and Matt Carufel saw the field in only mop-up time, wasting a season of eligibility for Olsen with just 20 minutes of playing time and more egregiously, Carufel spent a year of eligibility in just three minutes. Dan Wenger and Bartley Webb didn’t play, but mostly because they were hampered with injuries, while Chris Stewart was in the midst of a body transformation, having arrived on campus at nearly 400 pounds of poorly proportioned weight.

Weis’ disregard for redshirts was hardly lost on just offensive linemen. Undersized and overwhelmed defensive end John Ryan saw the field as a true freshman, as did highly touted pass-rushing prospect Morrice Richardson, logging only eleven minutes of playing time, mostly on special teams. Tight ends Will Yeatman and Konrad Reuland both played reserve roles, spending a year of eligibility while combining for zero catches as they backed up John Carlson and Marcus Freeman. In the secondary, Weis played cornerbacks Raeshon McNeil and Darrin Walls immediately, as well as safeties Sergio Brown and Jashaad Gaines, with Brown and Gaines logging solely special teams play. On a veteran 2006 team that had national title aspirations, Weis wasted the eligibility of nearly a dozen freshman that could be contributing on the roster in 2010.

How important are fourth and fifth year seniors to a team’s success? Let’s take a look at the BCS Top 25 and see how well they utilize veterans along the offensive line and in the front-seven of the defense.

Of the 12 “power positions,” look at how thin Notre Dame is compared to the rest of the top programs in college football. Only four players are fourth or fifth year players in the key positions along the line and in the front seven.

Digging even deeper, Notre Dame’s best seasons since 2002 have come when the Irish had age-appropriate depth in their power positions.

2002 (10-3): Nine of Twelve players in power positions were fourth of fifth year seniors.
2005 (9-3): Seven of Twelve players in power positions. Junior quarterback starting.
2006 (10-3): Ten of Twelve players in power positions. True senior quarterback.

While the easy answer to Notre Dame’s struggles is the early departure of Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate, when you look deeper, the 2010 Irish are struggling not just because they lost two of their best offensive weapons, but because the Irish have failed systemically to build veteran depth over much of the last decade.

For the Irish to get back into the upper-echelon of college football, Brian Kelly will need to do something his predecessors showed no aptitude for: building a roster properly. The good news? Kelly already seems to understand that the best thing for young, talented players at non-skill positions — guys like Louis Nix, Christian Lombard, Kendall Moore and Justin Utupo — is the least logical thing for them to do.

Sit them on the bench and let them watch.

(Special thanks to the legendary FunkDoctorSpock and Brian Fremeau for their help in this column.)

  1. tedlinko - Nov 6, 2010 at 2:56 PM

    Thanks for this analysis Keith. I always had the sense that Weis was a bit inept in his use of underclassmen, but I always thought it was more that he focused all his energy on the starters and never bothered to develop the underclassmen. I still think that was the case — why after Brady Quinn’s class graduated there was such a dearth of experience. But seeing the comparison with other programs in terms of upperclassmen/5th years at the power positions is really enlightening. I never realized there was that much of a disparity.

    • cleve0311 - Nov 9, 2010 at 11:44 AM

      It’s actually a very distorted article and extremely unfair to old Chuck. Charlie had no choice but to use Freshman from the 2006 & 2007 recruiting classes because Ty Willie left him with no depth whatsoever, especially in the trenches. Arnold focused on those two classes only for the article and failed to mention that in the 2008 class of 23 recruits, 15 did not play as Freshman, and of the 16 remaining recruits from the 2009 class, 9 did not play as a Freshman. That means Charlie left Kelly with 25 players over a 2 year recruiting period who can potentially play as 5th year Seniors. Any program in the country would be thrilled with the prospect of having that much 5th year experience on their roster. Say what you will about Charlie from a development and coaching standpoint, but you can’t criticize him for this aspect. He left Kelly with a much stronger and deeper roster than he inherited from Ty Willie. One of the lamest articles I have ever seen from Arnold who is usually more detailed in his analysis.

  2. vegasirish - Nov 6, 2010 at 7:18 PM

    This is top level stuff, KA. Keep up the great work.

  3. tlndma - Nov 7, 2010 at 5:37 PM

    An excellent column Keith. Weis did not seem very adept at building a college roster. A case in point would be the QB situation Kelly got stuck with.

  4. thepiper3 - Nov 8, 2010 at 8:00 AM

    Keith – You are proving to be the #1 blogger for Irish football. For those of us that truly miss BlueGraySky, you are doing an admirable job of filling a very deep hole. Keep up the good solid analysis.

  5. kmf84 - Nov 8, 2010 at 2:07 PM

    KA, don’t have your facts and stats to back this up but I believe deep in my heart that the WIN NOW mentality has been the culprit in the Irish demise. No depth, no development of underclassmen, plus the talent level fall off when starters get hurt is obvious. Remember when freshmen weren’t even allowed to play? It is going to take BK 4-5 years to build the program if he lasts that long. This flavor of the month coaching change has to end. Who is going to wait though.

  6. rcali - Nov 8, 2010 at 3:51 PM

    I’ve enjoyed reading the “excuses” articles as it does put a microscope on why the team continues to fail. The final article should be about how “the dog ate my playbook.” I’m not sure I can stomach this Utah game.

  7. gregiz - Nov 8, 2010 at 10:54 PM

    Your lucky Keith people let your poor excuse for article off easy most people here obvious don’t watch the games. The trouble is who you are comparing ND with when in comes to redshirting that list only has 5 teams that have won National Titles(in the BCS era) on it. Oregon won’t be in the picture when USC gets back on its feet plus they run a circus for an offense so does it matter if they play defense. You don’t have Florida, and Texas on the list who recruit in talent rich states how many do they redshirt? Plus you seem to forget that Brain Kelly, and Charlie Weis didn’t focus on having a physical team. They reason Weis couldn’t put young talent on the field is because for the last three years he has had to come from behind so many times. Plus only two teams on the list are ND rivals so who cares about the rest? The last coach who understood football is a physical game is also the last one to beat USC. Redshirting won’t help ND running the football might…funny if ND we possess the ball more the weakness in the front seven on defense might no show as much.

    • js69 - Nov 9, 2010 at 9:23 PM

      54 redshirt players on Florida roster, Texas 2010 freshmen listed as redshirt 15, FYI

    • hotcarnut - Nov 10, 2010 at 12:47 PM

      gregiz “Redshirting won’t help ND running the football might…funny if ND we possess the ball more the weakness in the front seven on defense might no show as much.”

      This might be the dumbest thing I’ve read yet, and that’s saying something. The redshirts are EXACTLY what will help ND run the football. You have offensive linemen with an extra year in the system, who have an extra year in the weight room, and who have an extra year of experience opening holes for the running back. At the skill positions (outside of quarterback, which is a different animal) redshirting isn’t as necessary. But in the trenches on both sides of the football, size, experience, and age are a huge advantage.

  8. 3458don - Nov 9, 2010 at 12:32 PM

    gregiz,

    School Redshirt Starters RS upperclassmen RS on back-ups

    Mich 14 7 11
    Mich St. 4 2 13
    Purdue 4 2 10
    Pitt 16 12 21
    BC 10 7 15
    Stanford 12 8 16
    USC 10 7 21

    This shows what kind of experience in the system the Irish have to deal with every week. These kids
    get the benifit of being in a system an extra year without being forced into action unless the are ready.
    This cycle should not run out for these schools with all the redshirting throughout the depth chart.
    As far as Texas they have 19 (soph. to senior) RS’s and 13 frosh. and Florida has 13 starters with
    12 back-ups. This, I gaurantee goes on throughout college football and even worse with the rest
    of the SEC and ACC. If you don’t think this is an advantage, then I don’t know what you would call it.

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