There was one revealing moment in Brian Kelly‘s postgame press conference that told you everything you want to know about the relationship between the Irish head coach and his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick.
Kelly looked directly at Swarbrick when asked a question about comfortable games that allow the coach to plug in some of his young prospects.
“I’d like to have these guys in week one or week two, to be honest,” Kelly said, before peeking at Swarbrick and sharing a chuckle with the room. “You’d like to get these kinds of opportunities for these young guys early, because it obviously builds their confidence.
“They’re a really confident group. So to get them involved, especially these young guys, it’s so important to their development.”
We saw that development first hand on Saturday, when a host of young talent saw the field and thrived against Air Force. Receivers Corey Robinson and Will Fuller stated very obviously the potential they have, as did cornerback Cole Luke, who showed a physicality that should step right into the starting lineup after Bennett Jackson departs.
It was easy to see the contributions on offense, with Robinson and Fuller joined by Tarean Folston as top performers. But on the defensive side of the ball, Kelly was particularly complimentary about the play of Luke and Isaac Rochell, who played a key role on Saturday after Ishaq Williams was lost in the first few series and Sheldon Day tweaked his ankle.
“I thought, in particular, you’re looking for me Cole Luke played the edge of our defense very well. I thought Isaac Rochell had a key play on third down. I thought he played well,” Kelly said. “I think when you look at the true freshmen that are playing a lot of football for us on both sides of the ball, I think defensively those are the two guys that have made some plays for us that stood out.”
If you are looking for a datapoint that shows the progress of this roster, a glance back at the box score from the Irish’s 59-33 dismantling of Air Force in ’11 gives you a clear picture of the progress on the defensive side of the ball.
The Irish gave up a whopping 565 yards of offense that afternoon, many coming in the second half as Kelly tried to develop the bottom half of his roster. On Saturday, with unproven backups like Kendall Moore, Romeo Okwara, Joe Schmidt and Justin Utupo playing a lot of football, the defense gave up nothing.
“Those are the kind of games that gives you an opportunity to see some of your younger players, gives them confidence, gives you an opportunity to get some reps off of your veterans that have played so much football,” Kelly said.
It’s all part of a plan that’s very much on schedule, even after two disappointing September losses. The Irish didn’t take a step back when Louis Nix didn’t make the trip, or Ishaq Williams went down, or the offensive line played a significant portion of the game without three starters from last week.
“We’re not there yet, but we’ve made some significant progress in terms of the depth,” Kelly said. “I think we’ll get close to being where we want to be after this next cycle. I think we’ll be at 85 scholarships. We’ll continue to develop the depth within our program. It’s going to be that part of consistency and winning. These guys can now step on the field and continue to help you win.”