Freshmen step to the forefront

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Brian Kelly made his biggest headlines with the announcement of Everett Golson as his starting quarterback. Yet he dropped a few other bombs in his post-practice comments yesterday that help put into focus the team he’ll be trotting out in eight days in Dublin.

Most notably, Kelly seems to have doubled-down on the youngsters on his roster. After spending much of spring and preseason camp extolling the virtues of veterans like Theo Riddick and John Goodman, the Irish have initiated a veritable youth movement on offense in 2012, putting more pressure on young players than in any of Kelly’s two previous seasons.

Whether it was intentional or not, Kelly seemed to let his plans slip for the wide receiver position, where many assumed seniors Goodman and Robby Toma would start alongside junior TJ Jones. Kelly seemed to tip his hand when discussing the roles freshmen (true and redshirt, respectively) Chris Brown and Davaris Daniels will have in the offense, as well as underclassmen like Troy Niklas and George Atkinson.

“You’re starting with DaVaris Daniels and Chris Brown, two guys on the perimeter who are going to play a lot for us that are first-time starters,” Kelly said. “George Atkinson didn’t play very much at running back. You’re going to see a lot of him. Troy Niklas, I could go on and on. Everett Golson. There are four or five guys right there that are going to be impactful in the game. Certainly, there’s going to be some learning there, but the one thing we don’t have a lot of time on is that curve. We’ve got to come out running, doing our thing right away.”

It’s a veritable youth movement on offense when you consider Golson, Daniels, Brown, and Niklas will be taking their first offensive snaps ever against Navy. Same goes for Davonte Neal, who I expect to see a lot of time in the slot. Atkinson only ran the ball in mop-up duty last season, and when the Irish finally get Amir Carlisle healthy and up-to-speed, that’s a ton of underclassmen depth at offensive skill positions, and all of them are hand-picked by Kelly and company.

The reliance on youth won’t just be happening on offense. Kelly made the surprising announcement that true freshman KeiVarae Russell will be starting at cornerback, finalizing a stunning ascent for the Everett, Washington native who made the official transition to defense just before the team’s first practice.

In the school’s media guide, Russell is listed as a running back whose only mention as a defensive back was some playing time as a sophomore in high school. Now Kelly is trusting him to play one of football’s most demanding positions. The head coach was openly complimentary of the work Russell did in fall camp and how smooth the transition has been.

“There’s always a kid or two in a class, this is my 25th year in college, there’s always a couple of kids that have it,” Kelly said. “He’s a great kid. He’s so confident in his ability. He’s extremely athletic. He’s picked it up so quickly. He’s still got a long way to go, don’t get me wrong, I’m not ready to put him in the Hall of Fame. But he’s a kid that really picked it up quickly and it was a comfortable transition for him.”

Another young defender that might be too good to keep off the field is Romeo Okwara. The 17-year-old should probably be starting his junior season of high school, but instead he’s fought his way into the Dog linebacker battle and earning high praise from his head coach.

“Romeo is really the No. 2 there,” Kelly said, placing Okwara behind another youngster, sophomore Ben Councell. “Young, athletic, he’s going to be a star, he’s going to be a great player. He’s just a young kid. But really love his length and athleticism.”

I’m trying to recall the number of times Kelly has heaped that type of praise on a player and I’m coming up empty. It’s another nice reminder for fans of recruiting that you just never know what you’re getting until someone is on campus.

Kelly also announced Davonte Neal is taking over the punt return job. It’s a big commitment to another talented youngster, and takes Theo Riddick out of a role he’s never felt overly comfortable in.