What though the odds: Injury-ravaged Irish still on the brink of playoff

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The loss of KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise is the latest in an injury-plagued season for Notre Dame. Notre Dame’s best defensive back and their game-breaking runner will leave the Irish looking for answers with unproven players as they head to Stanford for a must-win season finale.

Entering the year, Brian Kelly’s sixth team was praised for its talent pool, a group expected to have tremendous depth, built class-to-class via recruiting during Kelly’s time in South Bend. That stockpile has been tested routinely since training camp—maybe even before—as we saw players expected to be key contributors lost from the moment Everett Golson packed his bags for Tallahassee and Greg Bryant never made it to fall camp.

Yet the Irish are still standing. At 10-1 and on the brink of a potential College Football Playoff berth, it’s not hard to call this Brian Kelly’s best coaching job since he arrived in South Bend. This staff’s best laid plans never even had a chance to be implemented. Instead, we’ve watched players young and old galvanize into a group that may suffer from fits of inconsistency, but still manages to win football games.

Entering every season since Kelly has taken over, we’ve polled a group of beat writers and “experts” to determine the Top 25 players on Notre Dame’s roster. This season’s group had 11 pollsters, each from a website or publication that spends way too much time studying the Irish roster.

Take a look at the roster attrition the Irish have suffered based on preseason expectations.

  1. Jaylon Smith
  2. Ronnie Stanley
  3. Will Fuller
  4. KeiVarae Russell (lost vs. BC)
  5. Sheldon Day
  6. Tarean Folston (lost vs. Texas)
  7. Cole Luke
  8. Nick Martin
  9. C.J. Prosise (injured vs. Pitt, BC)
  10. Malik Zaire (lost for season vs. Virginia
  11. Jarron Jones (lost for season in preseason camp)
  12. Joe Schmidt
  13. Max Redfield
  14. Isaac Rochell
  15. Steve Elmer
  16. Mike McGlinchey
  17. Corey Robinson
  18. Elijah Shumate
  19. Chris Brown
  20. Nyles Morgan
  21. Quenton Nelson
  22. Matthias Farley
  23. Durham Smythe (lost for season vs. Virginia)
  24. Greg Bryant (lost for season before camp)
  25. Jerry Tillery

Unranked but lost players also included:

  1. Shaun Crawford, DB (lost in preseason camp)
  2. Ishaq Williams, DE (lost after eligibility appeal)
  3. Avery Sebastian, DB (lost against Texas)
  4. Drue Tranquil, DB (lost against Georgia Tech)
  5. Alex Bars, OL (lost against USC)
  6. Equanimeous St. Brown (lost before Pitt)
  7. James Onwualu (lost against Wake Forest)

Every football team loses contributors—and this season felt more harsh than most, with some of college football’s biggest names lost to injury. But a quick look at Notre Dame’s projected depth chart and it’s stunning when you consider the Irish will take on Stanford without seven projected starters and seven more players that would’ve likely been in the two-deep.

This isn’t an exercise laid out just to feel sorry or make excuses. Rather it’s just as interesting to look at the ascent of the players asked to step in and contribute.

A season after depth issues sunk Notre Dame’s defense, Kelly’s ability to not just preach, but to practice “Next Man In” proved vital, with 2015 likely to be the reference point for years to come.

DeShone Kizer replaced Malik Zaire, becoming the household name Zaire was set to be after a big game against Texas. Tarean Folston’s season ended after three carries, clearing the way for C.J. Prosise to become a 1,000 yard rusher. The tight end position has been a grab bag, mostly because first-time contributors Chase Hounshell, Nic Weishar and Alizé Jones are learning on the fly.

Jerry Tillery and Daniel Cage stepped in for a senior starter and the defensive line didn’t implode. The secondary lost three contributors who would’ve helped Brian VanGorder be multiple on the back end—limitations that have likely frustrated the coaches as much as fans.

Yet the Irish are still standing, walking into Palo Alto battered and bruised, but also hopeful that they’ll find a way to win a football game. It’s an attitude that the Irish have embraced—what though the odds—finding a way to come out victorious in the end.

“That culture exists. It’s strong. These guys love to battle,” Kelly said this weekend. “That’s why I have no hesitations about what they’re going to do against Stanford. They’re going to fight for four quarters and lay it on the field.”

It’s a one-game season. Notre Dame has a chance on Saturday to push their record to 11-1 and make a convincing argument that they should be a part of the four-team playoff. Even if it’s with a team that hardly resembles the one we thought we were going to see this season.