It is a common saying in the spring while hyping practice performances: Speed can’t be taught. Frankly, it is a common saying anytime discussing football at length. Yet, to some degree speed can be taught — with the proper training and technique, players do get faster.
It would be more accurate to point to experience as an unteachable quality, one gained only with time.
This spring and coming fall, Notre Dame will have plenty of experience from the outset. Nine fifth-year players are expected back with the Irish for one more season, more than double last year’s four, which included a transfer in receiver Cam Smith. He joined left tackle Mike McGlinchey, offensive lineman Hunter Bivin and tight end Durham Smythe.
McGlinchey turned down the chance to be a first-round NFL draft pick to return, and both Bivin and Smythe had options to transfer elsewhere for a final season with more playing time and perhaps more prominent roles. Instead, McGlinchey led the Irish on and off the field, Bivin provided the only semblance of depth along the offensive front and Smythe had a career season.
The nine in 2018 will represent the opposite end of the seasoning spectrum when compared to 22-25 freshmen. The nine may not warrant dramatic and desperate pleas for playing time. More often than not, they do not even land in headlines. The fifth-year options are known quantities, while the freshmen stand out as potential and hypothetical greatness.
In time, some of the freshmen will certainly surpass the fifth-years’ ceilings. Using such a declarative verb and tense in the previous sentence even holds up when considering the sheer numbers at hand.
In 2018, though, the fifth-years will be Notre Dame’s backbone. They provide experience, consistency and depth the freshmen simply cannot match. That is not a knock on the newcomers. All-Americans and likely first-round draft picks McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson were not ready to contribute as freshmen. Neither were the likes of Mitch Trubisky (at North Carolina), Deshaun Watson (at Clemson) or Christian McCaffrey (at Stanford), three of the top-12 picks in last year’s NFL draft.
The freshmen’s time will come. For defensive end Jay Hayes, tight end Nic Weishar and receiver Freddy Canteen, the only remaining time is now. To some degree, that ticking clock adds a sense of urgency to the qualities they bring to the locker room.
The experience, consistency and depth are just a bit more tangible. There will be few situations those nine have not seen, few offenses linebacker Drue Tranquill has not already watched film on. If that allows him to pick up on a play a second earlier, it could be the entire difference in getting the defensive line properly lined up before the snap. Similarly, there will be few blitzes center Sam Mustipher has not had to already diagnose. If that removes one more duty from the quarterback’s pre-snap checklist, it should allow him (whomever it is) to focus on the coverage presented that much more.
The Irish roster was always going to have a punter on it. If that is a fifth-year or a freshman, it equals one roster spot all the same. By keeping Tyler Newsome around, a consistent and strong leg remains a field position weapon.
Losing a consensus All-American in McGlinchey and a unanimous All-American in Nelson is enough of a challenge. Getting Mustipher and right guard Alex Bars back will do a lot to ease the task of replacing the left side of the line for newly-promoted offensive line coach Jeff Quinn.
Cornerback Nick Watkins’ physical stature makes him an ideal boundary coverage option to start with, but keeping him in the mix with the four sophomore cornerbacks also makes Notre Dame’s secondary deeper than it could ever deploy at once. Even if current sophomore Julian Love spends some time at safety, the Irish could still trot out a dime package with four stout cornerbacks. Without Watkins, that luxury would hinge on the quick adaption of a freshman such as Tariq Bracy.
Freshman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa would have been a good starting defensive tackle in his second season, if not more than that. The return of Jonathan Bonner means Tagovailoa-Amosa will be a great backup, if not more yet, nonetheless. Either way, the return of Bonner raises the overall quality of play at the position. The same goes for Hayes at defensive end and his effect upon the possibilities of the current sophomores filling the position group.
Experience, consistency and depth. They cannot be taught, only gained with time.
While Alabama made it fashionable to insist freshmen are universally ready to play by relying on first-year players at quarterback, running back, receiver and left tackle on its national championship-winning drive, those were anomalies. Even at that, they were mixed-result anomalies. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa made greater and more mistakes than exceptional plays; his positive moments simply proved more decisive. In addition to the title-winning touchdown pass, he also jeopardized the game by throwing an interception on a running play, using a timeout when trying to drain the clock and taking a sack on the opening play of the Tide overtime drive. That sack was initiated when freshman left tackle Alex Leatherwood blew his block, forcing Tagovailoa to move into more pressure.)
Most freshmen are not ready to provide consistent and constant production. For every Robert Hainsey, there is a Mike McGlinchey. For every Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, there is a Jonathan Bonner. For every, nope, Notre Dame has not had a strong freshman linebacker showing since the otherworldly Jaylon Smith in 2013. One could argue that underscores the importance of Tranquill’s return, as it is somewhat unlikely any of the early-enrolled or incoming freshmen linebackers make an impact this year.
And if one of them is, Irish head coach Brian Kelly will readily embrace it. Someone still has to join Tranquill and current junior Te’von Coney on the defense’s second level.