Being “Counting Down the Irish” week, let’s offer a teaser of what is to come by Friday: Four Notre Dame seniors or fifth-years received all the first-place votes in the balloting of a dozen media members. What should not surprise: All four line up in the middle of the field, which makes sense considering the series attempts to gauge who is the most impactful player on the team.
What may surprise: Two play offense.
Nonetheless, four of the top five play for first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea, a large part of the reason any Irish hype ties to that defense.
One more tease: The one offensive showing in the top five is not senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush.
None of those players will be wearing green against Michigan on Sept. 1, per Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. Well, probably not.
Kelly has publicly thrown his support behind an attempt to fill the stadium with green and only green in just 26 days, a bit of a correction to the showing of red brought by Georgia last September. The marketing catchphrase seems to be “Irish wear green.”
“I’ve simply been 100 percent backing, giving [the students] the backing that we, in fact, will be pushing that on our end,” Kelly said Thursday. “Some of our coaches, coaching gear, they will have some green in it. We’re pushing some other things within the stadium through our marketing department that I think is going to bring that stadium together unified.
“More than anything else, it was listening to what our students wanted. They wanted that stadium to be unified.”
This seems a clear chance to trot out the much-maligned green jerseys. The rekindling of a historic rivalry, two top-15 teams with bigger hopes, a big game on a day with few others to match it.
“My sense is, there’s going to plenty of green in that stadium,” Kelly said. “Our home jerseys are blue. I love that tradition. Unless something happens drastically in my thought process, we’ll wear our traditional blue coming into that game.”
That is about as definitive a “no” as Kelly could offer while still leaving the proverbial changing room door unlocked.
ESPN announced its “College GameDay” pregame show will broadcast from Notre Dame to open the season, returning to the campus where GameDay first broadcast live 25 years ago, then previewing a top-two matchup of Florida State at Notre Dame. Obviously, the morning broadcast will not impact the Irish or the Wolverines on the field in the least, but it will add hype and attention to the contest, as well as dial up the on-campus environment another notch.
That will be quite an up-tick in atmosphere for Notre Dame’s freshmen. No matter where they may have played high school football, under the lights against Michigan will be a change. The green, College GameDay, etc. only adds to such.
This is of note because Kelly certainly seems intent on playing some of the freshmen, in large part thanks to the NCAA now allowing them up to four games of play before losing a year of eligibility.
“I’m going into camp with the mindset of playing those [freshmen] that are physically and mentally prepared to help our football team win,” Kelly said. “If they are, we don’t have to worry about it.
“We’ll get them on the field and we’ll compete right away and then maybe we’ve got to make some decisions. Maybe some are better suited as they move through the season to pull back on and maybe some are, let’s keep rolling, let’s keep playing.”
It remains to be seen exactly how this shift from the NCAA alters coaches’ plans across the country. Some will undoubtedly hold back some players until November, adding fresh legs to their depth charts. Kelly may yet do that with a few, but his description points to testing out freshmen in a high-stakes moment early to quickly learn who can viably contribute the rest of the season and who needs more physical and/or mental maturation.
Of those likely to play the rest of the season, freshman safety Houston Griffith is an obvious candidate, already looking to force his way into the starting lineup.
Freshman linebacker Bo Bauer also made enough of a springtime impression to have Kelly still praising him.
“Here is a guy that physically has transformed himself, his mentality, his work ethic, the way he attacks things,” Kelly said. “He’s been extremely impressive.”
On coordinators and the coaching box
Both Lea and offensive coordinator Chip Long are likely to spend the season watching from above. That will be a continuation for Long from last year’s precedent.
“Chip would prefer to be on the field, but he’s open,” Kelly said. “He’s a young coach. It’s not like he’s done it for 40 years, and we all can learn and change.”
For Lea, it will be an adjustment from his past, just as working as the coordinator is. Kelly emphasized moving to the distant aerial view means Lea will have to have even better communication with his defensive assistants. Look for associate head coach and defensive line coach Mike Elston to become the point person in that endeavor.
Lea as the defensive coordinator will include a few other shifts in scheme, something Kelly has been hinting at since the spring.
“We’ve made some tweaks along the way in terms of what I think will be effective for us both in front and in coverage,” Kelly said. “That’s another great thing about Clark. Clark’s not married to, this is the way we do it and we can’t get better at doing it in a different fashion.”
Those changes almost assuredly include greater use of press coverage to best utilize the skills of junior cornerbacks Julian Love and Troy Pride while trusting an improved back-line at safety to provide a, well, a “safety” net.
INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
— The greatest preseason goal, Notre Dame’s maturation amid chaos
— Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s preseason dotted by questions at complementary positions
— With three QBs and six RBs to tend to, Notre Dame’s preseason work awaits
— Counting Down the Irish: Others Receiving Votes
— Counting Down the Irish: 25 to 21
— No. 2 Jordan Genmark Heath, safety-turned-linebacker
— No. 2 Dexter Williams, senior running back