Associated Press

Friday at 4: How will Notre Dame handle NCAA’s eligibility changes?

11 Comments

It was not quite bait. It had more merit than that. Yet, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly would not take it. Perhaps that was out of deference to a mid-major opponent, shoes Kelly once wore. Maybe he was being sure not to give any indication of overlooking any weekend this season. He could have simply been defaulting to coach-speak at the end of the week.

To paraphrase the question: Are there some second-team players you would like to get more snaps?

To give the question unspoken — generously even uninferred — context: Do you hope to get snaps for a litany of young Irish players against Ball State, partly as a result of the new NCAA rules?

Either version could have been asked and Kelly’s response was unlikely to change.

“All of our players are going to be prepared to play,” he said Thursday. “All of our guys are prepared. There’s not one guy. We’ve prepared them all.”

It was the correct response, if also the unentertaining one.

When the NCAA decided to allow players to take the field in up to four games without burning a year of eligibility, it introduced a new wrinkle into every season, but one most distinct in its debut cycle.

Will coaches keep those games in their back pockets to create new-found depth in November? Will this lead to the third-string seeing more time in blowouts than the second-string does? Could that four-game metric become a negotiating chip for players and coaches pondering possible transfers?

Answering those wonderings is nothing but a speculative exercise. Well, except for the last one, which may be playing out in real time down in Tuscaloosa. Whatever the Notre Dame version of the answer is, it was not going to be seen in a close game against a top-15 rival. Ball State coming to town always marked the first litmus test.

Looking at the teams ahead of the No. 8 Irish in the polls, six enjoyed openers where they were clearly far superior to their opponents. (It’s not that Alabama is better than you, Louisville. It’s just that you are vastly inferior to Alabama.) A number of them used those cushions to trot out more freshmen than the may have without the NCAA’s shift.

The Tide, for example, played 11 true freshmen, but only four saw time in a competitive environment. Of Ohio State’s 16 true freshmen who played, six showed up in only mop-up duty, including offensive tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere.

Both Clemson and Georgia have true freshman quarterbacks (Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields, respectively) who may usurp the accomplished starters this season, somewhat hijacking any concerns about their classmates.

Wisconsin, though, may be the team to take a look at. Like it or not, the Irish do not recruit on the level of Alabama or Clemson, of Georgia or Ohio State. Due to that and a number of other reasons, those programs have greater roster turnover than Notre Dame does. The Badgers are more similar to the Irish, developing players and relying on upperclassmen more than hoping for top-end talent to coalesce by season’s end.

In a 34-3 victory over Western Kentucky, Wisconsin played … four freshmen.

The comparisons this year will be lacking. A non-existent sample size does that. What is not lacking, for once and perhaps a first in the governing body’s history, is the NCAA adapting to the times.

This four-game rule was not the only shift this offseason, just the only one set in stone. The NCAA also eased up on transfers, allowing a few high-profile instances to be immediately eligible, rather than spend the usually-requisite year on the sidelines. Six transfers from Ole Miss, most notably including Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson, were granted eligibility waivers due to the Rebels coaching staff allegedly misleading the players about sanctions imminently pending. Cal receiver Demetris Robertson scored a touchdown for Georgia last weekend, less than a month after the NCAA granted him immediate eligibility.

“It is pretty obvious that they’re granting more of them if you look across the board,” Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart said when the ruling was announced. “They seem to be more lenient when it comes to it.”

It is about time, although the NCAA should continue to review them on a case-by-case basis. The Ole Miss players should not have been punished for the mistakes of a previous coaching staff. If Robertson had valid reason to move across the country, so be it.

Notre Dame fans may cry foul because junior safety Alohi Gilman was not granted a waiver when he arrived from Navy a year ago. Such as it goes. That is the nature of a case-by-case process, and based on Gilman’s play against the Wolverines, he will be just fine in the long run.

It will be curious to see how this developing leniency may interact with the four-game allowance. It is not a tough argument to make that the partial-season alteration is the least logical step by the NCAA of all these, but it will also be the one to have the broadest on-field impact and overall intrigue.

For the Irish, that impact and intrigue are likely to begin sometime after halftime this weekend.