The easy and dismissive response will be something along the lines of, “Notre Dame never blows out teams. The Irish will fail once again to get their young reserves playing time.”
This convenient narrative forgets romps of Wake Forest, Virginia Tech and Florida State last season. It ignores 2017’s utter demolitions of Temple, Boston College, Miami (OH), USC and North Carolina State, the latter two of which were top-15 teams at the respective times.
Notre Dame is capable of removing the competitive nature from a game within the first half, and this weekend against New Mexico should be a chance to do so (2:30 ET; NBC). The obvious benefits to such are resting the veterans and playing the inexperienced, both of which may prove crucial in late November or even December.
Of the youngsters in need of reps against an opponent, there is a set of candidates not needing much further discussion. For example, Irish sophomore quarterback Phil Jurkovec completing a single pass with a smooth throwing motion would do wonders to calm the nerves of fans, coaches and Jurkovec himself.
More pertinent to No. 7 Notre Dame’s fates at the moment would be the work of two underclassmen running backs along with the newcomer/returnee to the position group, in light of junior Jafar Armstrong’s abdominal muscle tear putting him on the shelf for at least a month and possibly up to two and sophomore Jahmir Smith spraining a toe this past weekend, likely limiting him against the Lobos.
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Sophomore C’Bo Flemister has four career carries for five yards; junior Avery Davis has nine for 70; and freshman Kyren Williams has yet to attempt a rush. Behind known-and-proven senior Tony Jones, that is the extent of the healthy Irish running backs.
“Everybody is called on to play a role for us,” head coach Brian Kelly said Monday. “So Kyren, C’Bo, we’ll see what Jahmir can give us this week, and then certainly Avery, as well.”
Williams, in particular, is hardly in a backup role at this point, filling in for Armstrong as a piece of Notre Dame’s preferred two-back look. After getting benched for a drop pass on his first target on Labor Day, the Irish building up enough of a cushion to allow for such mistakes would be a great aid moving forward.
Similar needs present at defensive tackle, but rotating in reserves is even less optional for Notre Dame there. The Irish have four reliable bodies to fill the two roles in juniors Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish, sophomore Jayson Ademilola (pictured at top) and freshman Jacob Lacey. Note: Including a freshman one game deep into his career as one of your “four reliable bodies” is less than ideal.
“We’ll be calling on some of our younger players to step up and play more significant roles,” Kelly said. “Jacob Lacey, (sophomore) Ja’mion Franklin. I think you will see (freshman Howard) Cross this weekend. … There’s a lot of guys that are going to have to play in there and continue to contribute.”
Franklin may well prove to be a reliable body, but less than a year removed from a quadriceps tear, it would be prudent to give him his first taste of action in a low-pressure moment. Lacey, who notched a tackle at Louisville, could also shore up the rotation, but defensive coordinator Clark Lea is not likely to have thorough confidence in Lacey in a crucial moment until he has seen the freshman shed a few blocks in a game. As for Cross, his work in high school largely came on the end; the move to the middle is out of a concern for interior depth, which underscores the need to get him some low-stakes snaps. Frankly, he is almost-certainly not going to play in more than four games this season, thus preserving a year of eligibility, but taking up to a quarter of plays off the starters’ legs is one of the perks to that NCAA leniency. (Everyone else mentioned has either already sat a year or clearly will not be about to be.)
There are a bevy of other possibilities for youth to shine in the second half of a rout — sophomore cornerback TaRiq Bracy spelling fifth-year Shaun Crawford comes to mind, as does letting safeties sophomore D.J. Brown and freshman Kyle Hamilton take over the back end of the defense — but those are a bit more luxurious, not quite as urgent and necessary.
Notre Dame needs to find chances for its unproven, inexperienced and young running backs and defensive tackles to lessen concern in those areas moving forward; New Mexico is an ideal chance to accomplish that.
Then again, the same was said before facing Ball State last season. The Irish barely escaped with a 24-16 victory. The obvious moments of ease are not always the realized ones.