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Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s personnel choices more noteworthy than actual performance

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Let’s set aside all “But Ball State …” caveats. Not much in the way of practical lessons will be gleaned from No. 9 Notre Dame (3-1) gashing Bowling Green (1-3) in all aspects of Saturday’s game. The Cardinals may have kept things close against the Irish a year ago, but that will not be the case against the Falcons this weekend.

This should be a barn-burner in the truest sense of the word; it’s not like the barn fights back against the fire.

However, which Notre Dame players get the chances to perform in this drubbing will be informative on a few personnel fronts.

If senior defensive end Jamir Jones plays at all, that will seal the primary domino effect of senior end Daelin Hayes’ torn labrum. As soon as Jones stepped in for Hayes during the 35-20 Irish victory against No. 18 Virginia, the likelihood of him preserving a year of eligibility this season dropped drastically.

That was Jones’ second appearance, also playing at Georgia, meaning he can now play in only two more games and return in 2020. That really means only one more game in the regular season, as Notre Dame would presumably save a game for a College Football Playoff appearance if possible. (And if that semifinal produced a victory, all future eligibility plans would be scuttled for the best chance at a national championship.)

Playing extensively this season was always something Jones knew was conceivable even as the tentative plan was to shorten his year and return him in a starting role in 2020.

“It is something that we talked about,” he said after forcing a pivotal fumble against the Cavaliers. “But I’m focused on this season right now and doing anything it takes to be back in the national championship.”

How committed were the Irish to this plan? Jones spent the week leading into that top-20 matchup working on the scout team with absolutely no expectations of playing Saturday. But, as he said, “things happen.”

“I trust 100 percent [defensive line coach Mike Elston and defensive coordinator Clark Lea], those are my guys,” Jones said. “They are part of the reason why I love this game so much. Whatever they need me to do, I’m going to be there. Whatever my teammates need me to do, I’m going to be there. I’ve got to make sure I’m in the best spot possible to be ready.”

Now it’ll be Hayes’ task to trust his coaches. He has announced an intention to return next season, furthering the logic behind playing Jones now — Would Jones rather play this season in the two-deep as arguably the fourth end or wait another year to be the third end?

Any sign of Jones on Saturday will confirm the totality of that eligibility flip, though his time may be limited by the nature of the game. Notre Dame might as well get run for freshmen ends Isaiah Foskey and NaNa Osafo-Mensah, both having played in only the New Mexico rout, thus far.

Similar to Jones stepping in for Hayes, who plays in place of fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford in dime packages will foreshadow an imminent Irish challenge. Without Crawford for 3-4 weeks (dislocated elbow), Notre Dame needs to find a sixth defensive back for its preferred passing-specific defensive look: One defensive tackle, typically junior Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, three ends (seniors Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem and now possibly Jones), sophomore linebacker Jack Lamb, and cornerbacks Troy Pride and TaRiq Bracy with safeties Alohi Gilman, Jalen Elliott and Kyle Hamilton. Crawford had been the final dynamic piece of that ensemble.

That takes on an impetus with USC’s talented receiving corps looming next week. The obvious possibilities are senior cornerback Donte Vaughn and sophomore cornerback Houston Griffith, but each has had plenty of chances to earn consistent playing time already, and neither has grasped such. Thus, freshman cornerback KJ Wallace may be a dark horse for the duty. He did step in against the Cavaliers after Crawford’s injury.

Then come the sought opportunities for those spinning their wheels on the depth chart, needing a chance to prove themselves. Most notably, sophomore receivers Braden Lenzy and Joe Wilkins should each get plenty of time.

Their classmate, Lawrence Keys, has a reported heel injury that may keep him sidelined for the weekend, and the Irish have little reason to push senior Chase Claypool and his tender ankle against overmatched Bowling Green.

Of course, sophomore quarterback Phil Jurkovec may see extended work with those young receivers. In fact, that was a theme in practice this week, per Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly.

More pertinently for this season, Saturday should give sophomore running back C’Bo Flemister another chance at a genuine workload. His seven touches for 40 yards last week were impressive and kept senior Tony Jones fresh for a fourth-quarter onslaught. As much to continue to preserve Jones for November as to further prove Flemister’s abilities, double that exposure could be in the offing.

“He’s got, right now, enough traits for us to count on him to give some carries and help us win,” Kelly said Monday. “He’s certainly not a finished product. He’s one that has built trust amongst the coaching staff and me, in particular, that we feel comfortable putting him into the game to be a part of what we’re trying to accomplish in the run game.”

That exact same reasoning should get sophomore linebackers Shayne Simon and Bo Bauer a few series of snaps, if not more. That would keep fifth-year Asmar Bilal and junior Drew White a bit fresher moving forward as well as put more on film for Simon and Bauer to study.

Otherwise, the finishing touches of this uncompetitive competition should come from the same freshmen who saw their first, and only, snaps in the 66-14 dispatching of New Mexico: defensive tackles Howard Cross and Hunter Spears, linebacker JD Bertrand, quarterback Brendon Clark, receiver Cam Hart, center Zeke Correll, offensive tackle Andrew Kristofic and kicker Harrison Leonard.

If any of them contribute to the stat sheet beyond the participation report, the odds are this barn-burner may make that 66-14 shellacking look like a fair fight.