Pardon the use of the r-word in the headline. It is so rarely chosen in these parts simply because it is never done so at Notre Dame. There is reason for the institutional zig to the rest of the world’s syntactical zag: Fifth years are not assured until a University committee agrees to them. There is also reason to play along with that facade: Preserving a year of eligibility is not assured until the season is over.
Even with a freshman like linebacker Jack Kiser, who worked on two special teams units in the first four games before sitting against Bowling Green, the Irish coaching staff can only hope to not play him again and thus preserve a year of eligibility thanks to the NCAA rule now in its second season. But if Notre Dame’s coverage units featured a sprained ankle and a pulled quad this weekend that could not recover before facing No. 19 Michigan in what should be the fall’s toughest remaining test, then Kiser may be called upon. (Just to provide a reasonable example.)
“We’re going to be very careful with guys if they’re not making more of an impact on one or two special teams,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “We don’t want to jeopardize a year in those kinds of situations. We have had enough conversations with our guys internally that they know where they stand. Without giving away too much, you can be assured that we’re not going to be surprised about somebody playing too much or too little.”
At the risk of reading too much into Kelly’s vague sentence at the end, what can be presumed by following the participation report is more often than not likely to become reality, so long as general roster construction allows for it through November.
Freshman running back Kyren Williams will sit the rest of the season after playing in the first four games, as long as the backfield depth chart is not ransacked by injuries. Freshman linebacker Marist Liufau is likely to see action against only Michigan and either USC or Stanford, after playing against Georgia and Virginia. Kelly has acknowledged the Williams hopes and spoke of Liufau in such terms following the loss in Athens, it became clear what those plans included.
“Marist graded out one of the highest grades that we had [in coverage units],” Kelly said. “He’s outstanding, first time out there. So we learned that he’s a guy that can get out there and play with anybody.”
Another freshman or two could show enough improvement during next week’s idle week to spur a quick influx of time in the second half of the season, but otherwise the names of note are likely those three along with the three who have already burned a year of eligibility: punter Jay Bramblett, defensive tackle Jacob Lacey and safety Kyle Hamilton.
As one would expect, this was all planned by the coaching staff before the season, with room to be flexible if in-season development necessitates it.
“We start the year in a similar fashion as to who do we see as guys that are probably going to be playing in some capacity all year, and who are — let’s get a look at them in the first few weeks and see where we are,” Kelly said. “You can see some of those guys that are starting to show themselves, and then let’s pick four games.
“… It’s all about evaluation and seeing guys that can help us win football games in roles. Those guys that are playing significant roles in more than special teams, those are easy decisions. It’s the guys that are in limited roles and how those limited roles can either be parceled out to four games or these guys are just too good and they have to play in special teams because they’re impacting us.”
Similar thoughts must be applied to upperclassmen, as well, thanks to the newfound NCAA leniency. Of course, they can be applied to only players who have not sat out a year previously, and injury issues would force abandonment of those plans even quicker than they do to freshmen. Case in point: senior defensive end Jamir Jones (pictured at top).
Thus, the player who may be most hoping for defensive backfield health this season is senior cornerback Donte Vaughn, on a track that could bring him back for a fifth year, but if a single cornerback gets hurt, particularly before fifth-year Shaun Crawford returns healthy, Vaughn may be needed against both USC and Michigan, after already having played three games.
“Some guys have already had to make those decisions,” Kelly said. “That they’re committed to this team right now and are playing for this season. We certainly have player-to-player sit down conversations and (with) their families regarding those situations.”
Those conversations have to include a high level of trust. If Vaughn does preserve a year of eligibility, there is no guarantee he returns to Notre Dame next season, only his declared intention to. If Crawford were to return — a possibility, though he has said he plans to try his hand at the next level — and sophomore TaRiq Bracy continues to improve, Vaughn may not have a starting role awaiting him. After all, he is behind both those names on the current depth chart.
What would stop him from then transferring elsewhere as a graduate student with immediate eligibility? In a word, nothing. The Irish would have been better-served playing him now.
“They hold the final card in that whole process,” Kelly said. “There is trust built within the relationships that we have.”
That is the flipside to a deal in which Notre Dame may need to scuttle those plans in case of injury.
OTHER FUTURE SECONDARY CONCERNS
The Irish will likely be without both current starting safeties next year. Senior Jalen Elliott is out of eligibility, and despite having another season of eligibility available, senior Alohi Gilman may have reason to head to the NFL, the original reason for his transfer to Notre Dame from Navy. Only Hamilton will have a clear track to a starting role, the only other safety on the roster with any experience, even if he is just in his sixth week of collegiate football.
A fix may be in the cards similar to Gilman’s arrival, though one that would not depend on the NCAA to (not) grant a waiver to play immediately.
When the Irish pursued Gilman as he readied to leave Annapolis, Kelly did not have much involvement, to his memory Monday. He did, however, know what kind of player Gilman was after the then-freshman made 12 tackles against Notre Dame in 2016.
“I knew the kind of player he was and how well he played against us,” Kelly said. “So I was pretty certain this was a guy we wanted to aggressively go after. [Then-defensive coordinator] Mike Elko handled most of the daily interactions, and [recruiting coordinator Brian Polian]. I couldn’t tell you exactly who was in it, who the other schools were, other than they came to me and said, ‘Coach, are we in on this? Are we going to go down this road?’
“I remembered the film I watched and I just simply gave them the green light to go pursue it.”
Tying these things together, if Gilman had not arrived, there is virtually no chance Vaughn would be planning a 2020 return right now. The Irish dime package would have needed Vaughn from the season’s outset.