They began their careers with one of the worst seasons in Notre Dame history. They will end them with one of the most successful stretches in those more than 130 years, presuming they manage to beat Boston College on Saturday.
One may have begotten the other.
Of course, in the midst of going 4-8 as freshmen, the current Irish seniors did not see three 10-win seasons on the horizon, a reality now only two wins away. Nor did the coaching staff, the few pieces of it that remained after that 2016 debacle.
“Certainly there were some residual benefits,” head coach Brian Kelly said Monday. “They didn’t seem to be benefits at the time, but they learned quite a bit from that season in terms of the preparation and the locker room and all the things that are necessary to continue to build on your culture.”
Of Notre Dame’s current roster, 13 played in that lost season, 13 of the 28 seniors that will be recognized at midfield this weekend. Up to three of those 13 might return, but rarely are those possibilities certain, so all will treat this as their last day in Notre Dame Stadium.
Four of those 13 are now captains. Chris Finke, Jalen Elliott, Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara all undoubtedly hoped to play as freshmen, and maybe they even dreamed of a “C” on their chests later on, but enduring the 4-8 misery was never part of that plan, even if it imbued some of the leadership qualities that led to each captainship.
“Some of those guys are leaders today that have been able to make sure that no one takes our process for granted, and that you continue to work on it every day,” Kelly said. “So that experience definitely benefited those guys in their senior year.”
Some of that would have occurred with or without the freshman season struggles. As any player is one to do, Elliott praised his class in comparison to all others, but he also acknowledged how that tumultuous year may have changed things moving forward.
“Coming in as a young guy with a bunch of guys that were thrown into the fire early, and being able to come out of that and have three great seasons after that has been amazing to us,” the senior safety said. “… It made us closer, and it made us want to fight for one another. That’s something that helped make us in our process become who we are today.”
Let’s make one thing clear: The shift from 2016 to the possibility of three 10-win seasons began with the likes of Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey; Drue Tranquill led Notre Dame for two vital years; and the influx of impressive coordinators changed much of the on-field product.
But there is no way the Irish have the chance to finish the best stretch in a generation without the likes of Elliott and Kareem, Finke and Chase Claypool, Asmar Bilal and Troy Pride.
The full list will be rattled off during Saturday’s pregame, beginning with walk-on defensive back Temitope Agoro and ending with Finke — a fitting honor for a career that went from walk-on to two-year starter, one deserved after his two biggest plays this season were both negated by needless penalties.
It will include nine names that could return next season. Among those nine, though, only one both played in 2016 and is assured to return: Defensive end Daelin Hayes made 11 tackles in 12 games.
He, of course, will not dress this weekend thanks to a season-ending shoulder injury, the reason a fifth year will be possible. Instead, Hayes will co-host a secondary viewing experience on NBCSN (also at 2:30 ET, using the NBC visual feed but with Hayes part of an alternative commentary).
At no point in those ceremonies will much time be spent on that worst of years. It should be remembered, nonetheless, not out of some misguided masochistic malfeasance, but because 2016 shows both how far these seniors came and how far they have brought Notre Dame.
Finke caught the touchdown to beat Michigan to start last season’s unbeaten run and then he toe-tapped the score to give the Irish some momentum in the first half at USC to end that 12-0 stretch. Senior running back Tony Jones pulled in the game-winning touchdown at the Coliseum, off a pass from senior quarterback Ian Book.
Okwara and Kareem wreaked havoc on Virginia and Navy, respectively, spurring Notre Dame to a pair of home victories against ranked opponents, pushing the home-winning streak to 17, stretching back to 2017.
Elliott and senior cornerbacks Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn first provided depth to the defensive backfield in 2016 and have since brought both experience and, again, depth. Even for all of Vaughn’s struggles — frequent and costly — consider Irish fates without him this year against USC and Virginia Tech.
True stars may be few among these names — Okwara’s breakout season never truly materialized; Claypool is finally enjoying his; Book will likely return in search of his — but as a whole, this senior class stabilized Notre Dame with its depth, competence and composure.
Two of the 28 names went through all this a year ago and did not inherently expect to get to do it again. Right guard Trevor Ruhland, in particular, was not expected to get healthy enough to return to action. When Kelly was asked about Ruhland’s “83,000 surgeries” this week, there was hardly reason to offer a correct number. It is high enough, the exaggeration was hardly outlandish.
“A lot of it is just his love for playing the game,” Kelly said. “He loves to play and he loves playing with his teammates. There is a connection there that has kept him persevering through all the injuries.”
If there is any flaw to the annual Senior Day festivities, it is that teammates cannot express appreciation during the midfield procession. If they could, it is a reasonable bet to think Ruhland would get the most love from his teammates. They know what he has gone through, and they know not many others would have worked through it all just to be a backup again.
“The players have such a tight relationship with him, he did not want to give that up,” Kelly said. “So it’s nice to see him finish off in his last year here with some playing time and have some success.
“That’s really what I think is his legacy, just overcoming a number of injuries and now really getting a chance in his last year to contribute to success.”
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Similarly, fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford was recovering from a torn ACL a year ago. Returning was presumed, but hardly guaranteed. It was, after all, his third season-ending injury. Then this season, he dislocated his elbow. Crawford’s career again looked truncated, only to miss just two games.
“He’s gritty, tough,” Kelly said.”… Great to see him out there competing, physical. He’s a great leader for us, as well.”
While the 2016 class has played a key role in righting the Irish locker room, these two holdovers from the 2015 recruiting class have defined toughness and resilience in ways cliches cannot capture.
As for how these seniors could threaten Boston College, the onus may fall on Kareem and defensive end Jamir Jones. The Eagles’ defense is, in a word, terrible; Book, Claypool & Finke should have little trouble scoring.
But Boston College will try to run through Notre Dame be it by skill or by fatigue.
“It’s a team that quite interestingly enough has really evolved into a very difficult team to defend offensively with both the two running backs in [junior AJ Dillon and sophomore David Bailey],” Kelly said. “Just outstanding backs. One is 240 pounds, 250 pounds, depends on what scale you look at.”
Junior defensive tackles Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish will be counted upon to hold the point of attack in the middle so Kareem, Jones and senior defensive end Ade Ogundeji can clean up runs to the exterior.
On top of that, Bilal should get another chance to show just how far he has come this season. As adept as junior Drew White is at filling running lanes, he is somewhat undersized and that could be an issue against Dillon, who takes an inordinate amount of pride in 3- or 4-yard runs, seemingly always falling forward for an extra yard. Bilal’s broader frame may be needed.
To help him, senior safety Alohi Gilman has always found his way to the ball, even if it is with a running back in the backfield.
The Irish offense has relied on its seniors most of the season, and its defense will very much have to do so, as well, against Boston College.
Hayes’ input on the NBCSN broadcast could be especially informative. Not often is a current player put behind a microphone during a game, and by “not often,” it may have been more accurate to say, “never.”
He will be joined by NBC Sports’ Ahmed Fareed, former Irish running back Darius Walker, Sports Illustrated producer Jessica Smetana and in-stadium reporter Tony Simeone. The “Notre Dame Fan Feed” will rely on the radio play-by-play while offering commentary during breaks. Limited commercials will allow for more Irish-specific content.
Again, to eliminate any confusion: This will air simultaneously as the usual broadcast, but on NBCSN. Both the NBC and the NBCSN broadcasts will begin at 2:30 ET on Saturday.
The 2016 stats of current seniors and fifth-years …
Claypool: 12 games, five catches for 81 yards, one rush for nine yards, 11 tackles.
Bilal: 12 games, 29 tackles with three for loss including one sack.
Elliott: 12 games, 14 tackles.
Hayes: 12 games with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.
Okwara: 11 games, four tackles.
Vaughn: 10 games, 22 tackles, six pass breakups with one interception.
Finke: 10 games, 10 catches for 122 yards, two tackles.
Jones: 10 games, eight tackles.
Ruhland: 9 games.
Pride: 8 games, 12 tackles, one fumble recovery.
Javon McKinley: 7 games.
Kareem: 4 games.
Crawford: 2 games, six tackles, one interception.
The nine seniors with remaining eligibility who will at least be considered for returning as fifth-years: Book, left tackle Liam Eichenberg, right guard Tommy Kraemer, Tony Jones, McKinley, Hayes, Ogundeji, Gilman, Crawford.