SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brian Kelly’s vague answers went only so far. Without understanding just how frustrating Notre Dame’s loss of seven players to positive tests and contact tracing was, its ability to work through the quick roster depletion could not be properly understood. The Irish head coach did not explicitly say how and when he learned he would be without two defensive starters due to the late week quarantines, but he made it clear the news came closer to kickoff than anything else.
“It’s an ongoing process,” Kelly said after No. 7 Notre Dame beat South Florida, 52-0, Saturday. “During the week or 2:00 in the morning or 12:50 before kickoff, you just kind of roll with it.”
The Irish did more than roll with it. They proved they have not only the depth to withstand losing four players from their defensive two-deep — five if counting sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton’s week off with a sprained ankle — including both the starter and the backup at Buck linebacker, but also the focus to work with what is available without pause.
“We live in this world right now, you’re never prepared for it, but we are aware of it and we know it could happen,” Kelly said. “Our players responded well. Our coaches were prepared and they responded well.
“You hate to see anybody not available, but it’s the reality that we live in and our guys did a great job. It’s why we’ve prepared so deep in the ranks in terms of giving guys reps and opportunities to be prepared.”
Beating the Bulls naturally garners comparisons to where Kelly’s program was back in 2011, when South Florida upset Notre Dame in dramatic, rain-soaked fashion, but the program development goes beyond the flawed infrastructure Kelly inherited from Charlie Weis and he from Tyrone Willingham and he from Bob Davie. Even just a few years ago, the Irish could not have handled losing sophomore cornerback Tariq Bracy, junior linebacker Shayne Simon and his sophomore backup Marist Liufau, and junior running back Jahmir Smith.
Just in the 2018 preseason, Notre Dame’s roster development stood out. While the Irish had improved their top-line talent from 2011 to 2017, despite 2016’s debacle, it had not grown the roster deep into the reserves as needed. That was very much a part of 2016’s myriad problems, as injuries and disciplinary issues tore through Notre Dame’s secondary. That was how the Irish leaned on five freshmen, one sophomore and one graduate transfer among their top-nine defensive backs in that trouble of a season.
By 2018, tangible depth had arrived.
“I’d say 65-85,” Kelly said as preseason practice began two years ago. “That’s probably where the key break is, the 65-85, a lot of those younger guys that we feel have the ability. … Our depth is in that 65-85 range.”
Current sophomore linebacker Jack Kiser may not have been as far down as 65 on this roster before this weekend, nor likely was freshman cornerback Clarence Lewis, but the luxury of plugging-and-playing a deep reserve in a competent fashion was one beyond Notre Dame not too long ago. Now, their existence lessens this season’s most pressing and most constant concern.
“When I found out, it was just a mentality, let’s go,” Kiser said after receiving the game ball thanks to his team-high eight tackles, including two for loss. “I knew the game plan, that’s one thing [defensive coordinator Clark Lea] does a really good job of during the week, making sure every guy in the room knows the game plan no matter if you’re going to scout team or not, so when I got the news, okay, let’s go, it’s time to play.”
When Kiser first got the news this week, he indeed had scout team responsibilities to tend to. The Irish first realized Kiser may need to start this weekend “earlier in the week,” per the central Indiana native, before “solidifying” that news “finally” on Saturday. Presumably, that was the 12:50 moment Kelly vaguely yet specifically mentioned.
With no drastically focusing moment of injury, with hardly any warning, Kiser had leapt from third-string to starter, and he handled it more than ably.
“He’s a remarkable young man that can help our offense get prepared for South Florida’s defense and then put himself in a position where he can lead our team in tackles,” Kelly said. “I was kidding [Lea]. ‘What are you doing? Why hasn’t he been starting all year?’ Tongue-in-cheek, but [Kiser] has prepared himself very well.”
That could be a testament to only Kiser or one mitigated by the Bulls’ daunting rebuild, but when similar praises can befall Lewis and a running back depth chart so deep the two-deep naturally includes five names, it becomes praise of an entire roster.
And it becomes a chance for the entire roster. In the most unorthodox of fashions, the vigilance and discipline necessitated by the pandemic have created the incentive for the scout team, for the 65 to 85, to remain engaged and ready. The NCAA granting an eligibility mulligan for the season provides a fundamental foundation to that thought process for any player on the fence.
“I know it’s cliché-ish, but it’s the ‘Next Man In’ mentality that we have built, and we trust our guys and they trust us,” Kelly said. “We know that their preparation is going to be such that they are going to be ready to play.”
“Next Man In” used to be a Kelly mantra with little supporting it. An injury forcing in a substitute was a reality of football, not a genuine chance for a backup to shine. The rash of injuries that crippled the Irish defense in 2014 showed that. Be it because of defensive coordinator, player development or shoddy recruiting, the backups were more “Sacrificial Lambs In” than worthy contributors.
Kiser and Lewis proved otherwise Saturday. Three running backs scoring touchdowns and the top back setting up fifth-year quarterback Ian Book for two gimme’s furthered that proof.
When Simon and Liufau and Bracy return, the best guess being to face Florida State on Oct. 10, the renewed depth will underscore the strength of the Irish roster even more.
No one in football or in the world is properly prepared for a pandemic, but Notre Dame’s roster gives it a genuine chance to play through this small outbreak — and for all involved, hopefully it remains contained to the seven players withheld — without a hiccup.