Things We Learned: Youth keeps Notre Dame ‘ascending,’ a change from the past and a key to the Playoff

Notre Dame v Virginia
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For the majority of his 12 years at Notre Dame, Brian Kelly did not enjoy the luxuries of his current roster. More precisely, the Irish did not enjoy this depth in both competence and playmaking for the better part of 30 years.

Now, though, 10 games into the fifth season of an ongoing resurgence, No. 8 Notre Dame’s depth is undeniable. It may be bordering on overwhelming.

A 28-3 win against an overmatched Virginia (6-4) playing without its best player may not be the expected opportunity to show that depth, but such is the nature of depth in football: It reveals itself when unlikely.

“We’re better than we were in September and October,” Kelly said Saturday night. “This football team is getting better each and every week. We’ve played young players that are now much more mature, playing better. We’re ascending as a football team.”

He was workshopping a Playoff pitch, one that Will Likely land on deaf ears unless both No. 3 Oregon and No. 5 Cincinnati falter, something entirely out of Irish influence, obviously. That is a different discussion. Kelly’s point about younger players’ contributions is its own thesis.

Notre Dame’s offensive line always looked young this season, with left tackle Blake Fisher the second freshman to start a season opener on the Irish line ever, but injuries have forced that youth movement to take over the entire offense. Running back Logan Diggs, receivers Lorenzo Styles and Deion Colzie, left tackle Joe Alt and quarterback Tyler Buchner have all become key pieces this season first because of injury and then because of their own success.

“You’ve seen in the past that freshmen have not always played — [the current freshmen] have put themselves in a situation where not just themselves but everyone around them feels very comfortable with them going in,” senior receiver Braden Lenzy said. “As much as it sucks to see [fifth-year receiver Avery Davis] down, there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that they’d be able to pick up what we’d be missing. I’m really excited for them. They work really hard every week, and they can clearly play at a high level. I think they’re going to be fantastic, all of them.”

Lenzy’s words applied beyond Styles and Colzie, though it is also clear Styles will have a notable role in Notre Dame’s offense not just the rest of this month but for the next couple of years. 

All those freshmen will, and they are nowhere near fully developed, despite these praises. Diggs might hurdle a defender mere seconds after a stiff arm, but what Kelly sees is someone needing an offseason spent in the strength and conditioning program.

“He’s patient, he’s physical,” Kelly said. “He sees the hole, one of them, you probably wouldn’t even look at it as his best run because you’re going to think about jumping over and hurdling, which obviously catches your eye, but it was his last run where they sent a corner from the boundary and spiked the defense to the field. He sets the run and he cuts it back for a seven-yard gain. It was a veteran run. He’s going to be a really good back.

“Can’t wait to get him in the weight room with coach Balis. He’s already 215 pounds right now, he’s strong, he’s going to be a special player.”

Diggs finished with nine carries for 64 yards on Saturday. Styles had 41 total yards from scrimmage. Buchner went 3-of-4 for 42 passing yards and added 10 rushing yards. Even freshman tight end Mitchell Evans got in on the action, catching one 8-yard pass.

Such an emergence of youth had not been needed defensively until the flu bug wiped out much of the Irish leadership this week. Fifth-year linebacker Drew White had a 103-degree temperature on Friday, per Kelly. Fifth-year defensive end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa’s was 101 degrees in pregame. Neither donned pads.

So freshman linebacker Prince Kollie saw some action. Junior defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah finally got regular playing time, then outdone by sophomore defensive tackle, now perhaps a defensive end, Rylie Mills, who had two sacks Saturday. Sophomore receiver-turned-safety Xavier Watts looked in place in his second week getting Saturday action in his new role. His roommate, Ramon Henderson, got his first start at safety and finished with four tackles and an interception.

None of these were names you expected to hear Saturday night or Sunday morning. Hearing them will only help Notre Dame moving forward, and that’s in terms that go beyond a thin chase for the Playoff.

“From my personal view, I think it helps a lot with confidence,” Henderson said. “From my experience last year and the beginning of this year, you do kind of feel lost in the emotions, lost throughout the season when you don’t play. Having the involvement of everyone, getting everyone involved and being able to watch film, be like, ‘Yeah you did a good job,’ getting a pat on the back can do a lot for you.

“Allowing everyone to rally into the rotation does a lot for our team.”

Trumpeting the reserves for a win that was supposed to be the best case the Irish could make for the Playoff is not the figurative result foreseen. In that respect, it was a dud of a win. In what could have been a moment of note, Notre Dame was not challenged and could not genuinely impress, though through no fault of its own.

But it was a dud of a win, not an exclamation point of a loss.

For the majority of Kelly’s 12 years at Notre Dame, playing without an All-American safety, playing without four of seven captains, losing more than a dozen players throughout the week to the flu — each would have doomed an Irish roster. All of them would have sent Notre Dame off a cliff in terms of in-season development.

The 2014 collapse comes to mind, when the Irish started 6-0, lost a dramatic game at Florida State and then ended the regular season on a four-game losing streak as attrition rendered the defense an unrecognizable unit. Notre Dame did not have this depth, both in talent and in worthwhile numbers, back then.

Not having it, limited Irish dreams. Notre Dame descended to end that season and many others.

Now, Kelly can at least make the Playoff argument, whether it is heard or not another matter.

“We’re ascending as a football team. Anytime you’re trying to put a résumé together, it’s about how you play later in the year. The eye test is this football team is playing better defensively, offensively. We’re sitting here, 9-1.

“We’ve turned over virtually an entire roster and (are) playing pretty good football.”