Things To Learn: More about what Notre Dame’s seniors have already taught

3 Comments

Senior Day is more often about what has already been learned than what can be learned. Notre Dame has won its home finale in each of the last four seasons, and Saturday against Georgia Tech (2:30 ET; NBC) should quickly make that five straight, tacking a fifth straight loss onto the Wreck’s current losing streak.

The No. 8 Irish (9-1) might rack up sacks for a second week in a row, after enjoying seven of them at Virginia, thanks to the Yellow Jackets’ offensive line that is not yet fully rebuilt from its triple-option days. Notre Dame’s “hurry-up Jack” offense could put on a show for the Playoff committee against a defense giving up 9.41 yards per pass attempt and a 64.7 percent completion rate. Its offensive line may put forth a clean slate that further distances it from admitted September struggles considering the Wreck have just eight sacks in nine games once discounting its eight against North Carolina’s porous front.

Doing all that would not reveal much about the Irish. More so, a mere win will be a reflection of what this senior class has put together.

It has lost once at Notre Dame Stadium. Add in the fifth-year players’ experience in 2017, and they have lost just twice at home. A win Saturday will make this the fifth straight year with at least 10 victories, 52 in total and this weekend should push that to 53.

“This is a group that has won a lot of football games,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Monday. “I think over a five-year period of time, they have a chance to be the winningest in the history of Notre Dame football. … They have lived up to the standards and I think have understood what now the standard is at Notre Dame and they pass that on.

“This is pretty rare air that they’ve been flying.”

The fifth-year seniors — most notably in this context, defensive end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and kicker Jonathan Doerer, both of whom committed and signed with the Irish right as National Signing Day bore down — signed with Notre Dame right after the 4-8 debacle in 2016. That faceplant did not jeopardize their commitments, a cohort held together by a Pittsburgh contingent led by defensive tackle Kurt Hinish and offensive tackle Josh Lugg. Their blue-collar ethos set the initial tone for this 2017- resurgence.

In Hinish’s case, that ethos is put on display every week just before the Irish take the field. He doesn’t tear up, but he does show some emotion.

“I throw up before every game, and I’ve been doing it for a long time,” Hinish said Tuesday. “That’s something people don’t know about me, I throw up in the garbage can before every single game, no matter who we’re playing.”

In Hinish’s case, that has been 58 times (Saturday makes 59), an all-time Notre Dame record for appearances, a record set in part by Hinish’s work ethic and durability and in part by the opportunity allowed by the pandemic eligibility waiver. His only absences in five years came in this season’s first half when debilitating migraines forced Hinish to a specialist in Michigan before he could retake the field.

“He brings that toughness, that grit, that demeanor of a defensive lineman in terms of how they go to work every single day,” Kelly said Thursday. “It’s been a standard that now has been part of that legacy along the defensive line that has grown here at Notre Dame. Kurt’s been part of that.

“He also brings an incredible mentality, carrying the torch as a captain and as a leader. He’s vigilant in the standards that we have set here, the high standards. He’s going to be sorely missed, both as a captain, a leader of presence and personality. He’s a no-nonsense guy. He’s a throwback in a lot of ways.”

The current seniors, ones like receivers Kevin Austin and Braden Lenzy, along with defensive linemen Justin and Jayson Ademilola, went through the bulk of their recruiting processes while the Irish floundered through 2016. As much as Hinish’s class gets the credit for holding together during that embarrassing season, the following class largely committed to Notre Dame during or shortly after that nadir.

Of those 27 signees — including a few who have since transferred, such as quarterback Phil Jurkovec, defensive end Ovie Oghoufo and linebacker Jack Lamb, along with one player already in the NFL in tight end Tommy Tremble — 15 of them committed to the Irish before this five-year stretch began. Austin was the last of those 15, joining the class in August of 2017, the 4-8 mishap still more fresh in minds than anything else from Notre Dame.

It may have been the likes of Quenton Nelson, Mike McGlinchey and Drue Tranquill who righted the figurative ship that season, but it was these recruiting classes that the Irish coaching staff pulled in that kept the program on the path to return to form. That 2016 comedy could just as easily have torpedoed the two classes and led to roster struggles in 2020 and 2021.

Instead, Notre Dame is in the mix for its third Playoff appearance in four years.

Kelly insists he does not remember those ups and downs of recruiting, the ensuing four years of experiences dwarfing those memories, but that may not be the case if the ensuing four years of experiences had been rife with losses rather than four straight unbeaten Novembers.

“To me, it’s the journey that I remember much more than the actual what happened in the last week or 48 hours (of recruiting),” Kelly said Monday. “I remember the journey with those guys over the four years more than I remember what led up to it, and the memories that I have with those guys.

“What I’ll remember when they run out (of the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel) for the last time is the time that I’ve had with them more so than what led up to them coming here.”

That time has produced more success than anyone expected as the Irish signed these recruits. That time included a home victory against the No. 1 team in the country, the subsequent field rushing being Hinish’s favorite memory of his 58 games. And that time put the 2016 wreck firmly in Notre Dame’s rearview mirror, a bump rather than a milestone.