Enduring optimism is a great attribute for one to possess in their arsenal against the inevitable crusade against the realities of life, and Irish fans have probably needed to call upon it more than most, at least over the last two years. From a seemingly epidemic of injuries to a collection of suspensions, very few teams have had to live by the mantra “Next Man In” more than the Fighting Irish football program.
So here we are, heading into the weekend and facing the #12 ranked Clemson Tigers, in South Carolina, and on ABC as the Saturday night game of the week. I am not sure there is a more important game on the schedule than this weekend’s game, a game that will severely alter the path for the winner and loser of this contest. The Irish will do so of course with a laundry list of injuries – many of which have come at the skill positions.
It’s one thing to have to deal with setbacks during a college football season, every team does. It’s the approach and ability to overcome these injuries that separate the playoff contenders and pretenders as the grind of a season wears on. An easy example for Irish fans to draw upon is the 2014 season, a season that saw their team start 6-0, and finish 7-5. While an impressive win against LSU in the Music City Bowl helped ease the pain of a season that could have been, the second half of the 2014 regular season was a downward spiral that provided a cloud of negativity that shrouded Notre Dame in every way possible.
So what is different this year as opposed to the ’13 and ’14 season of Notre Dame Football? I don’t think it’s as simple as a one word answer. The answer lies in a collection of thoughts, preparation, and personnel. Before week 3 of the early college football season even began, The Irish found themselves relying on a “red-shirt” freshman at quarterback, a converted wide receiver playing running back for the first time in his career, an inexperienced freshmen and sophomore combo at nose tackle, and a true freshman at tight end.
If you weren’t an Irish fan, it’s almost comical to read the before mentioned list of replacement players that the Irish coaching staff has had to plug in and use in a very short time frame. If you are an Irish fan, while it may not be funny, it is impressive what this group has accomplished so far in a very short time.
Notre Dame quarterback Deshone Kizer is one of those “replacements” we are speaking of. It’s a bit surreal to think that this young man had an offer from Alabama, and had to literally wait and hope that the Irish coaching staff would offer, which thankfully, they finally did. A young man searching for a way to get some reps in practice a year ago, now finds himself as a focus and navigator of the 2015 Irish offense. What makes him special? There’s many qualities, but his maturity, ability to learn and understand what the coaching staff wants, and high football I.Q are good places to start.
Also, can we say enough good things the job C.J. Prosise has done, and the way he has conducted himself? No, you can’t. A former wide receiver and special team’s player who has quietly found his name sneaking onto NFL draft boards and possible Heisman consideration. In 4 games this year, the Virginia native has rushed for 600 yards and 6 touchdowns while carrying a healthy 8.1 yards per carry average. Keep in mind that he isn’t doing this against the likes Jackson St. and Youngstown St either.
It’s not only Prosise and Kizer that are stepping up either. There are names scattered everywhere on the depth chart that have made a conscious decision to be part of the solution, as opposed to buying into a mindset of pity and excuses. No, this team feels different, the attitude feels different, and the approach feels different. The Irish have the depth, the mindset, and the belief that they can overcome any obstacle that is thrown at them, in 2015, and so far they have proven that on the field.
While every team has their share of injuries, it seems the Irish football program has turned dealing with injuries into an art form. A head coach in Brian Kelly who in years past would non-verbally display the frustration on his face, now seems to accept what has taken place in South Bend this year, and keeps an extremely positive outlook. There is something different in the way that he conducts himself when approaching the media, and for myself at least, it feels like that attitude has permeated the entire team. It’s easy to talk about the next man in philosophy, as many teams do, but it’s quite another to actually buy into the mindset completely and it would seem that the 2015 Irish football team has done exactly that.