Anytime a top-rated recruit comes to Notre Dame and doesn’t see the field immediately, there’s a small but vocal section of the fanbase who trots out an old narrative that Brian Kelly doesn’t play freshmen. Even some in the media like to run with the narrative when they feel like their evaluations from watching 10 minutes of recruiting film should trump what the coaches see in practice every day. Well, it’s been a tough year for those folks because Notre Dame is playing freshmen in large numbers this fall.
From week one, even before injuries necessitated some freshmen play, Notre Dame was not shy about putting true freshmen on the field. Of course, that shouldn’t have been a surprise either. In 2020, running back Chris Tyree, tight end Michael Mayer, and cornerback Clarence Lewis had prominent roles on a playoff team.
But, when Jordan Johnson, a top-100 recruit, didn’t play, many assumed that it was just because Kelly didn’t want to play freshmen. I am guilty of this to an extent as well since I pondered out loud in my columns last fall why Johnson wasn’t playing. A year later, Johnson is at UCF, where he has precisely as many catches for the Knights this year as he did for Notre Dame last year – zero. Maybe, just maybe, the coaches do know a bit then we do?
This fall is proving even more so that when freshmen are ready to play, Brian Kelly will play them and give them significant, prominent roles.
Joe Alt & Blake Fisher
Notre Dame started the season with true freshman Blake Fisher as the starting left tackle – perhaps the most pivotal position on offense outside of quarterback. Fisher was an early enrollee but was still the first true freshman to start an opener at LT in Notre Dame football history.
When FIsher went down with an injury, Notre Dame tried to fill the spot with sophomores Michael Carmody and Tosh Baker. When Carmody had his own injury issue, and Baker struggled a bit, Notre Dame inserted another true freshman at LT – Joe Alt. This was even more surprising than Fisher to start the year since Fisher was a top-50 bluechip prospect. Alt was a tight end to begin his senior season of high school football.
Since inserting Alt into the lineup – along with the insertion of Andrew Kristofic -the offensive line has stabilized, and the future of the line looks extremely bright with seemingly two highly capable, potential elite left tackles, each with three years of eligibility remaining.
Lorenzo Styles & Deion Colzie
Even before injuries and transfers hit the wide receiver room at Notre Dame this year, freshmen Lorenzo Styles and Deion Colzie were working their ways up the depth chart. Styles and Colzie each caught their first passes against Toledo in week two. The injury to Joe Wilkins and the pending transfer of Lawrence Keys has opened up more opportunities for the freshmen duo.
Notre Dame thought so highly of the two that they moved sophomore Xavier Watts to ROVER, where he is still waiting to make an impact. Like Johnson, many, myself included, wondered why he wasn’t seeing time at receiver last year when Notre Dame could have used more explosiveness at the position. A year later, he has moved over to defense.
Perhaps the most high-profile freshman to see time this year is quarterback Tyler Buchner. Many fans wanted Notre Dame to just turn the reigns over to Buchner to start the season and let him learn on the fly. However, that was never a realistic expectation considering how little football Buchner played before arriving at Notre Dame due to injuries and his lost senior year because of the COVID delayed California high school season last year.
However, from the second week of the season, there has been a plan for Buchner each week that he’s been healthy. We’ve seen the very good and the very bad (interceptions versus Virginia Tech) of playing a true freshman with limited experience so far.
You can argue, and I have, that there have been more spots where Buchner should have been used – hello first and goal after Bo Bauer’s interception last week. But, you can’t really argue that the staff’s plan for bringing Buchner along without just throwing him to the wolves hasn’t been sound. So, expect his package and playing time to increase throughout the final five games of the season.
Logan Diggs & Audric Estime
When Notre Dame swung for the fences with Will Shipley and missed in early 2020, they scrambled to land a pair of running backs after resetting their board. It looks like they might have stumbled upon two good ones. Audric Estime raised eyebrows this summer with his physical appearance, and Diggs turned heads with his silky-smooth running style.
Against USC, both freshmen backs saw the field in different capacities. Diggs as a traditional running back, and Estime as more of an h-back at the goalline. Both should see those roles continue. Diggs got more run because of the injury to Chris Tyree, but he still had the same number of carries as senior C’bo Flemister.
Both appear to be in line for large roles next year, depending on how the running back room shakes out this off-season.
Because of his size, we knew that Mitchell Evans might be called upon early in his career as a blocking tight end, and he has been. With Michael Mayer limited against Virginia Tech, Evans played a lot until a BS targeting penalty ended his night early. With Kevin Bauman still on the shelf for a bit longer and fellow freshman Cane Berrong out for the season, Evans will continue to see action in that capacity moving forward.
The one freshman that hasn’t played that has been surprising is linebacker Prince Kollie. The 2020 high school Butkus Award Winner likely would have given the attrition at linebacker – specifically at WILL – had it not been for a reported bout of COVID earlier in the season. It will be interesting to see if he can get on the field over the final five games. JD Bertrand sure could use someone to take some snaps off his plate, so he gets a breather now and then.
Even if Kollie doesn’t, plenty of freshmen are playing on both sides of the ball further dispelling any notion that this staff won’t play freshmen.