While the news of Everett Golson earning the starting quarterback position surprised no one on Wednesday, the news of true freshman Andrew Trumbetti leap frogging junior Romeo Okwara raised some eyebrows across the Notre Dame fan base.
“He’s a starter for us right now,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said on Wednesday of the true freshman early enrollee . “He’s the other starting defensive end for us, so he’ll start as a true freshman for us. He’s just that kind of player,” he added.
The “other starting defensive end” position Kelly was referring to is the weak-side defensive end spot that was manned by junior Romeo Okwara throughout the spring and at the start of fall camp.
“He’s really separated himself, and I sometimes forget that he’s a freshman because he’s almost separated himself from this freshman class,” Kelly explained when describing what has allowed Trumbetti to skyrocket up the depth chart this summer. “We think that he’s got a huge upside for us in so many areas that sometimes, like I said, I don’t talk about him enough, but a great motor, physical, smart, does all the things that we ask him to do.”
That starting position Kelly is referring to for Trumbetti is mainly as a first and second down player. On third downs, Kelly mentioned that Notre Dame will use multiple personnel. “We’ve got third down players. We’ve got nickel players, dime players, 30 front players. It’s going to drive you crazy,” Kelly said. “So to really peg them as starters or non‑starters, you’re going to play so many different groups of players defensively you’re going to need a scorecard.”
Still, for Trumbetti cracking the starting lineup at defensive end as a true freshman is no small accomplishment. Trumbetti did have the advantage of enrolling early to help him get a head start but Notre Dame has had other early enrollees along the defensive line who weren’t able to crack the starting lineup as freshmen over the years. Aaron Lynch for instance enrolled early in 2011 and while he made an impact as a pass rusher, he wasn’t a day one starter for the Irish.
If Trumbetti is able to hold onto the starting weak-side role, he will become the first true freshman to start a season opener for Notre Dame along the defensive line since Anthony Weaver did so 16 years ago in 1998 – a 36-20 upset of then #5 Michigan. Weaver went on to have a great career for the Irish that culminated with him being a 2nd round NFL Draft pick in 2002 of the Baltimore Ravens.
What role Romeo Okwara plays in the defense is now a bit unclear. Kelly wasn’t asked specifically about the player Trumbetti has unseated for the starting role, but Kelly also didn’t mention the junior when talking about those potential third down pass rushers either. Okwara showed promise in the spring and it would be a shock at this point if Brian VanGorder isn’t able to find a role for him in the new Notre Dame defense.
While Trumbetti has overtaken Okwara at the weak side, Ishaq Williams appears to have the strong side defensive position all but locked up at this point. “He’s our starter strong side end, and he’s had a good camp, and he’s earned a starting role right now,” Kelly said of the one time 5-star recruit looking to make his mark in his final season of eligibility.
Trumbetti isn’t the only freshman making waves along the defensive line either. Classmate Jonathan Bonner has cracked the two deep as well as the backup to Sheldon Day at the 3-technique position. Like Trumbetti, Bonner’s been able to crack the two deep by not playing like a freshman in practice. “Explosive, explosive off the ball, has got toughness, plays physical, plays like a big boy. Doesn’t play like a freshman. He’s got maturity and we’ll see action,” Kelly said of Bonner.
Kelly also reiterated that multiple other freshmen will see action in the front seven this year. He mentioned again on Wednesday that Kolin Hill and Jhonny Williams will see action on third down as pass rushers. Greer Martini has moved into the two-deep at the WILL position behind pre-season All-American Jaylon Smith as well.
While Nyles Morgan may be overwhelmed at the moment at the critical MIKE position, Kelly mentioned that Morgan’s sideline to sideline athleticism helps him make up for it. “Oh, he’s totally overwhelmed. Totally overwhelmed, but it doesn’t matter because he runs all over the place. He runs and makes plays,” Kelly said before adding, “Oh, yeah, he’s playing. He’s playing.” Joe Schmidt is still the starter at MIKE, but it seems clear whenever Kelly talks about Morgan that he is anxious to get the freshman linebacker on the field.
This year’s freshman class may not have been as heralded as some Notre Dame classes in the past, but it looks like we will see the haul of front seven players pay dividends for the Irish as early as this fall starting with new starting weak-side defensive end Andrew Trumbetti. It sounds like it may only be a matter of time until he’s joined by some teammates on the field as well.