SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly didn’t go easy on his praise for USC’s wide receivers.
Notre Dame’s head coach called the Trojan trio of Michael Pittman, Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown the best wide receiving corps the Irish will play this year.
Without question, he added.
“Pittman is explosive,” Kelly said. “Gets down the field. Big-play receiver. Catches everything that’s thrown his way.
“Vaughns obviously has great length. It’s a matchup issue.
“And then St. Brown in the slot is physical, competitive, does all the tough jobs as well.
“So just a very, very talented group of wide receivers.”
That trio combined for 29 catches, 305 receiving yards and one touchdown in Notre Dame’s 24-17 victory over USC last November in the regular season finale.
The group has continued to carry the production this season for the Trojans (3-2) despite the team using three starting quarterbacks — JT Daniels, Kedon Slovis and Matt Fink — because of injuries. Kelly said the Irish expect to see Slovis, a freshman, return to the starting lineup after recovering from a concussion suffered in the Utah game on Sept. 20.
The offense, led by coordinator Graham Harrell, looks different than it did last season.
“They’re keeping pressure on you in that they’re looking to push the ball vertically down the field much more than perimeter quick outs and run after catch,” Kelly said. “This is a big-play offense.”
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Pittman leads the way with 35 receptions for 501 yards and four touchdowns. Vaughns (6-2, 190) has 31 catches for 414 yards and two touchdowns. The 6-1, 195-pound St. Brown, the youngest brother of former Irish wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, caught 24 passes for 238 yards and three touchdowns in the first five games.
Trying to keep that trio in check in Saturday’s game (7:30 p.m. on NBC) in Notre Dame Stadium will be one of the most important matchups to monitor. The fact that the No. 9 Irish (4-1) have to play without graduate student cornerback Shaun Crawford, who is still recovering from a dislocated elbow, makes the task that much more difficult.
The Irish are thin at cornerback beyond starters Troy Pride Jr. and TaRiq Bracy. The latter, a sophomore, made his first career start last weekend against Bowling Green.
The next cornerback on the field on either side will be senior Donte Vaughn, who Kelly said Sunday the Irish are considering a redshirt for this season. Vaughn sat out the Bowling Green game, which will allow him to play against USC without jeopardizing his redshirt. Saturday’s game would be Vaughn’s fourth of the year meaning he would have to sit out the rest of the season to qualify for a redshirt.
After Vaughn (6-3, 212) is a big question mark.
“From there, that’s where it gets interesting,” Kelly said. “We’ll have to be creative in coverages and make sure we put our younger players, if in fact they’re called on, in a position to succeed.”
Freshman Cam Hart, who started as a wide receiver when he joined the Irish this offseason, moved to cornerback and saw his first game action at the position on Saturday. The 6-foot-3, 208-pound product of Olney (Md.) Good Counsel is already listed as the No. 2 cornerback behind Troy Pride Jr. on Notre Dame’s depth chart.
Hart played defensive back at Good Counsel in addition to playing wide receiver. Kelly said the coaching staff believed the transition to cornerback would be easy for Hart because of his balance, agility and ability to quickly change directions.
“He still has a lot of work to do,” Kelly said. “He’s far from being in a position where we feel like he can go out there and handle it by himself. We would have to be very limited in what we’re doing.”
That leaves freshman cornerbacks KJ Wallace (5-10, 191) and Isaiah Rutherford (6-1, 188) as the only other remaining scholarship options. Wallace already has played in three games, but his first real action at cornerback didn’t come until the second half of the Bowling Green game. Rutherford made his season debut on Saturday.
Heading into the season, sophomore Houston Griffith appeared to be an option at cornerback as well, but the Irish have moved him to safety. Kelly said the coaching staff would prefer to keep him at safety right now.
“We need him at safety and playing inside for us,” Kelly said. “We would not be doing him a service if we are moving him outside.”
The four-game redshirt rule, which the NCAA started last year, gives college football coaches more options, but it also requires a bit more planning.
Kelly said the Irish laid out a plan before the season that has to be reevaluated each week. He meets with offensive coordinator Chip Long, defensive coordinator Clark Lea and special teams coordinator Brian Polian weekly to determine the depth chart, which players are available to use and which players should be kept off limits.
The staff could use the first few games of the season to determine which players will be needed and which players should be held out with a redshirt season in mind.
“It’s about evaluation and seeing guys that can help us win football games in roles,” Kelly said. “Those guys that are playing significant roles in more than special teams, well, those are easy decisions.
“It’s the guys that are in limited roles and how those limited roles can either be parceled out to four games, or these guys are just too good and they have to play in special teams because they’re impacting us.”
For instance, freshman linebacker Jack Kiser played mostly on special teams in the first four games of the season for Notre Dame. But he didn’t play in the Bowling Green game. If the Irish can continue to find other special teams options in Kiser’s place, he’s likely destined for a redshirt season.
An extra layer of complication comes with the prospect of a redshirt season for a senior. Defensive end Jamir Jones appeared destined for a senior redshirt until fellow senior defensive end Daelin Hayes went down with a torn labrum to end his season. Now senior cornerback Donte Vaughn, as Kelly indicated, could be in line to redshirt.
Those decisions require a lot of communication with individual players, and even their family members, as Notre Dame can offer them a chance to return for a fifth year. But the players could also choose to pursue a graduate transfer and use their final year of eligibility elsewhere if they don’t play more than four games.
“They hold the final card in that whole process,” Kelly said of the topic but not specifically in reference to Jones and Vaughn. “I think there is trust built within the relationships that we have, so those were candid conversations that there can’t be 100-percent guarantee because we’re playing for today.
“If we need somebody, they have to recognize the fact that we need you right now. Certainly some guys have already had to make those decisions, that they’re committed to this team right now and are playing for this season.”
Last Friday night, Kelly attended the South Bend Saint Joseph-Mishawaka game at Father Bly Field. It was Senior Night for Kelly’s youngest son, Kenzel, a defensive end for Saint Joseph.
Kenzel Kelly was the last senior recognized during the pregame ceremony, which allowed Brian Kelly enough time to make it down the street to the stadium following the Irish pep rally at Eddy Street Commons.
Balancing life as a father while being the head coach at Notre Dame requires such detailed time management.
“There isn’t a balance,” Brian Kelly said. “Those that say there is a balance are not telling the truth. It’s trying to make the time that you have quality time.
“So doing things like that that are impactful, senior nights, things of that nature, is what’s most important. That’s what you try to do as a father, is to make those moments impactful when you get the opportunity.”