Notre Dame football notebook: Irish rookies make mark on depth chart

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - The consistency of the player-development machine, the depth that Brian Kelly had built, the disappearing holes that used to be so glaring all seemed to conspire against a youth movement this season in the Notre Dame football program.

Or at least a significant one.

Yet the first official ND depth chart of the 2013 season, revealed Tuesday, shows eight true freshmen on it, including a starter in outside linebacker Jaylon Smith. That’s three more than were in the top 22 last season.

Kelly, ND’s fourth-year head coach, will be shooting for career win No. 200 Saturday, when he unleashes the newcomers as the 14th-ranked Irish host Temple in the season opener and first-ever meeting between the two schools in football.

Others to rise to the top two levels of the depth chart are offensive tackles Steve Elmer and Hunter Bivin, wide receivers Corey Robinson and James Onwualu, running back Greg Bryant, defensive end Isaac Rochell and cornerback Cole Luke.

Several others not listed in the two-deeps — including running back Tarean Folston, safety Max Redfield and cornerback Devin Butler — could see the field as well, at least on special teams.

“You look at the type of guys Notre Dame recruited last year. These guys were physically ready,” offered 247Sports national recruiting writer Steve Wiltfong. “I mean, they didn’t recruit any projects. Even the guys you didn’t expect to play, they’re going to give Notre Dame good snaps on the scout team with their size and athleticism.

“It’s no surprise they came into South Bend physically ready to play.”

They’ve apparently brought a tough mental edge as well, which seems to have accelerated their collective learning curve.

“I've asked them on a couple of occasions: Have they lost their passion or their desire to want to continue to get better?” Kelly said. “And every day I see these guys wanting to get better, staying out, watching film. It's not new to them anymore. They haven't leveled off. They haven't hit the wall in a sense. So I think what's impressed me the most about this group is that they're in it for the long haul.”

The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Smith will become the first Irish linebacker to start a season opener since Kory Minor in 1994, roughly 2½ months after the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Bishop Luers product was born.

He certainly had the pedigree for an early opportunity. According to the 247Sports composite player rankings, Smith was the nation’s No. 2 overall prospect in the 2013 recruiting cycle. But he brought the humility of a walk-on to the position.

“I don't know that there were many times where we had to remind him that, ‘Hey, you have to work for it.’ But he had to work for it,” Kelly said of Smith’s ascent.

And what might that work look like out on the field Saturday?

“He’s a guy who immediately comes in and he’s one of the best athletes on Notre Dame’s team,” Wiltfong said “He’s a kid who can really run. He’s tall and long, and it sounds like he’s added a lot of mass and not lost any of that athleticism.

“He’s very versatile, because he can cover AND he can rush the passer. He’s not afraid to get physical. And he’s never become a distraction, because of the way he carries himself.

“It’s a credit to his family and the people around him. Even through the recruiting process, he never drew unnecessary attention to himself via social media or anything like that. He’s just a smart kid, and a natural leader. And he loves playing football. He comes from a great high school football program, where they won four state titles in a row. And so he’s a winner.”

And that attitude seems to have rubbed off on the other freshmen.

“We saw it in the recruiting process,” Kelly said. “This is a group that has shown us from day one that they will play hard. They have a great respect for the game and a great respect for their teammates. No trash talking. It's not about themselves; it's about their team.

“They have blended in so well to an established identity within this football team, and it takes a humble group of guys, and that's why it's a pretty good dynamic.”

DB Badger to transfer

It was a decision Chris Badger’s family didn’t see coming, but embraces, nonetheless.

The sophomore safety from Provo, Utah, asked for and was granted his release from his scholarship at Notre Dame and will transfer to his hometown school, Brigham Young, Badger’s brother, Troy, confirmed Tuesday.

Chris Badger met with ND coach Brian Kelly last week, received the release Sunday, talked with the BYU coaches Monday and Tuesday and will start classes on the Provo campus on Sept. 3 with the rest of the student body. A Notre Dame spokesman also confirmed the impending transfer.

Badger will have to sit out the upcoming season but will have three seasons of eligibility remaining.

“It really was kind of an all-of-the-sudden decision,” Troy Badger said. “In the last week or two, he just felt he might want to be closer to home. The Notre Dame coaches were very understanding.”

Part of the pull home was an illness Badger’s mother, Shauna, is dealing with. While Tory said it does not physically restrict their mother’s travel, Chris just felt being in Provo was “where he needed to be.”

Badger was a member of Kelly’s first recruiting class and enrolled early, in January of 2010. But after going through that spring semester, the member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints decided to take a Mormon Mission, which wiped out his 2010 and 2011 football seasons.

His NCAA clock restarted in the summer of 2012, when he re-enrolled still as a freshman. Badger did not see playing time in 2012 and was treading water on a deep safety depth chart heading into Saturday’s season opener.

The 6-foot, 197-pounder from Timpview High School will be a walk-on at BYU, at least initially.

“I don’t think he has any regrets about going to Notre Dame,” Troy said. “I know for a fact he had a great experience there, acclimated well and had a lot of friends on and off the field. I’m sure he’s disappointed that he didn’t get to accomplish some of his goals there. He has no guarantees at BYU, but he’s OK with that. It’s something he felt he just needed to do.”

Personnel matters

• The most improved players over the course of ND’s 3½ weeks of training camp? A first-time starter and a veteran player toiling in a huge shadow.

Kelly identified center Nick Martin as the riser on offense. The junior from Indianapolis and his All-America candidate brother Zack at left tackle will be the first set of brothers to start at offensive line for Notre Dame since the Huffmans in 1978 (Dave and Tim).

Nick Martin’s proving ground was going against preseason first-team All-America nose guard Louis Nix in practice every day.

“I would say that the progress that he's made in such a very short period of time has been really impressive for me,” Kelly said.

Kona Schwenke, meanwhile, backs up the 6-3, 342-pound Nix and possibly could see some playing time at end as well.

“Kona Schwenke has been a different player in the spring than he is right now,” Kelly said. “He's going to play a lot of football. He could play for a lot of teams and make an impact.”

• Struggling to shake the rust of two surgeries in 2012 and a year away from football, senior Austin Collinsworth made a late surge at safety and is listed as the starter for Saturday’s opener.

Kelly qualified it, though, as more of a time-share with sophomore Elijah Shumate, but given how much ground Collinsworth had to cover to pull even, the climb is remarkable.

“I think it's a 1A-1B situation,” Kelly said, “depending on where we are in the game, down and distance — a lot of those factors will be involved. I think you've got to look at both of those guys playing an equal amount of football.”

• Sophomore offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley, out late last week with a concussion, was back on the practice field Monday and is expected to make his first collegiate start Saturday. Freshman Elmer is expected to rotate in at the position.

• Sophomore Will Mahone, ND’s sixth option at running back but a player who had a strong training camp, will miss the Temple game while still recovering from a high ankle sprain.

Notable numbers

• The Notre Dame-Michigan game, Sept. 7 in Ann Arbor, Mich., could end up being one that determines which team is No. 1 all-time in winning percentage. But the Irish need some help.

Michigan overtook the Irish for that distinction nine years ago, in the final season of the Tyrone Willingham coaching era.

If Notre Dame beats Temple in its opener Saturday and Michigan takes care of heavy underdog Central Michigan, an Irish win the following week would push the two teams into a virtual tie, with a .734 winning percentage. Michigan would have a slight edge when you bring that figure out to the fourth decimal place.

However, in the unlikely event Michigan is upset by Central Michigan in its opener, then loses to the Irish, Notre Dame would have the top spot all to itself.

• On Saturday, 14th-ranked Notre Dame will be the 78th ranked team Temple has faced since 1974. The Owls are 2-75 in their previous 77 games against the top 25, winning on the road over No. 14 Virginia Tech in 1998 (28-24) and at No. 16 Pitt in 1987 (24-21).

• Perhaps it’s mostly a reflection of Notre Dame’s projected starting quarterback, but on Jan. 8 — the day after the Irish lost the national championship, 42-14, to Alabama — Bovada.LV listed the Irish with 22-1 odds to win the 2013 national title.

Now, with Tommy Rees running the offense rather than Everett Golson, the Irish in late August are at 50-1. Nineteen teams have better odds than ND, led by favorite Alabama at 5-2.

Last August, Notre Dame was a 40-1 shot to win the BCS championship.

Notre Dame freshman running back should set plenty of time on the field when Notre Dame opens the season against Temple Saturday. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ