Notre Dame football: Kelly won’t hesitate to play frosh

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - The first-ever road game for Notre Dame’s latest crop of football freshmen will undoubtedly be the largest crowd they play in front of (110,000-plus) during their college careers, and quite possibly the loudest.

So how does Irish head coach Brian Kelly measure potential playing time Saturday night in Ann Arbor, Mich., against potential culture shock?

Without much science or trepidation.

“We’ve already talked to them about the atmosphere,” Kelly said Thursday night after practice, where his 14th-ranked Irish (1-0) were prepping for No. 17 Michigan (1-0). “Look, we’re going up there to win a game. If they’re nervous and can’t handle it, we probably recruited the wrong guy.”

Ten members of ND’s freshman class played in the opener, the most in a season debut since coach Charlie Weis put 11 in the Irish lineup seven seasons ago. Offensive lineman Steve Elmer figures to be the 11th member of this class to shed the redshirt sooner than later.

Two of the Irish freshmen made starts Saturday against Temple — outside linebacker Jaylon Smith and wide receiver Corey Robinson.

“I think you go in and you play them, and you find out how in the flow of the game they measure up,” Kelly said of the Michigan game.

It’s a bit of a reversal from two years ago, when Kelly elected to hold then-freshman prodigies Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt out of Michigan’s epic 35-31 victory in the first night game in Michigan Stadium history.

The game flipped leaders three times in the final 72 seconds, with Michigan covering the winning 80 yards in 28 seconds while the game begged for elite pass-rushers, how ever incomplete, in Tuitt and Lynch.

It was the only game Lynch didn’t play in for the Irish during his one season at ND. Tuitt was held out of three others, but two of those were because he had mononucleosis. The next week, after losing to an unranked Michigan team on the road, the Irish hosted No. 15 Michigan State.

Lynch and Tuitt combined for seven tackles, with a sack and six quarterback hurries in that game, a 31-13 upending of the Spartans. Interestingly, Lynch, now a junior at South Florida, will be playing 85 miles away from his former teammates Saturday, as the Bulls visit Michigan State in East Lansing.

Personnel matters

l For the second week in a row, former quarterback-turned-wide receiver Luke Massa is back at QB and ND’s No. 3 option Saturday night behind senior starter Tommy Rees and senior backup Andrew Hendrix.

Freshman Malik Zaire will be scratched for a second straight game as he recovers from mononucleosis.

l Sophomore running back/slot receiver Will Mahone is back on the active roster after missing roughly two weeks of practice and the opener with Temple with a high ankle sprain.

“He’s going to have to work his way back in it,” Kelly said of Mahone. “but he’s earned his way to be on the travel roster. We didn’t put him on it just because. He did a lot of good things before he got injured and had a good week, so he earned a seat on the bus.”

l According to Kelly, junior wide receiver DaVaris Daniels showed no lingering effects from a slight groin strain suffered during the third quarter of last Saturday’s opener.

National perspective

Veteran sportscaster Brent Musburger will handle play-by-play duties Saturday night for ESPN, joined by analyst Kirk Herbstreit and sideline reporter Heather Cox.

Here are some observations by Musburger heading into the 41st and, for now, penultimate, rendition of Notre Dame vs. Michigan.

What are you going to miss the most about this rivalry when it goes into hiatus?

“I have considered it for a long time to be the best September rivalry in college football. What I miss right now, more than anything, would be doing games, broadcasting games in South Bend.

“Obviously, that’s not going to happen, because NBC has a contract and they do a terrific job with it. But I did Michigan-Notre Dame games at night in South Bend. Reggie Ho had an unbelievable field goal night — and the lights and the sparkling and everything that was going on — and some of the great players in that game.

“Even when I’m not broadcasting it, I’ve always looked to it as you know, fall is here, the football season is in full swing, and Notre Dame is playing Michigan. So for me it’s a big deal.

“I know there’s been a big argument about is it or isn’t it a rivalry. I understand what Notre Dame is facing with the scheduling. They had to make a choice.”

Did the one-sided loss to Alabama in the BCS Championship Game make you view Notre Dame any differently as a possible national championship contender in 2013 and whether it really is a program that’s back on the map?

“That’s really a good question, and obviously in my private discussions with people, the Irish got manhandled and they couldn’t do anything against that offensive line of Alabama’s. They were embarrassed, and it tarnished a year in which they won a lot of great ballgames, several of which I was around.

“But now I’m kind of back thinking, ‘Hey, you know, this team’s a sleeper.’ So it’s sort of come full circle with me, Whereas I was privately critical of their effort against Alabama, I’ve kind of come around and you forget it. The new season has dulled the memory of Alabama for me.

“I think really when you go back and look at the tape and you look at what Alabama didn’t do last week against Virginia Tech, that was one of the better offensive lines that we’ve seen in college football in the BCS Era (last January). And that was one of the better performances we’ve seen too that particular night. I don’t think anybody in college football could have beaten them last January with the way they played. They were that good.”

What do you make of Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees? Do you believe he’s truly been able to step away from the physical limitations that hurt him in the past?

“Can he be that much better than what we know he is? Probably not. You don’t change that much physically, but the key factor to me personally with Notre Dame and the quarterback situation is the coach, Brian Kelly.

“If you go back to when he was at Cincinnati, he always developed a second quarterback. There was always somebody that he could go get when things went bad. And I watched him, and I think that’s the one position that he pays special attention to.

“I would think that coach Kelly, in the back of his mind, is developing a second quarterback right now so he can reach into the bullpen. He’s always been willing to change quarterbacks. I don’t think he’s counting on Tommy to get back to a BCS Championship.

“Now, does he want Tommy to play well? Absolutely. Avoid mistakes? Absolutely? And was he delighted he threw the touchdown passes early against Temple? Certainly. But I look at the quarterback situation as Notre Dame has the right coach to handle the most delicate position in football. I really give Brian Kelly an awful lot of credit. And if you look around the National Football League, those kids who played so well at Cincinnati, you don’t see them starting on Sunday afternoon.

“He’s a really good quarterback coach, and I don’t think that position is going to let Notre Dame down this year. I really don’t.”

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