Notre Dame freshmen deliver positive first impression

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — It was a night of firsts inside Notre Dame Stadium.

Josh Adams is proof of that. On the first carry of his Notre Dame career on Saturday night, the 6-foot-2, 212-pound freshman running back took a hand off, cut around the right edge, eluded Texas safety Dylan Haines and burst into the end zone for a 14-yard score. As his teammates mobbed him, hulking 6-8 right tackle Mike McGlinchey grabbed Adams by the shoulder pads and hoisted him into the air, and all of a sudden, he was soaring.

First game. First touch. First touchdown.

How’s that for a first impression?

"I think you all saw what kind of skill he has," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said of Adams. "We felt like he was under the radar last year. He had a knee injury that kind of took him off the radar a little bit. But he's just scratching the surface. He's got elite speed. He's got great size. He's got good ball skills and obviously he's a kid that we believe in."

The second impression, however, may have been even better. Late in the third quarter of Notre Dame’s season-opening 38-3 victory, with the Irish already touting a commanding 24-3 lead, Adams took another hand off, hit the hole and found…nothing. He blazed untouched into the end zone from 25 yards out, soaked up a stadium’s worth of adulation and lifted one finger high in the air.

First. Again.

Adams’ emergence was all the more important given the events that preceded it. Following his third carry on Saturday, starting running back Tarean Folston exited stage left, the result of an apparent right knee injury. As his teammates carried on without him, Folston — a 5-10, 214-pound junior — lay on a trainer’s table behind the bench, receiving hugs and well-wishes from his teammates. Eventually, he hobbled dejectedly to the locker room, his knee heavily wrapped, lumbering up the north tunnel and out of sight.

But what Notre Dame lost in Folston, it found in Adams. The Warrington, Pa., native, who arrived in South Bend as a relatively overlooked recruit, emphatically announced his presence under the bright lights and the golden dome, running for 49 yards and two scores on just five carries.

"I knew he was capable of it, but I did not know he would perform like that in a game, just based off never seeing him in a game before," senior left tackle Ronnie Stanley said of Adams. "But him going out there, I'm honestly not surprised. I just knew that, as a freshman, you need to be mature if you're going to be able to execute.

"That was something that was still a question for him going into his first game, and he answered that question."

The rest of Notre Dame’s freshman class, however, refused to be outdone. That included massive nose tackle Jerry Tillery, who used the entirety of his 6-7, 305-pound frame to devour Texas quarterback Jerrod Heard for his first career sack (and tackle). On a night when Longhorn signal callers routinely ran for cover, Tillery provided none.

Freshman placekicker Justin Yoon, too, connected on his first extra point and field goal attempt, though he later missed a 45-yard field goal attempt in the third quarter that would have extended the lead.

"I think any top notch football program has to be able to call on some of these freshman players that have the mental and physical ability to come in and compete right away, because it creates competition within your program that rises all ships," Kelly said.

"That means your upperclassmen as well. Josh Adams has made my two veteran running backs better because of his level of play, and that's across the board. Equanimeous St. Brown has made Will Fuller better. When you get a freshman class like that, that can come in and compete and play at that level, those veteran kids see it. It really drives them to be better players."

All things considered, the firsts favored the Irish. Junior quarterback Malik Zaire compiled his first collegiate game with multiple touchdown passes, dissecting the Longhorns to the tune of 313 passing yards, 19 completions in 22 attempts and three scores. In his first career home start, the confident junior exuded complete command.

In Notre Dame and Texas’ first meeting since 1996, the result was only briefly in doubt. More than a half hour before kickoff, the Irish student section — clad unanimously in green, a considerable mob dancing and singing in the northwest corner of the stadium — began to chant in unison.

Long…horn…Steak…house.

Long…horn…Steak…house.

And thanks to a few freshman, a cool quarterback and a whole lot of firsts, the road team was decisively fried.

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s Josh Adams (33) runs in a touchdown during the Notre Dame-Texas NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN