Notebook: Brian Kelly to keep ND redshirt decisions close to vest

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — To redshirt or not?

That’s a question Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly is usually answering definitively at this point in the year for those freshmen incubating through the first half of the season.

Privately, he’s ready to go down that road again, as his 14th-ranked Irish (5-1) get set for the 87th all-time clash with arch-rival USC (3-2), Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium.

Publicly, he’s taking a little different approach this time. Non-disclosure.

“I don’t want to take away their competitive spirit from week to week,” Kelly said Thursday night after staging his team’s practice in Notre Dame Stadium.

Eleven of the 23 members of the freshman class are on a trajectory to redshirt — 12 if you count the medical redshirt year likely to be granted to defensive back Shaun Crawford, out for the season with a knee injury suffered in August.

Three members of the sophomore class, all of whom played last season as freshmen, could also end up preserving a year of eligibility in 2015 — wide receiver Corey Holmes, converted wide receiver and current running back Justin Brent, and defensive tackle Jay Hayes.

Hayes was on track to redshirt last season, but was “unredshirted” for the final three games of the 2014 season when injuries ravaged ND’s defensive line depth.

The redshirt rule is simple. If you play even one single play, the redshirt possibility ends. The medical redshirt scenario is a little more complex. A player must suffer the injury in the first half of the season and can’t have played more than three games total.

Among ND’s players who hadn’t previously redshirted, Crawford, safety Drue Tranquill and running back Tarean Folston are all in play among injured players who should recoup their lost season.

Redshirting, for non-injury reasons, doesn’t necessarily reflect a lack of progress. Five players who redshirted last season are playing prominent roles this season: quarterback DeShone Kizer, tight end Nic Weishar, offensive guards Quenton Nelson and Alex Bars, and punter/kickoff man Tyler Newsome.

Linebacker Josh Barajas could find himself in a similar situation in 2016.

The freshman from Andrean High in Merrillville, Ind., was one of ND’s highest-rated recruits in its 2015 class and seemingly one of the most game-ready, though there wasn’t a glaring need at his position.

“He’s coming along now,” Kelly said of the 6-foot-3, 235-pound Barajas. “He had a couple of injuries coming in. And sometimes kids have a perception of what they need to be when they come in, and he put on a lot of weight. He put on too much weight.

“And we had to get him back into our weight-training program and our nutrition program, and we’ve got him back to where we see him in terms of size and weight.

“And really like where he is right now, I would tell you within the past week or so, he’s beginning to catch our eye as to what we saw from him last year.”

Could he still get on the field for the Irish in 2015?

“I could tell you I have formulated in my mind those guys that we want to protect,” Kelly said. “You can never say, ‘I’m not going to play him regardless of the circumstances,’ because if injuries show themselves, you’ve got to be ready.

“So what I like to do is prepare them without having the conversation of, ‘Hey, look. You’re in the two-deep. We’re going to take you to all the games. We’re going to give you significant reps, but I don’t think we’re going to play you.’

“I don’t have those kind of conversations. I have them with myself. I’d have them with somebody off the record, but publicly, I wouldn’t have those type of conversations with the individual.”

Personnel matters

Linebacker Jarrett Grace’s breakthrough performance last Saturday against Navy in his comeback season may translate into more playing time for the 6-3, 253-pound grad student from Cincinnati, now 24 months removed from a career-threatening leg injury.

“I think certain teams are better matchups for him in terms of when he can really impact the game, but I think he helped himself,” Kelly said of Grace’s five-tackle performance. “I knew what he was capable of. I think it helped in (defensive coordinator Brian) VanGorder’s eyes, ’cause he hadn’t seen him really play. I had. I recruited him.”

VanGorder arrived at ND three months after Grace had shattered his right leg in four places in a win over Arizona State, Oct. 5, 2013. Grace, ND’s starting middle linebacker at the time, missed the rest of that season and all of 2014.

“I just think, from Jarrett’s perspective it was nice that he had 17 production points on 19 plays, and I think it just helped him personally,” Kelly said. “It (also) added some credibility in terms of what he could do for our defense.”

• Kelly said sophomore left guard Quenton Nelson (ankle) practiced all week, but it would be a game-time decision Saturday night as to whether he would start against USC.

Nelson started ND’s first five games before suffering the injury Oct. 3 in a 24-22 loss at Clemson. Sophomore Alex Bars started last Saturday against Navy.

Kelly said he still has designs to use freshman quarterback Brandon Wimbush in non-mop-up, non-emergency situations.

So far, his only game action came Sept. 26, in ND’s 62-27 rout of UMass. Wimbush rushed for 92 yards on four carries and a TD and passed for 17 yards on 3-of-5 accuracy in that game.

“I think we’re confident we can put him in the game at any time,” Kelly said. “I think we’ve had enough time with him in developing him to the point where we believe we could play him if we feel like there’s a spot in the game that can increase our opportunity for success on offense.

“So stay tuned.”

Squibs

Kelly said former Notre Dame All-Americans Tim Brown and Jerome Bettis will speak to the current Irish players on Friday.

• With a forecast of a high of 48 degrees and a low of 38 Saturday, the weather doesn’t necessarily favor Kelly and the Irish when it comes to Recruit-apalooza, with more than 50 prospects taking recruiting visits for Saturday night’s ND-USC game.

But it does give them an edge in the actual game, if history is any indication. In cold-weather games — per the Notre Dame archives — the Trojans are 1-6-1 in South Bend. In better weather, they are 13-18 at Notre Dame Stadium.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame freshman linebacker Josh Barajas is opening eyes in practice after a sluggish start to the season. (SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)

WHEN: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. (EDT)

WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium; South Bend

TV: NBC

RADIO: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)

LINE: Notre Dame by 6 1/2