Lou Holtz, Ross Browner on how Notre Dame should handle its youth movement

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

Using freshmen as key contributors in major college football is hardly a unique concept.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, heading into Saturday’s game at North Carolina State, has already used 12 true freshman this season – the most he’s ever had play in a season during his time with the Irish. In all, on the Irish depth chart this week, there are 21 players – either freshmen or sophomores – who are in their first year in significant roles.

“I would like 'em all to be fourth year juniors, you know?” said Kelly. “More than anything else, each one of 'em has different traits, but they all came here wanting to play. That, to me, is a matter of confidence and belief. They all believe they can play. They're all confident in their ability.”

Confidence is a nice place to start. But when – for example – freshman corner Troy Pride, Jr., goes from no playing time in the first three games to over 70 snaps against Syracuse, there’s a quantum leap that must be navigated.

Notre Dame’s recent defensive overhaul opened the door for plenty of new faces to get the opportunity to finally see the field, after wallowing in obscurity through the early portion of what has been a disappointing season.

There’s plenty of preparation involved in the process.

“It's getting them ready relative to the speed of the game, the techniques necessary, and then just understanding game plan from week-to-week,” Kelly said. “But they came here ready to play in their own mind. That goes through our recruiting and understanding that when you come to Notre Dame, we don't have (many) redshirt seniors. Couple weeks ago we played a team (Michigan State) with 15 redshirt seniors, and Stanford is going to have 17 or 19. We just don't have many of 'em. So they gotta be ready to play early.”

It’s happened before at Notre Dame, with some pretty good results, to boot. In 1973, defensive end Ross Browner and cornerback Luther Bradley were rookie standouts in a national championship run.

Then there was 1988, when defensive end Arnold Ale, receiver Rocket Ismael and tight end Derek Brown were key freshmen in Notre Dame’s most recent national championship.

No big deal

Iconic Irish coach Lou Holtz refused to let age or experience become a factor as he determined the best scenarios for his teams.

“Our attitude was: No excuses,” Holtz said the other day. “You are tall enough as long as your feet touch the ground.”

In that case, everyone qualified.

Holtz took a practical approach to sorting out his depth chart and finding the best players to contribute.

“You play a freshman because he’s the best player,” Holtz said. “We were never allowed to redshirt when I was at Notre Dame. We were not allowed to take transfers. I never worried about, ‘Let’s save a year of eligibility.’

“You don’t worry about anything but, ‘Who gives us the best chance to win?’ If it’s a freshman, sophomore, I don’t care. I’m going to play them.”

Holtz has seen what the current Irish team has encountered and understands the decisions Kelly has made.

“(The freshmen) went through two-a-day practices,” Holtz said. “They’ve been through the meetings. They went through the preparation. They don’t have a lot of experience, but, obviously, they’re very talented or they wouldn’t be playing them that early in their career.

“It’s no big deal. You might have to simplify things a little bit, but they were there when you put everything in – your entire offense; your entire defense.

“It’s not like they just enrolled on Monday and you’ve got to play them Friday. They’ve been there about 54 practices thus far. It shouldn’t be that big of a problem.”

“They’re better than the other people on the team. You don’t play them because they’re freshman. You don’t build the team for the new coach. You don’t say, ‘We’ll take our lumps this year so these guys can get experience.’

“When a freshman plays ahead of an upperclassmen, it’s because the upperclassmen gave him an opportunity by not working hard in spring practice; in the summer.”

There’s a mental part of the big picture that comes into play. Mistakes are going to be made, but not dwelling on them is important.

“‘Go do your job,” was Holtz’s advice to freshmen. “‘It’s just like practice. Go play your position.’

“If a dog’s gonna bite you, he’ll do it as a pup.

“You never move people down; you never demote people. You only move people up.

“The most important thing is to focus on is getting better, not what happened last week or that he’s a freshman out there.”

An honor

Browner, considered by many among the best defensive players ever at Notre Dame, was an instant success.

“Playing for (coach) Ara Parseghian, playing for Notre Dame and all that tradition, I was so honored when, in my first scrimmage with the varsity, Ara promoted about six (freshmen), and put two of us – (defensive back) Luther Bradley and myself – on the first team,” Browner said. “I really got a lot help from the older players. They made me feel comfortable. They told me I had the skill. I had everything I needed to get out there and play.

“Of course you’re going to have butterflies in that first game. ‘Oh my gosh, if I make a mistake, what am I going to do?’ When you get out there in the play of the game, everything becomes normal and reactionary. You just do what you can do.

“I just loved to perform. Performing in front of those great Notre Dame audiences made it easier for me.”

Browner settled in with the help of veteran defensive linemen Mike Fanning, Steve Niehaus and Jim Stock.

“(The older guys) said they needed me; they needed my skills,” Browner said. “They accepted me early. All those guys were my defensive line first. They took me under their wing. They said, ‘You’re going to make us a better unit. We’re going to make you as comfortable as possible because, when you were recruited, Ara said you could play.’

“They saw my skills; they saw my speed; really, my whole personality. I blended in with them.”

While crafting a defensive line that fit into Notre Dame’s aggressive scheme, coach Joe Yonto was a big influence in taking a good deal of the pressure from Browner’s shoulders.

“Coach Yonto had a big effect on me (handling the team’s success),” Browner said. “He put me in a great position on the field. We had a great four-man front. He made it so much easier. All we had to do was dominate the line, and everything else filtered out.

“The four of us were a force which allowed us to get a lot accomplished on the football field.

“In coach Yonto’s defensive (line) scheme, we always had to attack. We were the attackers. We never had to sit back and read anything. We never waited for things to formulate, we just attacked. We had dominating linebackers, and it made it easier for our defensive backs.”

When Browner watches football today, he can’t help but see the shortcomings that plague the defensive side of the ball.

“Tackling today is putrid; I mean, it’s horrible,” he said. “Tackling is really basic and simple: If you watch the belt buckle, you can make any tackle in the world. You won’t miss anybody.”

He has some words of advice for the current Irish freshmen who have gotten the call to step up early in their career.

“You have to block out (everything around you),” Browner said. “Know your assignments; know your responsibilities. Other than that, all the practices and scrimmages make it a normal situation for you.

“You’ve gotta get over the jitters, settle down, and play play-by-play.

“The first thing, (I’d suggest is to) ‘say a prayer to be successful. After that, just go out there and display your talent. Everything that your responsibilities call for, run the plays, do what you can do.

“If you make a mistake, forget it. You only have 30 seconds to get over it. Do better the next play. If you can do that, you’ll be very successful at Notre Dame.’”

That’s exactly what Kelly is counting on.

Notre Dame's Kevin Stepherson (29) and Chase Claypool (83) say a prayer before the start of the Nevada game at Notre Dame Stadium, Saturday, September 10, 2016 in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ BECKY MALEWITZ