Notebook: Shrinking senior classes at Notre Dame mean perpetual youth movement

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The grand illusion is that another unwieldy senior class will share hugs, tears and goodbyes Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, when the Irish (4-6) clash with Virginia Tech (7-3) for the first time ever in football.

The reality is just eight ND players who will run out of the tunnel for the pregame emote-a-palooza are exhausting their eligibility at the end of the season. Only six of them came to Notre Dame as recruited high school prospects.

And it's a pattern that doesn't figure to change much anytime soon.

Increasingly, a share of the elite seniors on a five-year track and true juniors are going to cannonball into the NFL Draft pool early. To wit, of the 13 ND three-and-out juniors in the 26 years the NFL Draft rules have allowed them, eight have happened since head coach Brian Kelly took the ND job in December of 2009 and five have come in the past three drafts.

Meanwhile, those blocked on the depth chart by younger players often will seek grad transfers or will put the "40-year decision" mantra to work before their NCAA clock elapses.

And, on top of that, there's the sort of normal and not-so normal attrition — medical hardships, transfers and dismissals.

"We're not going to have a bunch of older players playing for us, and we're not going to be some of the teams that are allowing them to mature at that level," ND coach Brian Kelly said during his Tuesday weekly press conference.

"We're going to have to play some of the younger players, and that's going to be the case here moving forward. I have no problem with that."

That’s a philosophical shift from just a few years ago for Kelly. He has moved incrementally form disdain to tolerance to a full embrace. Along with that, it necessitated discerning looks at the existing recruiting and player development models.

The players who will make up the real and imitation seniors Saturday come from the 2012 and 2013 recruiting classes.

Of the 24 members of the 2013 class, assembled during ND’s national title game run, only 12 made it to Senior Day. And of those 12, nine have fifth-year options.

Of the 17 members of the 2012 class, three will be part of the Senior Day festivities — long snapper Scott Daly, nose guard Jarron Jones and offensive lineman Mark Harrell. The same number from that class, though, will be celebrating senior days elsewhere.

Quarterback Gunner Kiel (Cincinnati) began the year on the bench, then started three games, and is now back to being a backup. He’s 66-of-127 for 804 yards this season with six TDs, two interceptions and minus-four rushing yards.

Two former wide receivers from that class are now defensive backs. Davonte’ Neal has 20 tackles as a cornerback for Arizona, while Justin Ferguson is a starting safety for unbeaten Western Michigan, and leads the Broncos in interceptions (3) and forced fumbles (2), while racking up 48 tackles.

Whither Kizer?

Kelly sort of filibustered Tuesday when asked if it had hit him that Saturday could be quarterback DeShone Kizer’s final game in Notre Dame Stadium.

The junior actually has two years of college eligibility remaining, but he’s been projected by some draft analysts as a first-round pick in the 2017 draft next spring if he chooses to come out.

As much as the coaching staff would have liked to push those thoughts and conversations onto the back burner throughout the season, it’s not practical.

“In some ways, you have to have those conversations with him, just because of the way the system is set up,” associate head coach Mike Denbrock said Monday during his weekly segment on WSBT’s Weekday SportsBeat radio show, “where there is going to be contact from outside entities that are trying to get in the door and have those conversations with the family.

“So we try to be proactive, not only with the player, but with the family as much as we can.

“I will say this about DeShone. Of anybody, he has been as focused and in a position to do whatever he can to make sure we improve as a football team each and every week. So I really believe his mind is in the right place. I don’t think it’s something he’s thought about deeply right now.

“”I think he’s concentrating on trying to be the best football player he can be and helping this football team win some games down the stretch here.”

Personnel matters

• Senior Torii Hunter, ND’s second-leading wide receiver, remains “day to day” for the Virginia Tech game after missing Saturday’s 44-6 win over Army on Saturday with a knee injury suffered in the previous game, against Navy.

• Nose guard Daniel Cage, out the past two games with concussion symptoms, won’t start the exercise phase of the concussion protocol until he’s feeling better.

“When he feels good, we’ll get him moving,” Kelly said.

• The two players who shined the brightest during ND’s darkest moments this season, according to Kelly, were senior defensive end Isaac Rochell and senior linebacker James Onwualu.

“(They) were unbelievable,” the coach said. “And it was, I think, crucial when we made a change defensively, played all those freshmen, we needed guys to lead by example. We didn't need a guy yelling and screaming. And those two guys lead by example.”

Squibs

• Both Notre Dame and Virginia Tech are making the awkward re-entry back into conventional football after each played against triple-option teams on Saturday. For the Irish, it’s actually been two weeks.

“For two weeks, we didn't play any of our coverages that we rep all camp and essentially run for the first nine weeks of the season,” Kelly said of the challenges for his defense. “Same thing with the fronts. It's a separate playbook in itself.

“Your first inclination is you want to go longer in your practice. But we've been on the road two weeks in a row … (and) that's something that can't happen.

“So you have to be very smart. And the way you integrate your practice schedule is getting your defense a little bit more work with your offense. And that's how I'll go about doing it. Try to get speed on speed, all offensive against our defense, a little bit more than we normally would.”

• Among the stats Virginia Tech tracks is how first-year head coach Justin Fuente fares when winning or losing the coin toss. For the record, he’s a much more successful coach when losing the coin toss — 5-1 at Tech and 19-12 in his career vs. 2-2 at Tech and 14-14 in his career when winning it.

• Notre Dame’s matchup with Army on NBC drew an unimpressive 1.0 TV rating Saturday, making it the least-watched of the eight Shamrock Series Games and outdoing last year’s 1.15 rating for ND-Boston College. That game was shown on cable/satellite-only channel NBC Sports Network.

Among all games shown last Saturday, ND-Army ranked 10th in viewership, with less than a quarter of the audience drawn by ratings-topper Iowa vs. Michigan.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Will Saturday's Virginia Tech game be Irish QB DeShone Kizer's (14) final game at Notre Dame Stadium? (Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)