Notebook: Paul Moala joins Notre Dame's freshman numbers game

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Paul Moala’s presence on the Notre Dame football travel roster Saturday night wasn’t just for show.

The former Penn High star made his collegiate debut, getting plugged in on special teams for the now fifth-ranked Irish in their 45-23 handling of Virginia Tech at Blacksburg, Va.

Next up? Presumably the first college football statistic for the 6-foot, 212-pound freshman safety. What’s much less certain is whether he’ll play enough to burn a potential redshirt season in 2018.

That’s still fluid for all but seven of the 27 scholarship players in the Irish freshman class. Six definitely won’t redshirt, having seen action beyond the new four-game limit to play and still retain that option. The seventh, defensive lineman Jamion Franklin, will definitely redshirt, because he’s out for the year with a leg injury after having played only against Wake Forest.

Eight others have played in one or two games each, a group that includes Moala. Twelve haven’t seen any game action, but Irish coach Brian Kelly isn’t ruling them out from eventually seeing the field in one or multiple games.

The Irish (6-0) host Pittsburgh (3-3) Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium (2:30 p.m. EDT; NBC-TV) in their final game before their bye week.

“Some of (the freshmen) are still in the oven cooking right now, that we haven’t taken out, that we think might be ready in a couple weeks,” Kelly said during his weekly Tuesday press conference. “We’re kind of evaluating that as we go.”

Even within the groups, perceptions are shifting. Kelly and defensive coordinator Clark Lea, for instance, felt confident enough Saturday night to put four of them in on a goal-line situation in the second quarter, with the Hokies threatening to take the lead.

Freshman rover Shayne Simon and senior linebacker Te’von Coney combined to throw Virginia Tech quarterback Ryan Willis for a four-yard loss on third-and-goal from the Irish 1 with the Irish leading 10-6. That coaxed a field goal instead of a go-ahead touchdown.

“We’re getting into the year now, where it’s starting to maybe slow down a little bit for them,” Kelly said. “Some of the guys are starting to see the game a little bit clearer. Shayne Simon would be one of those guys. A little too fast early on.

“Maybe he was overthinking the game a little bit. It’s starting to slow down. Paul Moala is another guy who you saw on kickoff, who we’re starting to see the game come to him a little bit, and I think you’re going to see some guys continue to show some of that growth as we move forward.”

The group that has played in more than four games comprises defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola, wide receiver Kevin Austin, linebacker Bo Bauer, cornerback TaRiq Bracy, defensive back Houston Griffith and Simon.

Those having played in two games are defensive end Justin Ademilola, running backs C’Bo Flemister and Jahmir Smith, wide receiver Joe Wilkins Jr. and offensive tackle Jarrett Patterson. Those playing in just one so far are Moala, Franklin, cornerback DJ Brown and quarterback Phil Jurkovec.

Having yet to see action are cornerback Noah Boykin; linebackers Jack Lamb and Ovie Oghoufo; tight ends Tommy Tremble and George Takacs; safety Derrik Allen; offensive linemen John Dirksen, Cole Mabry and Luke Jones; and wide receivers Lawrence Keys III, Braden Lenzy and Micah Jones.

“Sometimes you’re just trying to put it all together; school starts,” Kelly explained of the pacing of the freshmen’s progress, “Everything is now a nice routine, and they’re starting to get a lot more comfortable.”

Personnel matters

Junior cornerback Troy Pride Jr. had to come out of the game a couple of times Saturday night at Virginia Tech and looked hobbled at times when he was in.

Kelly said the one-time Hokies verbal commitment suffered a mild ankle sprain during a game in which he still managed seven tackles and a pass breakup.

“Any time you have an ankle sprain with a corner, you know you’re going to be careful with him,” Kelly said Tuesday, “but we think he’ll be fine for Saturday.”

• The timetable for sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong’s return from a knee infection still appears to be the Oct. 27 matchup with Navy in San Diego.

Kelly said that the converted wide receiver and the team’s third-leading rusher recently spent six days in the hospital as part of the recovery process. Armstrong has missed ND’s last two games.

“Six days sounds like a lot, but we were draining that knee area and making sure that no infection would get in there,” Kelly said. “And so it required a round-the-clock maintenance.

“He’s up and moving. He’s getting range of motion. The draining of that knee now has completed itself in the sense that he now can get into the full rehabilitation of getting that quad strength back. He’ll get the sutures out at the end of the week.”

• Linebacker Drue Tranquill had five tackles, including one for loss, in his first game playing with a cast on his broken left hand.

“First of all, level of soreness goes from player to player,” Kelly said. “He plays with a high level there. Other players would probably be bothered.”

But there is a learning curve in terms of figuring out pragmatically how to play with the cast.

“He got caught inside a couple of times with his left hand being the lead hand, and he struggled a little bit trying to get outside,” Kelly said. “He’s getting used to playing with that cast, and he felt it a couple of times on Saturday.

“He’s much more aware of how to use that and be cognizant of it. But he’ll be in a better place with it this week.”

Embrace the exams

Notre Dame enters midterm week as it prepares for Pitt, a kind of double whammy on the time management spectrum.

Star running back Josh Adams had a sort of delayed reaction to it last season, suffering headaches and wearing down after midterm week and fall break were over, and carrying the ball just five times for 22 yards in a 48-37 win over Wake Forest last Nov. 4.

“It’s Notre Dame. Let’s go. Bring it on,” Kelly said of his approach this season with his players. “I mean, I told our guys, ‘You can say this is a tough week, and I’ve got three exams,’ and that’s not going to do you any good.

“Let’s go at it like warriors. Let’s get after this. Let’s change the narrative. Let’s get up early for the exam. Let’s be positive about what we’re doing.

“It’s a mindset. I mean, everybody in the world has got to take exams. You want to use it as an excuse? It’s not going to help you. So let’s be positive about it. Let’s get our work done. Let’s get through Tuesday, and we’ll be fine.”

Penn High grad Paul Moala leads a group of Notre Dame football players onto the field at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Va., Saturday night before ND’s 45-23 win over Virginia Tech.