Analysis: Breaking down the under-the-radar story lines as Notre Dame nears season opener

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — That freshman defensive end Isaiah Foskey is nowhere to be found on Notre Dame’s official season-opening depth chart, released Wednesday, is — in a twisted sort of way — progress.

For him. And for the ninth-ranked Irish, who open a season on a Labor Day Monday for the first time in school history, at rebuilding Louisville (8 p.m. EDT; ESPN).

In fact, outside of special teams personnel, just four freshmen are listed on the coach Brian Kelly-approved pecking order, split evenly between 11 positions listed two-deep and the other 11 three-deep.

It’s not an obvious story line in the second-ever meeting between the two schools and a blind date of sorts for the Irish coaching staff. A new Cardinal coaching staff, with distinct schematic and philosophical changes, will require Kelly and company to frequently adjust on the fly Monday night.

But it’s an important one, because this is where Kelly has been trying to push the program for a decade, being able to play freshmen out of choice, rather than desperation.

The group of free safety Kyle Hamilton, defensive tackle Howard Cross III, nose guard Jacob Lacey and offensive tackle Andrew Kristofic constitute the smallest freshman contingent on an opening depth chart of the 10-year Kelly Era — well, technically.

Last year, the Irish listed zero freshmen on a belated depth chart for the 2018 opener with Michigan that wasn’t distributed until game night. Instead, Irish greats with expired eligibility, such as Rocket Ismail and Chris Zorich, populated the two-deeps.

That tactic was a purposeful response to Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s aversion to issuing a depth chart beyond an audience that apparently was limited to family and friends, and perhaps not even that public.

The next week, against Ball State, 11 freshmen showed up on the official depth chart for the Irish. Only twice were there fewer than seven opening-week freshmen listed in the previous nine seasons.

The last time that happened was 2012: Davonte’ Neal, Ronnie Stanley, KeiVarae Russell, Romeo Okwara and Sheldon Day.

“There’s a lot of guys that have really caught our eye,” Kelly said Wednesday when asked about the current 22-man freshman class. “I think it really depends on the particular position in which they’re competing for playing time.

“I mean, Isaiah Foskey is a guy that maybe in other years could have played considerably out of the gates. We’re really blessed and talented at that position. That doesn’t mean he won’t play this year.”

And that doesn’t mean he may not contend to start next year, when Daelin Hayes, Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem all graduate to the NFL.

The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Californian is that promising.

Other freshmen left off the depth chart who Kelly mentioned have caught his eye this month included running back Kyren Williams and rover Jack Kiser.

“Kiser, you’re going to see a lot early on, on special teams,” Kelly said. “We think he can be a difference-maker there.”

The same goes for freshman punter Jay Bramblett, who will also hold on place kicks.

Running back Chris Tyree and wide receiver Jordan Johnson, two players who add elite speed and/or skill to the roster, figure to be two freshmen in the 2020 class who will force the issue next fall — playing early out of choice.

Call it Kelly’s new comfort zone.

Assessing Austin’s future

The most significant of the measured words coaxed from Kelly on Wednesday regarding reportedly suspended sophomore wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. had to do with commitment.

Austin’s commitment to ND for the long term. And Notre Dame’s to Austin in what appears to now be a season-long absence from game-day football. Kelly said Wednesday that Austin will continue to practice with the Irish.

“He will be at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “I can tell you in my conversations that he’ll be with us. He will be on our football team. I expect him to be with us the entire year.”

The message here is that Kelly, at this juncture, believes Austin is a good kid who made mistakes — mistakes he the player is willing and able to correct. And Austin, in turn, didn’t go looking for a trap door into the transfer portal to escape accountability.

What Austin did to put him at this crossroads has to come from or be confirmed by the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who set the Broward County single-game record for receiving yards (329 on seven catches with 5 TDs) during his senior season North Broward Prep.

That’s because of student privacy laws that govern university-imposed sanctions. So as a result, you end up with soundbites like this when Kelly was pressed for clarity on Wednesday.

“If I have anything to talk about with a player relative to their status, I’m going to talk about it if I can,” he said.

Kelly can and does talk to the media about punishment he wields. You don’t need subtitles to know that’s not the case here.

Irish Illustrated on Monday was the first to report that what was originally expected to be a four-game absence due to a university-imposed sanction had expanded to an entire season. A source later confirmed that time frame to the Tribune when conflicting reports of perhaps a shorter exile surfaced.

On potential alone, Austin is a good enough player to step into the starting boundary receiver position next season, when senior Chase Claypool exhausts his eligibility, and be a difference-maker there. But he’ll have to earn it — and earn the trust that comes with it — that this chapter is a wakeup call and not the start of a self-imposed nightmare.

Turning the corner?

The most glaring flaw eventual national champion Clemson exposed during Notre Dame’s first-ever College Football Playoff appearance, Dec. 29 in Arlington, Texas, was the Irish not having an able cornerback to pair with Troy Pride Jr. when All-American Julian Love had to leave the game for a long stretch of the first half with an injury.

Guess what? Love left the roster for good this offseason, with a year of eligibility left, to start his NFL career. And the Irish didn’t come up with a definitive replacement for him in spring or in August training camp, when there were more plentiful options.

Reason for worry?

That’s not how Kelly is selling it. He’s peddling strength in numbers and a by-committee approach, with multiple-comeback player and grad senior Shaun Crawford listed as the No. 1 option.

“I think some field-position situations, down and distance, will also factor into it, because coverages change,” Kelly said. “Body types, in terms of what we’re looking for, will change.”

The body types range from 5-foot-10, 170-pound sophomore TaRiq Bracy to 6-3, 212-pound senior Donte Vaughn, the latter of whom was victimized repeatedly in Love’s absence in the CFP semifinal. With a surgically repaired shoulder and soaring confidence, Vaughn nudged his way back into significance this summer.

Sophomore Houston Griffith, slated behind Pride at the moment and finally fully healthy, has the versatility to play either corner spot and could factor in, in the time-share spot as the season progresses.

It might not be until Notre Dame visits No. 3 Georgia in game 3 on Sept. 21 before we really know whether coordinator Clark Lea’s approach actually constitutes an answer. Louisville last season was 121st out of 129th in passing efficiency.

And the coach of ND’s Sept. 14 opponent, New Mexico’s Bob Davie, is vowing to play four quarterbacks, at least in the Lobos’ season opener with Sam Houston State.

Georgia, meanwhile, has its starting QB returning in junior Jake Fromm. The Bulldogs were fourth nationally in pass efficiency in 2018.

“I think we’ve got a pretty good plan in terms of what we want to do there,” Kelly said. “It’s really not that complicated once you kind of put that matrix together.”

Complicated or not, if the Irish are going to overachieve and return to the CFP, this can’t be a chronic soft spot in the defense. Good teams will find it — and exploit it.

Nose guard Jacob Lacey (54) is one of only four freshman position players who cracked the opening-week Notre Dame depth chart.

WHO: No. 9 Notre Dame (0-0) at Louisville (0-0)

WHEN: Monday at 8 p.m. EDT

WHERE: Cardinal Stadium, Louisville, Ky.


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

LINE: Notre Dame by 19