Notebook: Notre Dame's season will be defined by players stepping up when needed

Tyler James
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly is halfway through his fourth consecutive attempt at a no-loss November. 

The Notre Dame head coach hasn’t lost a football game in November since a 38-20 loss at Stanford on Nov. 25, 2017. The Irish swept through the November slates in 2018, 2019 and 2020 and have extended the November winning streak to 14 games this season with wins over Navy and Virginia. 

Keeping that streak intact, particularly in 2021, has required Notre Dame to lean on its program depth to counter the natural, and sometimes unlucky, attrition a team faces as the season progresses. Four of Notre Dame’s seven team captains — safety Kyle Hamilton, linebacker Drew White, defensive end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and wide receiver Avery Davis — didn't play in Notre Dame’s 28-3 victory at Virginia. 

Yet the Irish didn’t look like a team lacking leadership and focus in Charlottesville. 

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“They handled it the right way,” Kelly said of his team. “They thought the right way about it: ‘Let’s do it for them.’ They can’t play and some of these guys are running out of games left. Getting them to think the right way about not having them out there was probably for me the most important thing.” 

That’s become the rallying cry for this Notre Dame in the weeks that followed its 24-13 loss to Cincinnati on Oct. 2. This Irish team hasn’t been defined by its loss to the Bearcats or the number of losses it faced on the injury front. The evolution of this Notre Dame football team has turned the focus to those stepping up and developing throughout the season. 

Notre Dame’s Ramon Henderson (11) during the Notre Dame-USC NCAA college football game on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Each level of the defense alone could make the case for doing the best job of filling obvious voids. 

"You could make the case for the safety position without Hamilton,” Kelly said. “You would think that immediately that's a huge void to fill and it is, and it still is, because you really can't replace a guy like that. But then you watch Ramon (Henderson) the other night.  

“He made an interception, he was in a two-high zone, he was just inside the left hash and he went all the way across the field and picked that ball off of the numbers. That's incredible range. Finding that kind of range at safety, you could start there.  

“But then you go to defensive end and then Rylie Mills comes up with three sacks, and that's pretty good. What (linebacker) JD Bertrand has done this year for us losing Marist (Liufau). Marist was poised to be a difference maker for us this year.  You could probably take from those three a little bit from each level and make the case there.” 

Because the defensive line plays so many players in its rotation, that position group was probably the best prepared to show its strength even when Tagovailoa-Amosa or starting nose guard Kurt Hinish had to miss time. The position group hasn’t slipped regardless of the personnel under defensive line coach Mike Elston. 

“The defensive line is developed over a period of time where they have a lot of depth and all of those guys get 15 plays or they get 12 plays or 18 plays over a period of time,” Kelly said. “Mike does a great job of making sure that they're all involved in some fashion. So when they do get in, they appreciate the opportunity and they recognize that there are other guys that can be playing as well.” 

Continued dominance up front will be important when Georgia Tech (3-7) visits Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday (2:30 p.m. EST on NBC). Running back Jahmyr Gibbs is the focal point of Georgia Tech’s offense with 678 rushing yards and 474 receiving yards. He combined for 110 total yards (61 rushing, 49 receiving) in Notre Dame’s 31-13 victory at Georgia Tech last season.  

“He’s the player of the year in the ACC in my estimation,” Kelly said, “in terms of his talent and what he does to impact the football game.” 

Given the way Notre Dame’s November has started, it’s anybody’s guess who will become the breakout player that helps the Irish slow Gibbs down this time. 

Still no Kyle Hamilton for the Irish 

Brian Kelly all but ruled Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton out for the remainder of the regular season on Monday. Kelly described the recovery from the fat pad impingement that Hamilton suffered in his right knee against USC as generally lasting six weeks.  

“Six weeks would take him through the end of the regular season,” Kelly said. “Then we have to see where we are with the College Football Playoff, bowl games, things like that.” 

Kelly said Hamilton hasn’t suffered any structural damage. It’s just a matter of healing occurring around the knee to allow Hamilton to get back on the field. 

The Irish exited the Virginia game without any new significant injuries, Kelly said. The Irish have not quite rid themselves of the flu bug that has been circulating through the team and kept starters Drew White and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa sidelined at Virginia. 

"We're still fighting it,” Kelly said. “The flu is one of those things where if you get the wrong strand and you don't have the right defense against it, which we obviously didn't on our team relative to the vaccine, it can affect you. And it's affected our campus. We're just battling it the best we can and I think that we're still in the midst of it right now." 

Evaluating Tyler Buchner 

Freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner operated Notre Dame’s offense for the entire fourth quarter against Virginia. In his most expanded role since the 32-29 win at Virginia Tech on Oct. 9, Buchner showed some good and bad.

He finished 3-of-4 passing for 42 yards and ran three times for 10 yards. But he also fumbled an exchange with running back Logan Diggs in the red zone, which offered a teaching moment for the Irish. 

Notre Dame’s Tyler Buchner (12) tries to move by Navy’s Diego Fagot (54) during the Notre Dame-Navy NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, in South Bend.

“It was really good that we got him in there and got some expanded play,” Kelly said. “Every experience is a new one. There are different conversations. 

“With the fumble itself, when he came off, his reaction and our conversation and how he took that. All those things are really good, because we want to get him back in there and see how he leads that next drive. You can’t duplicate that in practice.  

“Now did we want to fumble the ball? Absolutely not. All those things are building towards his development. From my perspective as the head coach, those are moments that allow us to really see what he’s about. We like the things that we see about him.” 

Prince Kollie’s impact 

Freshman linebacker Prince Kollie nearly matched his season tackle total on Saturday night with a career-high four tackles against the Cavaliers. He upped his season total to nine tackles a week after recording three tackles against Navy. 

The Irish have given the 6-foot-1, 222-pound Kollie more opportunities on defense in lopsided wins the last two weeks. 

"Prince is certainly somebody that has the athletic ability to play the position, but it's still a work in progress for him,” Kelly said. “He's still learning as we go. But he's so athletic. He can run. He can get to the football. I think it's a little bit of both. 

“It's nice to see him — he can find the ball, he can see it, he can run, he's athletic. And it's great that he can get into the game and he can immediately find the ball and he can go get it.” 

Prince Kollie during football practice Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Extra points

• Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees is Notre Dame's nominee for the 2021 Broyles Award, which is given to the top assistant coach in college football. Rees was announced Monday as one of 59 nominees for the award.

A pair of coaches with Notre Dame ties were also nominated: Cincinnati offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock and Ball State defensive coordinator Tyler Stockton. Denbrock coached at Notre Dame from 2002-04 and 2010-16. Stockton played defensive line for the Irish from 2009-13.

• The Pac-12 conference announced Monday that the Notre Dame game at Stanford on Nov. 27 will be held for a six-day selection for TV scheduling purposes. The game will either kick off at 3:30 p.m. EST or 8 p.m. EST. That decision will be announced this coming weekend.

• The Biletnikoff Award, which recognizes the season's outstanding pass catcher, announced its 10 semifinalists Monday. Three of them have played against Notre Dame this season: USC's Drake London (15 catches for 171 yards), North Carolina's Josh Downs (10 catches for 142 yards) and Purdue's David Bell (7 catches for 64 yards).

HOW TO WATCH NOTRE DAME VS. GEORGIA TECH 

Who: No. 6 Notre Dame (9-1) vs. Georgia Tech (3-7) 

Kickoff: Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EST 

Where: Notre Dame Stadium 

TV: NBC 

Radio: WSBT (AM 960), WNSN-FM (101.5) 

Line: Notre Dame by 15 1/2 

Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.