SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Julian Love grew up a Notre Dame fan in the Chicago suburbs, but resisted the urge to tell everyone who would listen that he was going to play immediately as a true freshman in 2016. So after the Nazareth Academy alum got on the field quite a bit as a nickel cornerback in Week 1 at Texas, Love said he received “hundreds” of messages from family and friends who were surprised he was already playing for the Irish.
But the expectation for Notre Dame’s freshmen defensive backs has always been that they would contribute in 2016. The level of those contributions, though, has been turned up since defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was fired a day after the Irish suffered that embarrassing loss to Duke in late September.
When Notre Dame officially signed its 2016 recruiting class in February, the message from coaches was that more than half of the seven defensive backs the team signed would see playing time as freshmen. Five games into the season, cornerbacks Love, Troy Pride Jr. and Donte Vaughn and safeties Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott have each played significant roles on the Irish defense and combined for six starts.
“I think our confidence is growing each day,” Love said. “At first we were nervous but now when we step on the field, we feel natural and it’s something that we’ve all worked for and we’re building off each other.”
The expectation to be ready to play immediately was set for these young defensive backs during the recruiting process, but there’s a difference between being told you can compete for playing time and knowing it’s there. That knowledge usually doesn’t come until sometime during preseason camp, explained captain and linebacker James Onwualu, who himself played as a true freshman (at wide receiver) in 2013.
“I think it's tough to really know if you're going to play or not until camp, and you get into situations where you are competing against very good players,” Onwualu said. “So until you're matched up against our best running backs and our best receivers, you don't really have an idea. Like a lot of these guys are great athletes and can do summer training and look good through summer training, but putting it all together in fall camp is I think when you really start to know.”
Almost every Irish recruit, save for quarterbacks and most offensive linemen, is told they're in a position to compete for playing time immediately. But for these defensive backs, there were clear openings that only became more apparent after cornerback Nick Watkins broke his arm in April, cornerback Devin Butler re-fractured his foot in June (and was arrested in August), safety Max Redfield was dismissed from the team in August and cornerback Shaun Crawford suffered a season-ending injury in Week 2.
“I didn’t expect to play, I prepared to play,” Love said. “So I really worked hard, kept quiet and just tried to focus on the task at hand by getting better each day.”
With senior Cole Luke moving more into a nickel role, the Love-Pride-Vaughn trio will see plenty of time at cornerback going forward. Studstill became a staple at safety only two quarters into the season, and Elliott has been part of a growingly-effective safety rotation, too.
This group will make mistakes typical to freshmen and will need to continue rotating in and out to not burn anyone out over the grind of their first seasons at the college level. But Kelly & Co. see them as the best options for a defense in need of playmakers and short-term fixes. Notre Dame's defense is allowing 8.5 yards per passing attempt (110th in FBS) and has allowed five passing plays of 60 or more yards,
Throwing Elliott, Love, Pride, Studstill and Vaughn (safety Spencer Perry has played a bit too, while safety D.J. Morgan is the only freshman defensive back to not appear in a game this year) into the crucible so quickly, too, could pay off in 2017 and beyond.
The prime objective, though, is getting Notre Dame to six wins and bowl eligibility (doing so would also trigger an important month of December practices). And while their play won’t be perfect, this collectively-young group of defensive backs has at the least impressed Notre Dame’s best player.
“It looks like they haven't skipped a beat since high school,” quarterback DeShone Kizer said. “They have the same confidence that they've always had. They're flying around, they're not afraid to get in your face and play like the direction that they're playing like.
“… With a bunch of young guys you can't really expect them to come out and be studs in the first couple of games, so they're developing right on track. And the second half of Syracuse showed how good our secondary actually can be and what we expect them to be moving forward.”