SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brian Kelly has a novel concept for how to balance out the youth and inexperience that's permeating the Notre Dame defense.
"Score a lot of points," Kelly said.
Notre Dame's defensive two-deep is littered with freshmen and sophomores. On the list: Isaac Rochell, Daniel Cage, Andrew Trumbetti, Jaylon Smith, Greer Martini, Nyles Morgan, James Onwualu, Max Redfield, Cole Luke and Devin Butler. Those guys have varying levels of experience — Smith started 13 games a year ago and is Notre Dame's best player while Cage, Trumbetti, Martini and Morgan are true freshmen. Onwualu switched from offense to defense after last season, while Rochell, Redfield and Luke slide into starting roles for the first time in their respective careers.
Add in freshmen Jhonny Williams and Kolin Hill — both expected to play edge-rushing roles on third down — and inexperienced juniors in Jarron Jones and Romeo Okwara, and Notre Dame's defense is full of greenhorns. The good news, Kelly said, is those young players have plenty of athleticism, which hopefully will negate some of the problems that come with being new to the college level and/or having significant responsibilities on the Irish defense.
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"There are going to be times where we're going to be gnashing our teeth a little bit, but they're very athletic," Kelly said. "And that's okay when you know you've got some very good athletes over there."
Fifth-year safety Austin Collinsworth said all those young players have taken coaching and direction very well, with Smith setting a "great" example for how to act as an underclassman. And Collinsworth added he hasn't noticed himself having to do more in practice, at least in terms of coaching/positioning, than he did with last year's upperclasssmen-laden defense.
"It doesn't feel any different right now than it did last year," Collinsworth said. "Maybe that'll be a little bit different in the game but I don't anticipate it. I think this is a smart bunch of guys, and yeah they're a little bit green but they're a good group."
Couple all that youth with a new scheme under Brian VanGorder, and Notre Dame's defense is very much an unknown heading into its season opener against Rice on Saturday. VanGorder acknowledged that last week — while he has a good read on these players, he doesn't know how they'll react to playing in front of 80,000 fans or how they'll respond to failure on a national stage.
"I think there’s reason to be optimistic about them," VanGorder said. "Let’s see how they can endure. We just don’t know that answer right now."