Baptism by fire has produced good results for Notre Dame football in recent years. The Irish tossed KeiVarae Russell into the deep end last season with a starting role in a brand new position, and the rookie cornerback earned a spot on the Freshman All-America team. Aaron Lynch made the same team two years earlier. He, too, was thrust into the spotlight as soon as he stepped on campus along with classmate Stephon Tuitt.
Stephon Tuitt played in nine games and started in three as a true freshman in 2011.
Among the crop of freshmen arriving on campus this summer is another trio of defensive standouts billed as ready for action. Safety Max Redfield, linebacker Jaylon Smith and defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes all have the potential to shake up Notre Dame’s depth chart in August. Given the team’s recent track record with freshman on that side of the ball, one would think defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is itching to get them into the mix. He’s not.
“I have no interest in heaping too much on young guys,” Diaco said. “… We don’t have any expectations of what those brand new players are going to bring to the organization on any kind of immediate basis.”
Diaco has seen this script already. He watched as a mixture of hype and necessity ushered Tuitt and Lynch into the lineup during the first week of the coaching staff’s second year in South Bend. He said because of the lack of depth they inherited along the defensive line, the Irish had no choice but to use them right away.
Neither played in the second week of their freshmen season because Notre Dame’s coaches didn’t think they were ready to play with the discipline needed against an elusive quarterback like Denard Robinson of Michigan. Robinson threw for 338 yards in a winning effort. The next week Tuitt and Lynch played and the latter made five tackles, including a sack that forced a fumble against Michigan State.
If Diaco had the choice, he would have preferred to keep them on the sidelines longer. His defense has more options and more layers of depth coming into the 2013 season. He may not need to rush this year’s influx of talent onto the field.
“We’ve been to this movie three years ago with those defensive linemen. They were thrust into that role too early in our organization’s opinion,” he said. “They weren’t ready for it mentally or physically. If anything their development was hindered by that overwhelming amount of reps. We’d like to avoid that if possible.”
Tuitt and Lynch, who will be juniors in the fall, were both listed as first round — if not top-10 — picks in early 2014 NFL Draft projections this week. They have largely been able to overcome the parts of the development process they missed as freshmen.
On the other hand, Lynch never fully settled into the system at Notre Dame (a possible repercussion of needing to play right away) and has since returned to his home state of Florida to play for USF.
Five-star recuit Eddie Vanderdoes is the most likely incoming freshman to see the field right away in 2013.
The pressure of expectations has the potential to weigh down a player trying to make the leap from high school to the college game. Ishaq Williams, who was also a blue-chip recruit in Tuitt and Lynch’s class, has had trouble adjusting in his first two seasons. Even now that he seems to be hitting his stride, Diaco was reticent to forecast any results for the outside linebacker/defensive end.
“Ishaq is starting to come into his own,” the coach said. “I don’t want to heap a bunch of pressure on him as it relates to the fall of 2013, but he’s starting to learn how to practice and prepare professionally in practice and in meetings.”
Diaco also hopes that after three full years of developing the players he has physically and mentally, they will be able to hold their own against an 18-year-old fresh out of high school regardless of his raw talents.
This year’s trio of impressive freshmen play positions occupied by at least two capable and experienced players already on campus. Vanderdoes, the top-rated defensive tackle in the country, will likely be the hardest to keep off the field because of his versatility and the way most defenses now rotate players along the line. Redfield and Smith aren’t redshirt candidates either, but Notre Dame has the luxury to introduce them slowly despite the high levels of anticipation for their arrivals.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly said during the spring that he plans to use plenty of freshman next fall in some form. He named linebackers Michael Deeb and Doug Randolph along with Smith and Redfield as examples.
“We’re going to bring in a number of freshmen that I’m certain are going to be involved in special teams, especially some of those bigger-bodied guys,” he said. “There’s going to be an influx of talented guys that can help us in that area as well.”
The difference now, two years after Lynch and Tuitt burst on to the scene and even just a year removed from Russell’s unlikely leap into the starting lineup, is that Notre Dame’s defense can afford to feed its rookies bite-sized pieces of the game while they are learning. That’s progress for the Irish.