SOUTH BEND – There has been a lot of questioning of third-year coach Brian Kelly since he arrived on campus in South Bend. That comes with the job and starts as soon as he steps to the podium for his introductory news conference.
However, one aspect that isn't questioned about the veteran coach is whether or not he'll play freshmen in key roles. Kelly has exhibited since taking over the Fighting Irish program that he'll reward those players that give Notre Dame the best opportunity to win football games. Period.
That trait will be put on display again in light of junior cornerback Lo Wood suffering a season-ending Achilles tendon injury in practice on Monday.
“I just feel terrible for Lo,” Kelly said. “But I feel really good about the five cornerbacks that we have. We have five scholarship cornerbacks that we believe can play the kind of football necessary for us to be successful.”
Last season Kelly didn't hesitate to throw freshmen like Aaron Lynch, George Atkinson, Troy Niklas, Stephon Tuitt, Chase Hounshell, Ishaq Williams, and Josh Atkinson into games in varying roles.
Of the five aforementioned cornerbacks, one is clear starter Bennett Jackson, while the others include sophomores Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown, but also true freshmen Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell. So the possibility of a first-year player playing a significant role in the defensive success of the Irish beginning Sept. 1 against Navy is very real. And Kelly is alright with that.
“We think that we have enough depth there to play very good football,” Kelly said. “All of the freshmen that are going to be playing, and those guys that are in their first season of competition, can certainly athletically do the job. Now it's a matter of how quickly they can pick up the technique and discipline, which is so important in playing that position.”
That speed in learning is aided by two things according to Kelly. The first is the coaching that the youngsters will receive and secondly, guys like Shumate and Russell weren't that far behind Wood in either playing experience or knowledge.
“Quite frankly, we have two outstanding coaches back there in (safeties coach) Bob Elliott and (co-defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach) Kerry Cooks,” Kelly said. “They can get kids ready back there in a very short period of time.”
Though Wood was a junior, he has seen very limited time in his first two seasons. Though Wood has played in 21 games during his career, he has never started one.
“Lo didn't have a ton of experience either,” Kelly said. “I don't think that we feel that the learning curve is such (in playing freshmen) that we have to make changes relative to what they have been doing (in camp). We want to continue the consistency of teaching that we have established over the last two-and-half weeks.”
In regards to not just Shumate and Russell, but other freshmen players including Sheldon Day (DL), Ronnie Stanley (OL), Davonte Neal (WR), and Chris Brown (WR), Kelly said his first indication that these kids had a different mindset came from Notre Dame strength coach Paul Longo during summer workouts. Players today are not patiently waiting their turn on the field. They want to get out and represent the Irish as quickly as possible.
“If there is one thing that I really enjoy about our freshman class it's that they love to play,” Kelly said. “All of these guys are not afraid to step out there and compete.”