How many times over the past two decades have Notre Dame football fans heard about the Fighting Irish bringing in one of the top recruiting classes in the nation, only to see that talent never result in either victories or high NFL draft picks?
OK, you can stop counting, that would take too long.
But it appears that third-year coach Brian Kelly has remedied that problem because the young players that he has signed are producing.
Take the defensive line tandem of freshman Sheldon Day and sophomore Tony Springmann. The two big boys have registered a combined 11 tackles through three games (five for the Bishop Dwenger High School graduate Springmann) and have become pleasant surprises for the Irish coaching staff.
“I think they obviously bring a lot,” Kelly said in Sunday's teleconference. “We played a lot of players. We got a rotation there that really works well for us. It keeps the guys fresh."
Not many first-year players have the physical ability to withstand the increase in competition of high-major football – in particular those who are battling veteran offensive linemen. However, both Day and Springmann not only are physically strong enough to have made contributions this season, but are also athletic enough to create opportunities for high-impact plays.
Both players were able to get to Michigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell in Saturday's 20-3 Irish victory for their first career sacks.
“Sheldon obviously is a guy that has great athletic ability,” Kelly said. “But he can also stand in there against teams that want to run the football.”
In Springmann's case, he's bulked up through “a lot of eating” to 290 pounds and at 6-foot-6; he's just very difficult for any opponent to deal with.
“Tony is just big, athletic,” Kelly said. “He's long. Both of those freshmen provide us some really good depth at the defensive line.”
And it hasn't just been the Notre Dame defensive front that has received contributions from young guys, the Notre Dame secondary has been besieged by injury this season – and even before the season – as cornerback Lo Wood and now, safety Jamoris Slaughter each will miss the season with Achilles injuries. Kelly had entered training camp knowing that he'd probably have to play a number of young defensive backs some, but now it is a necessity to play them a lot.
“Those are things that coaches have to deal with all over the country,” Kelly said. “I think we're really pleased with the game that (sophomore) Matthias Farley can go in there and do a solid job for us.”
Farley has notched six tackles through three games and provided depth as Slaughter battled injuries through the first three games. And now that he is out for good, Farley will have an even more significant role.
“You lose a Jamoris Slaughter, you're losing an A player,” Kelly said. “Matthias is certainly not at the level yet of a Jamoris Slaughter. He's got to continue to develop. But we have a lot of confidence and trust in him. He'll be getting a lot of work back there. So we'll have to continue to develop him. But we have a lot of confidence in him.”
Another pair of cornerbacks that Kelly has relied heavily upon are true freshmen KeiVarae Russell and Elijah Shumate.
“KeiVarae Russell has probably been the guy that really makes us feel pretty good about what's going on,” Kelly said. “He was challenged in some one-on- one matchups (and) came out of it on a positive note.”
Russell got his first sack against Purdue and has also accumulated eight tackles, while Shumate has played less than Russell; Kelly still has belief that he can fill a specific role this season.
“We needed to get (Shumate) involved in the game,” Kelly said of the recent outing with the Spartans. “The easiest way for us to get him in and make an impact is the nickel position because we're not going to ask you to do a ton of things. We want that to parlay itself into more roles, whether it be corner or safety. He could probably play either. We want to continue to develop him as we move down the road. He's got a real keen football instinct and he's a gifted football player.”
Having already faced two Big Ten opponents (Purdue and Michigan State), the young Irish defensive players are learning by fire and their tests won't get any easier with Michigan coming to South Bend on Saturday (7:30 p.m., NBC).
“I think what we're seeing is the development of some really young players that can be really good players for us,” Kelly said. “I think you're worried if you feel like you have to hide them out there. We don't need to hide them; they just need to continue to develop.”