As the list of injured Notre Dame football players continues to grow with each passing day, it is becoming readily apparent just how valuable the quality of recruiting done by the current Fighting Irish coaching staff has become.
In last Saturday's 45-10 road win at Air Force, it wasn't just the margin of victory that enabled Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly to play 60 Irish players, a new mark for his three-plus seasons in South Bend. Kelly was also able to tap into his reserves because of the player development work that his staff has accomplished.
“I think it is what college football and the NFL has shown,” Kelly said. “If you don't develop your players, have them in a position where they are ready to play for you, it's going to be a long year.”
That “long year” has been avoided in large part because of strong recruiting, which has enabled a number of freshmen to get on the field and keep this season from spiraling into chaos once the rash of injuries began in training camp.
In last week's Irish depth chart, Kelly listed 10 true freshmen, five on both sides of the ball, among those that would be heavily relied upon.
“I think we go into the season with a thought that we got a pretty good idea who we're going to play and who we're not going to play,” Kelly said. “I think those young men, we don't believe that they're going to come in and be All-Americans, but they're going to be contributors.
“And I think if you look at the freshmen, the one guy that's been more than a contributor is (linebacker) Jaylon Smith, obviously. He's been more than just a contributor.
“So if there's one freshman that has really impacted our football team, I think you'd have to point to Jaylon.”
Smith has developed into “more than a contributor,” for sure. He led the Irish in tackles against the Falcons and has totaled nearly 40 tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery.
Smith has separated himself from the pack in his first season out of Bishop Luers High School. He's started each of the eight games, which is highly unusual for a first-year guy at this level of college football. It's so unusual, that even a veteran coach like Kelly has been continually surprised by Smith's evolution.
“It hasn't stopped surprising me because of the different things that have tested him,” Kelly said. “Let's go to this weekend (and) having to defend options. And if you watched him, which I know you did, when you're a 3-4 linebacker playing drop, you force the football.
“That's what you do. You immediately attack and force. He was not in that role. He was slow playing the quarterback, the pitch. And the patience that he showed to buy time for the “Mike” (linebacker) to get over a block or the safety to come from the backside hash, you just don't teach that. It's just instincts that he had that he could slow play the options.
“So, again, another weekend where you go the kid just has those things that are hard to teach.”
What hasn't surprised Kelly in regards to Smith is the fact that he is seeing the youngster on the field at all.
Whereas with most high school recruits, the coaches try and project what amount they'll be able to contribute, if they'll be able to contribute early, and by when they'll be able to contribute.
Not so much when it came to Smith.
“There were no projections there,” Kelly said. “There was a projection: 'Is he a running back, safety, linebacker, or wherever he wanted to play.'”