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July 21, 2013

Depth often tied to scoreboard

Brian Kelly said Notre Dame needed more depth to prepare for and defeat Alabama in the national championship game.

The Irish would have been in better position to do so were they afforded the opportunity to play Western Kentucky in Week Two and Florida Atlantic in Week Four, as the Crimson Tide did in 2012.

The youngsters would grown up a whole lot quicker if the Irish had opened with North Texas and took on Idaho in Week Three, as LSU did.

Imagine opening up the 2012 season against Arkansas State, Fresno State and Tennessee Tech, as Oregon did.

But while the Irish were still learning how to win - which they did so well, it propelled them to the title game with the Crimson Tide - they weren't developing much depth other than along the defensive line where you either play multiple players or die over the course of a 12-game regular season.

To be sure, the Irish benefited from a 50-10 victory over Navy in Ireland to kick off the 2012 season by taking a 27-3 halftime lead and a 40-10 lead after three quarters. Seven different offensive players carried the football that day in Dublin. Players such as Ben Councell, Jarrett Grace, Tony Springmann, Nicky Baratti and Matthias Farley saw their first game action. Some backups played the entire fourth quarter.

But over the course of the remaining 11 regular-season games, Notre Dame had just two more games - Miami on Oct. 6, a 41-3 victory in Chicago and Wake Forest on Nov. 17, a 38-0 home conquest - where the second half could be used to liberally sprinkle in young substitutes.

Of course, when you've lost 10 games in the first two years of the new regime, developing depth is a desired goal, a luxury if you will, not a top-of-the-list priority. First and foremost, you have to find ways to win games, and if that means relying upon your frontline players almost exclusively, you do it.

Excluding the 40-point victory over Navy, and the 38-point wins over Miami and Wake Forest, Notre Dame's average margin of victory over its other nine regular-season games was exactly nine points, and even that was deceiving. Five of the victories were by one score, four of which came in a six-game stretch.

The 30-13 victory at Oklahoma was tied at 13 midway through the fourth quarter. Even in what looks like a comfortable 20-3 victory at Michigan State, the Irish weren't in a position to freely substitute in the second half because the offense failed to score in the third quarter and managed just two field goals in the fourth.

What the Irish need to develop the depth that the big boys have is some good ol' fashioned butt kickings.

During Lou Holtz's magnificent run from 1986-96, the Irish frequently manhandled opponents early in the season, thus allowing greater substitution, which meant that when it was time for those players to have a more extended role, they had some legitimate playing experience under their belts.

Even in Holtz's first year - a 5-6 campaign in 1986 - the Irish defeated Purdue by 32 in Week Three, Air Force by 28 in Week Six, Navy by 19 in Week Seven and SMU by 32 in Week Eight. By the time Holtz had it rolling from 1988-93 - a six-year reign in which the Irish were a remarkable 64-9-1 - Notre Dame was manhandling opponents on a regular basis, which allowed the youth to grow up much faster.

Depth was a perpetual issue at Notre Dame in the Bob Davie/Tyrone Willingham/Charlie Weis eras because it remained difficult to recruit the elite while the Irish were going 35-25 under Davie, 21-15 under Willingham and 35-27 under Weis. Those three head coaches were trying to save their jobs, not develop second- and third-team players for the future. Their future was today.

When Alabama beats the daylights out of Western Kentucky, Florida Atlantic, Western Carolina, Kent State, North Texas, Georgia Southern and Florida International - as they've done in the last four seasons - the stars of tomorrow see ample time.

Imagine how much better Notre Dame's depth would look heading into the 2013 season if Councell, Baratti, Grace, and Romeo Okwara had been able to play liberally in 2012 without the fear of their mistakes costing the Irish games, or at least jeopardizing the outcome.

Elijah Shumate might be in a better position to step into the starting lineup this fall as opposed to the trial-and-error situation he finds himself in today. Jalen Brown and/or Josh Atkinson might be better positioned to hold off the charge of some younger cornerbacks if the Irish coaching staff didn't have to stick with Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell 95 percent of the time.

Davonte' Neal might still be at Notre Dame. Chris Brown could have run another five-dozen live routes as a true freshman instead of seeing his playing time dwindle as the season progressed. Nick Martin and Conor Hanratty might be more secure heading into '13 as starters as opposed to peering over their shoulders at competition that is younger but not that far behind in terms of live reps. George Atkinson and Cam McDaniel might have had 100 and 50 carries respectively instead of the 51 and 23 they had in 2012.

When Atkinson did get to see more time, he clipped off 56- and 55-yard touchdown runs against Navy and Miami. When McDaniel received 12 touches against Miami, he rushed for 55 yards and caught a pass for 21 yards.

Maybe Temple on Aug. 31 and a trip to Purdue of Sept. 14 will give Kelly and his staff a chance to tap into the depth a little more. It probably won't happen in the four-game stretch from Sept. 21 through Oct. 19 when Notre Dame plays Michigan State, Oklahoma, Arizona State and USC. Maybe Air Force, Navy, Pittsburgh and BYU will assist Notre Dame's depth development from Oct. 26 through Nov. 23.

It's all part of the process of building a true, consistent national power. It takes time, patience, great coaching and recruiting, and a few more blowouts to continue the wheels of progress turning in the right direction.

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