Notebook: New Faces Shine For Notre Dame Against USF
On Saturday, Notre Dame fans experienced the impact positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing can have on a college football roster.
Shortly before the game, the University of Notre Dame announced that eight players would be unavailable against South Florida.
While this list included three offensive players, the biggest impact was felt on defense where four starters or co-starters were out in junior cornerback TaRiq Bracy, sophomore free safety Kyle Hamilton and the tandem of junior Shayne Simon and sophomore Marist Liufau at Buck linebacker.
Of those players, the only publically disclosed injury was Hamilton's ankle sprain, which he suffered in the 27-13 win over Duke last weekend.
"You're never prepared for it but we're aware of it, and we knew it could happen,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “I think our players responded well, our coaches were prepared and they responded well. You hate to see anybody not be available, but it's the reality that we live in.”
It's likely wasn't too difficult for Kelly to have such an optimistic outlook when his team boat raced an overmatched USF team 52-0, with Notre Dame scoring on five of the team's first six offensive possessions.
Still, throughout the game, several new faces shined and showed they could be ready to make a contribution to Notre Dame Football throughout the rest of the 2020 season and beyond.
Trio of Defenders Make Impact In First Start
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the most important practices of the week, sophomore linebacker Jack Kiser mostly played on the scout team, helping Notre Dame’s offense prepare for South Florida.
But the morning of the game, Kiser learned he was elevated from third-string to starter once Liufau and Simon weren't able to play.
“I knew the game plan,” Kiser said. “That's one thing Coach Lee does a really good job of during the week is making sure every guy in the room knows the game plan, no matter if you're going to scout team or not.
“So when I got the news, I was like, 'Alright, let's go. It's time to play.'”
Kiser led the team in tackles with eight, seven of which were unassisted. He also chipped in two TFL and a quarterback hit.
His performance was so dominant that, after the win, Kelly gave him the game ball.
“He's a remarkable young man that can help our offense get prepared for South Florida's defense, and then put himself in a position where he can lead our team in tackles,” Kelly said. “I was kidding Clark [Lea]. I was like, ‘What are you doing? Why hasn't he been starting all year?’ being tongue in cheek, but he's prepared himself very well.”
Kiser was not the only first-time starter to make a difference.
True freshman corner Clarence Lewis and junior safety Houston Griffith also got their first starts at their respective positions after Bracy and Hamilton were unable to play against USF.
Both had five solo tackles, one TFL and played at least 33 defensive snaps. Lewis also had three pass breakups, one of which should have been an interception.
“In our minds, those were guys that we felt all along when we came to camp that we wanted to get ready and felt would be down the road guys that we would need to count on,” Kelly said. “They all stepped up, and I felt good with them on the field.”
Once the sidelined Notre Dame players get back, it will be interesting to see how much run Kiser, Lewis and Griffith get, especially after playing a combined 16 defensive snaps against Duke last week (with Lewis not playing any).
Each showed against USF that they're capable contributors in a season where depth is at a premium.
Thirteen Freshmen See Game Action
Notre Dame took just 17 players in its 2020 recruiting class, tied for the smallest in Kelly’s tenure.
On Saturday against South Florida, thirteen of those now freshmen saw action, headlined by Lewis (as discussed above), tight end Michael Mayer and running back Chris Tyree. Each earned time early in the game and should be part of future game plans going forward, regardless of who the Fighting Irish are facing.
Notre Dame began the game in 13 personnel, meaning three tight ends were on the field and Mayer earned his first career start. Overall, he only played 26 snaps (two fewer than last week against Duke) and had one catch for five yards, but he proved he can assert his will in the run game, which will earn him more playing time going forward.
Tyree was the running back on Notre Dame second offensive possession and, once again, proved more than he's just a speed running back by punishing USF between the tackles with three gains of four yards or more.
He then capped off this drive with a one-yard touchdown run, the first of his Fighting Irish career.
His best run of the day likely came in the second quarter when Tyree took a first-down handoff up the middle for 31 yards. With his speed, he's primed for at least one or two breakaway touchdown runs this season.
For the most part, the rest of the Notre Dame freshmen only saw the field once the game got out of hand.
On offense, quarterback Drew Pyne, tight end Kevin Baumen and wide receivers Xavier Watts and Jordan Johnson also saw the field.
Pyne threw the ball twice for one completion and five yards. He also had one carry for four yards.
“I love Drew Pyne,” said quarterback Ian Book. “He's a great addition to our QB room. He just comes every day wanting to learn and get better. So to see him go out there on the field and be able to get his opportunities is awesome.”
Of these pass-catchers, only Baumen was targeted and had one catch for five yards. He is another freshman Notre Dame fans should see a little more of this season.
"Baumen is not playing a lot, but he's going to play," Kelly said. "We're really deep there."
Johnson's biggest contribution to the game was a 15-yard personal foul penalty for smacking a USF defender in the face mask (this was the first Notre Dame penalty of the game). It will be interesting if this keeps him in Kelly's doghouse going forward.
In addition to Lewis, defensive backs Caleb Offord and Ramon Henderson also saw the field at the very end of the game, each playing fewer than 10 snaps.
All four freshmen defensive linemen played: defensive ends Alexander Ehrensberger and Jordan Botelho and defensive tackles Rylie Mills and Aidan Keanaaina.
The defensive tackles did not record a stat but held up well, especially Mills who played third-string three technique and was on the field for 26 defensive snaps.
Botelho had one tackle, scored a touchdown on special teams and also had an effective hit on the USF punter in the end zone.
Ehrensberger had two tackles, one of which was a sack.
“Ehrensberger was on scout team for us playing nose tackle and now he's playing five technique and got a sack, doing great things," Kelly said. "We've got really good players and we've got really good depth. They'll accept the roles that we give them during the week, and then they'll be prepared to play if we call on them.”
The only scholarship freshmen players to not see the field were offensive linemen Michael Carmody and Tosh Baker, wide receiver Jay Brunelle (who had offseason shoulder surgery) and long snapper Alex Peitsch.
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