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Joseph: Irish youth movement on display in Pittsburgh win (Nov. 5)

Allan Joseph | Monday, November 5, 2012

In that nerve-wracking, thrilling and gutty win over Pittsburgh on Saturday, No. 3 Notre Dame saw its hopes for a national title run stay alive by prevailing in triple overtime. But in a larger sense, the Irish (9-0) saw their hopes for perennial national contention come to life, too.

From sophomore quarterback Everett Golson to freshman safety Elijah Shumate, from sophomore defensive end Stephon Tuitt to freshman cornerback KeiVarae Russell (and don’t forget sophomore receiver DaVaris Daniels and sophomore safety Matthias Farley), young players contributed all over the field at Notre Dame Stadium, just as they have all season.

With the exception of Tuitt, every single one of the players above is in his first year of eligibility. At any other school, they’d all be either “true freshmen” or “redshirt freshmen.” Terminology aside, the young guys can play. And that bodes well for the trajectory of the Notre Dame program – for this January and beyond.

Flash back a couple months ago. Question marks abounded all over the roster. Would Golson be able to make big plays while avoiding costly mistakes? Would a young secondary missing two experienced starters to injury (senior safety Jamoris Slaughter and junior cornerback Lo Wood) be able to slow down, much less stop, opposing passing games? Would the defensive line be able to create pressure after Aaron Lynch transferred to South Florida?

In the last two games, those questions have been emphatically answered. Golson may have thrown a bad interception in the fourth quarter Saturday, but the Irish would have lost against both Oklahoma and Pittsburgh if it weren’t for the young quarterback’s athleticism and ability to make something out of nothing. Russell, Farley and freshman safety Elijah Shumate have exceeded all expectations – just ask Landry Jones. And Tuitt? Well, that’s the easiest answer of them all.

There were growing pains, of course. Golson struggled early, especially against Michigan. He made a slew of freshman mistakes: fumbles, interceptions and missed reads. But with a steady work ethic despite the controversy swirling around his competition with junior Tommy Rees, Golson found his stride in spectacular fashion midseason. The secondary didn’t face much competition until the opening series against Miami, when the young guns let Phillip Dorsett behind them twice in three snaps. Only Dorsett’s acute case of the drops saved the Irish from real embarrassment, but Russell, Farley and Shumate adjusted quickly, never allowing Miami quarterback Stephen Morris to find open receivers again.

Three-quarters of the way through the season, the young players are no longer green. They’re continuing to grow and get better every week, and given another offseason or two, many of the young players will be among the best talents in the country.

We haven’t even mentioned sophomore running back George Atkinson, freshman safety Nicky Baratti, sophomore running back Cam McDaniel or freshman receiver Chris Brown, all of whom have contributed in big ways in the last two weeks. Freshman receivers Davonte’ Neal and Justin Ferguson have all sorts of big-play ability waiting to be unleashed, and freshman running back Will Mahone could be a better backfield bruiser than either Robert Hughes or Jonas Gray. Freshman linebacker Romeo Okwara is as athletic as they come, and freshman tackle Ronnie Stanley will be able to step right into the starting lineup. If Irish coach Brian Kelly can keep recruiting this way – and early reports of the 2013 class suggest he can – the Irish will be able to compete for BCS berths year after year after year.

A 9-0 record is certainly worth celebrating. So too is Notre Dame’s sudden resurgence near the top of the polls.

But beyond that, the play of the young Irish is worth celebrating too – and it looks like it’ll be worth celebrating for years to come.

 

Contact Allan Joseph at ajoseph2@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.