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Talented freshmen will play early, often

Matthew DeFranks | Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith will do what Manti Te’o never did in an Irish uniform: start the season opener as a freshman.

When Irish coach Brian Kelly released the first depth chart of the season Tuesday afternoon, the five-star frosh was listed ahead of junior linebacker Ben Councell at the drop linebacker position.

“I think the one thing that Jaylon has done as well as a lot of freshmen that I’ve been around, he doesn’t make the same mistake twice,” Kelly said. “He’s a guy that comes back the next day, and he can eradicate the same mistake twice, and that’s a hallmark of a guy that’s going to play a lot of football for us.”

But Smith will not be the only Notre Dame freshman ready to see playing time immediately against Temple on Saturday. Freshman cornerback Cole Luke should see time as the nickel back and is one of seven first-year players listed on the two-deep depth chart.

“We have conversations before, and we let them know what our intentions are,” Kelly said. “I will tell you this: that the group of freshmen that I’ve had conversations with, they all want to play. It’s a group that they really they want to get on the field right now.”

Of those seven players, three – offensive lineman Steve Elmer and receivers James Onwualu and Corey Robinson – enrolled early this past spring, gaining a semester advantage on the rest of their recruiting class.

Kelly said enrolling early was an extraordinary thing to ask of the recruits and that all three listed on the depth chart will see playing time Saturday.

The final freshmen noted on the depth chart were running back Greg Bryant and defensive lineman Isaac Rochell. Rochell will be forced into action after junior defensive lineman Tony Springmann suffered a season-ending knee injury during training camp.

Kelly also said the coaching staff will hint at its redshirt plans for the other freshmen based on special teams play against the Owls. He declined, however, to say which freshmen would play.

“I think we like to get our freshmen in on special teams early on and get them acclimated, especially those guys that we plan on or have a vision towards playing,” Kelly said. “So I think you could probably get an eye towards what our intentions are based upon those guys you see on special teams on Saturday.”

Kelly said despite last year’s No. 3 recruiting class according to Rivals, the freshmen blend with the rest of the team.

“It’s not about themselves, it’s about their team,” he said. “There’s no sense in feeling of a class system in the room. It’s a very unique group, that they have never once said ‘Hey, we’re the group, we’re this freshman group that has made this a better football team.’ They have blended in so well to an established identity within this football team, and it takes a humble group of guys, and that’s why it’s a pretty good dynamic.”

This season is a bit different than seasons in the past, as well. Normally, there are two full weeks of class in the fall before the first football game. But this season, there is only one week before the season opener.

Kelly said having just one week was not a concern for freshmen still adjusting to college life.

“They have got their full fill of college life, trust me,” he said. “They’re going to be a little bit taxed, right, because their schedule now is a combination of both [school and football] the next couple of days, but certainly they handled themselves very well this summer with a very demanding schedule.”

Kelly said the freshmen are integrated into the University during the summer via a bridge program. They attended school for six weeks, eight hours a day. This week, however, was the first time in their short stint where the entire campus was buzzing with students.

The freshmen will get their feet wet Saturday when No. 14 Notre Dame opens the season against Temple.

 feet wet Saturday when No. 14 Notre Dame opens the season against Temple.

Contact Matthew DeFranks at mdefrank@nd.edu