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Thrown into the fire

Andrew Soukup | Friday, December 5, 2003

No matter what they might have accomplished in high school, the 20 freshmen on Notre Dame’s roster had one thing in common in fall camp.

They had no clue what was going on.

The offensive players were handed a massive playbook and told to know it all. The defensive players were expected to guard much more physical offensive players than they faced in high school. And on top of that, there was this thing called college they had to get acclimated to.

Playing was the last thing on their minds. Surviving was the first.

“It’s tough for everyone,” wide receiver Chinedum Ndukwe said. “You go from being the main dude to not playing so much.”

Yet as the Irish prepare for their final game of the season at Syracuse, a whopping six freshmen logged significant minutes during the 2003 campaign. By comparison, last year, only two freshmen cracked the playing field.

The decision coaches make to give a freshman limited minutes now to help him gain experience at the cost of a year of eligibility is a difficult one. Yet Irish coach Tyrone Willingham believes the playing time the Notre Dame six – Ndukwe and fellow receiver Jeff Samardzija, quarterback Brady Quinn, defensive lineman Victor Abiamiri, offensive lineman Ryan Harris and safety Freddie Parrish – will greatly benefit the Irish in the future.

“There’s nothing like playing in the game, there’s nothing like being a part of the team, having that buildup for a game and that preparation for a game,” Willingham said, “that can help you going into next season.”

Different reasons

Why a freshman ends up playing depends on a multitude of factors. Take Quinn, for example. He came to Notre Dame expecting to challenge for the backup quarterback job with Chris Olsen behind Carlyle Holiday.

But when Olsen transferred, and Holiday’s ineffectiveness hampered an already inept Irish offense, the coaching staff tabbed Quinn as the Irish starter for the rest of the season – just one of a handful of true freshmen across the nation to line up behind center this year.

“I had no expectations of where I would be at the beginning of the year,” he said. “I just had to take my role and deal with it.”

Then there’s Harris. Most famous at the beginning of the year for appearing on an MTV reality television show, Harris expected he wouldn’t see any playing time because his weight wasn’t where the coaching staff wanted it to be. And anyway, freshman offensive linemen rarely play their first year.

So imagine how surprised he was when the coaches told him the first college game he would play in – against Pittsburgh – was going to be a start.

“The coaches never told me [during recruiting] I would play, and even when I got here after camp, they said, ‘We want you to get bigger,'” said Harris, who joined Brad Williams and Mike Rosenthal as the only Irish freshmen to start on the offensive line. “But playing this year has been an unbelievable experience for me.”

The coaches consider Abiamiri one of the year’s best success stories. Forced to come to Notre Dame when a recruiting violation by a Maryland coach made him ineligible to become a Terrapin, Abiamiri entered Notre Dame as one of the most highly-touted high school recruits the Irish landed.

He had played sparingly earlier in the season, but when Justin Tuck couldn’t play against Michigan State, Abiamiri seamlessly stepped in and made seven tackles. Later, when Kyle Budinscak suffered a season-ending injury, Abiamiri moved to the other end of the line and has started the last four games – joining current Baltimore Ravens defender Anthony Weaver as the only freshman to start on the defensive line since 1991.

The early playing time has brought these players significant accolades. Rivals.com named Harris a freshman All-American and Abiamiri earned honorable mention freshman honors. Meanwhile Quinn, despite battling through growing pains at quarterback, solidified his grasp on the starting job and appears to be Notre Dame’s quarterback of the future.

Scant playing time

The flip side of starters Quinn, Abiamiri and Harris, however, is Samardzija, Ndukwe and Parrish. All three made their collegiate debuts at their respective positions in Notre Dame’s season opening win against Washington State. But from there, they drifted off the playing field during regular downs and mainly only entered the game as special teams players.

Samardzija, for example, caught seven passes in Notre Dame’s first four games but hasn’t caught a ball since. Ndukwe caught one ball in Notre Dame’s season opener, but had to wait nine games to catch his second pass. And Parrish, after seeing playing time as safety against the Cougars, is now mostly a special-teams extraordinaire.

But the year of eligibility blown on what others might see as insignificant playing time is worth it, Ndukwe says.

“I don’t regret it at all,” he said. “I got valuable experience being out on that field, and I learned the offense so much more than I would have if I had been on the scout team. I’m glad for this.”

That doesn’t mean that it was easy to sit on the sidelines. Ndukwe often sought the counsel of senior receiver Omar Jenkins, who played as a freshman but never caught a pass, and safety Quentin Burrell, who never left the sidelines as a freshman, to help him adjust to the idea of not playing every day.

“A lot of people start going through a stage where you start doubting yourself,” Ndukwe said. “You really can’t do that. A whole bunch of people have been there before you, and you just have to adapt yourself and keep doing what you’re doing and wait until next year.”

Coaches’ decision

Playing a freshman could give the team an added boost at a key position, as it did when coaches started Harris at tackle, which allowed Dan Stevenson to move to his more natural guard position. All the offensive line did in Harris’ first start was pave the way for Julius Jones’ 262-yard school record day against Pittsburgh.

Or it could end up that a player who coaches originally thought would play a lot, like Ndukwe, gets stuck behind more experienced players and is left on the special teams unit.

It’s a difficult decision coaches have to make every week. Should he play? Or should he save that year of eligibility? Or will he graduate in four years and maybe not want to play football anymore?

“You start with the belief that this young person, if you’re putting time into him, will have the ability to help the program at that time,” Willingham said. “Of course, there are a lot of adjustments that young people go through the first year in college that can influence that or change that as you go through the year.”

But what the coaches won’t do, at least at the beginning of the season, is tell freshmen they are or aren’t going to play. There does come a point where a coach might pull a player aside and tell him he is going to sit out the entire year – but that point doesn’t come until at least midway through the season. After all, Harris didn’t play until the fifth game of the season.

“What I tried to do is maintain as much of an entire team focus about playing as soon as possible,” Willingham said, “because the one thing I don’t want to do is have a freshman not develop in that first year because he says, ‘I’m not going to play.'”

Future dividends

Every freshman that played this year looks back on the season with some regret. Ndukwe wishes he could have played more. Quinn wishes he could have executed more. Harris wishes he could have won more.

But nobody wishes they wouldn’t have played at all. The game experience is too helpful.

“There’s not enough tape and tape recorders to tell you, there’s not enough words to explain, not enough paper to write,” Harris said. “In one game you learn so much and you continue to learn. It’s something that’s coming down to game experience. You can’t practice for every single situation.”

The last time so many freshmen played in their inaugural college year was 1999, when five freshmen played in Notre Dame’s season opener. Back then, that crew said they gained confidence by playing limited minutes, and three years later, Notre Dame started the season 8-0.

The current crop of Irish freshmen believes they, too, can accomplish similar success.

“All of us are confident in our abilities next year, and next year, we want to start putting in the effort to get the national titles,” Harris said. “Those of us who played have the experience.”

“I,” Ndukwe added, “can’t wait for the future.”