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Freshmen thrown into action in Irish secondary

| Friday, October 7, 2016

At the beginning of the season, Notre Dame started a sophomore, junior, senior and sixth-year graduate student at the back end of its defense.

But over the last few weeks, Irish head coach Brian Kelly has made it a point to begin an influx of youth into the secondary unit, both out of necessity and a desire to rotate players in to earn them experience, as he has stated on several occasions over the last week.

Graduate student safety Avery Sebastian suffered a concussion week one against Texas and has struggled during his limited time on the field since. Then, sophomore cornerback Shaun Crawford was lost to a torn Achilles during Notre Dame’s second game of the season against Nevada.

So just three weeks later against Syracuse — and after a 1-3 start — the Irish found themselves playing as many as four freshmen in the secondary. Kelly has said this strategy of constantly cycling players in and out will be a short-term schematic move for the defense, but it is one he and the players find productive and conducive to the development of that side of the ball.

“I think this method of playing a lot of young guys in a lot of rotation is beneficial,” freshman cornerback Julian Love said. “Syracuse was a high-tempo offense, so if you leave a guy out there ‘x’ amount of plays, he’s going to be fatigued, and so we tried to get a lot of guys in. I’ll have a lot of experience being brought through that, [which] I think is beneficial.”

Now, as the Irish prepare to travel to Raleigh, North Carolina, to take on North Carolina State, two of those freshmen — Love and safety Devin Studstill — will be starting in the secondary against the Wolfpack (3-1), and the other two — cornerbacks Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride Jr. — will also see their fair share of time on the field. For Love, seeing the field was something he expected coming into the season, but the amount of playing time has been a surprise for him.

“I knew I would be able to get some time … but this much, I didn’t expect,” Love said. “But I knew I just had to work hard each day and just try to get better, and it’s paying forward now.”

Although the strategy Kelly has employed as of late was not one the freshmen were expecting when they started the season, it was not one they were unprepared for, according to Love. He said the secondary — particularly the freshmen — have been close since they arrived on campus, and they have felt their role on the team has been to learn on the job and step up when they have been called upon.

“As a class, we’re really close. We have been since we got here in June,” Love said. “And so, from a defensive back perspective, we really told each other ‘We’re gonna be put in this spot.’ We were told that, since day one, we need to be ready, and that time is now. [Donte Vaughn] and Troy [Pride Jr.] and [Devin] Studstill — I feel like we’re just doing a great job of learning from the older guys and just trying to be there and be reliable players for the rest of the team.”

Irish freshman cornerback Donte Vaughn makes a tackle during the 50-33 Notre Dame win against Syracuse last Saturday.Grace Tourville | The Observer
Irish freshman cornerback Donte Vaughn makes a tackle during the 50-33 Notre Dame win against Syracuse on Saturday at MetLife Stadium.

That’s not to say things have been smooth sailing for the foursome this year. Like the rest of the defense, they had to deal with the aftermath of the firing of Brian VanGorder as defensive coordinator, with Greg Hudson assuming his position and Kelly taking a larger role in the planning of the defensive scheme. But the changes have been small and simple, and Hudson has helped bring about a new attitude for the secondary, one which it has taken to well, Love said.

“Coach Hudson’s been here, and we’re still running sort of the same schemes,” he said. “We’re just changing very few things, so it wasn’t that much of a change from a schematic standpoint. We’re just trying to play with more energy and just trying to have fun.”

And now, after Notre Dame’s win over Syracuse last weekend, it’s a mentality the group expects to bring success going forward, starting with Saturday’s game against N.C. State.

“Well, we’ve got to rally to the ball and just play with tremendous team effort. That’s really important,” Love said of the defense’s points of emphasis for its matchup with the Wolfpack offense. “And just play with high energy. That can make a difference, and I think it will make the difference in a lot of situations.”

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About Benjamin Padanilam

Ben is a senior and The Observer’s former Editor-in-Chief, now serving as its interim Sports Editor. He is in the Program of Liberal Studies (PLS) and also pursuing minors in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) and Business Economics. He hails from Toledo, Ohio, and has enjoyed the few highs and many lows of being a Cleveland sports fan.

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