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Griffin: Future looks bright for young Irish core

| Friday, November 18, 2016

Notre Dame seniors will be honored before the game Saturday for their last time playing in Notre Dame Stadium. After that, though, all eyes should be on the players who represent the program’s future rather than its past.

This season is approaching its merciful end, and the best-case scenario — and an unlikely one — for the Irish is that they win out, finishing 6-6 with a chance at a half-decent bowl game sponsored by a company with a satire-ready name.

In 2017, on the other hand, Notre Dame is 0-0 with a lot of promise — forgetting for a moment, of course, that the squad had an abundance of promise heading into this fall, too.

43 of the 61 players on the Irish depth chart have at least two years of eligibility remaining. The underclassmen have come a long way since they were thrown into the fire early in the season, and that extra playing time can only help in the long run — a silver lining to 2016’s disappointments.

Irish sophomore receiver C.J. Sanders returns a kickoff during Notre Dame’s 28-27 loss to Navy on Nov. 5 at EverBank Field. Sanders returned the opening kickoff against Army on Nov. 12 for a touchdown.Emma Farnan | The Observer
Irish sophomore receiver C.J. Sanders returns a kickoff during Notre Dame’s 28-27 loss to Navy on Nov. 5
at EverBank Field. Sanders returned the opening kickoff against Army on Nov. 12 for a touchdown.

Those younger players have become some of the team’s most important playmakers this year, too. Top touchdown target and sophomore receiver Equanimeous St. Brown will be around, whether he’s catching passes from DeShone Kizer, Brandon Wimbush or Malik Zaire. The same goes for will kickoff returner and sophomore receiver C.J. Sanders. Freshman deep-threat receiver Kevin Stepherson can only get better. Sophomore running backs Josh Adams and Dexter Williams will continue to bring energy and yardage to the ground game.

The youth and promise of the defense stands out even more, particularly when compared to the uncertainty and instability that plagued it before — and for some time after — the firing of coordinator Brian VanGorder.

Freshman Devin Studstill has done an admirable job taking over at free safety for graduate student Avery Sebastian, who started in the season opener. Sophomore Nicco Fertitta is his backup, and freshman Jalen Elliot backs up junior Drue Tranquill at strong safety.

Freshman cornerback Julian Love hauled in his first career interception against Army, and it almost certainly will not be his last. Cornerback Donte Vaughn, Love’s classmate, also has an interception this year, plus six pass breakups. Though senior Cole Luke will depart, sophomore Shaun Crawford will come back from injury to bolster the corner corps that also includes freshman Troy Pride Jr., who Brian Kelly has praised more than once this season.

The defensive line and linebacker units are the oldest on the Irish defense, and even they will lose few starters. Moreover, freshmen like Daelin Hayes, Julian Okwara and Jamir Jones — the backup to senior James Onwualu — have had plenty of time to get acclimated before their services are truly necessary.

All told, freshmen and sophomores accounted for 321 all-purpose yards against Army — including returns by Sanders and sophomore Chris Finke — as well as 23 tackles and an interception on defense.

That 44-6 rout was, potentially, a sneak peek at what 2017 could bring. A win against a very good Virginia Tech squad would make prospects for next year that much brighter — and a road upset of a USC team on a roll would mean even more.

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

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About Renee Griffin

Notre Dame senior, formerly of Farley Hall. Originally from Lake Zurich, IL, majoring in American Studies with a minor in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. Enjoys talkin' about practice.

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