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Carson: Young talent has chance to build momentum into next year

| Monday, November 14, 2016

SAN ANTONIO — As the Notre Dame band played “Deep in the Heart of Texas” at halftime of Saturday’s 44-6 win over Army, I couldn’t help but think back to the last time I heard the ever-catchy tune. It was just under 10 weeks earlier, as the Irish were mere minutes from kicking off their 2016 season at Texas.

It was a moment of optimism for Irish fans. Notre Dame was the preseason No. 10, after all, and with a favorable schedule and a couple of breaks, there’s no reason the Irish couldn’t have found themselves in a playoff semifinal come New Year’s Eve. Of course, that conventional wisdom didn’t come close to holding.

Irish junior quarterback DeShone Kizer dives into the end zone during Notre Dame's 44-6 win in San Antonio on Saturday.Emma Farnan | The Observer
Irish junior quarterback DeShone Kizer dives into the end zone during Notre Dame’s 44-6 win in San Antonio on Saturday.

Ultimately, for many weeks, the Irish were a fatally flawed team. When DeShone Kizer and the offense were clicking on all cylinders, the defense couldn’t stop anyone. Once the defense got things figured out, the offense suddenly sputtered, putting up just 13 combined points in two consecutive losses. It was a combination of a lot of things — poor coaching put players in bad positions, but those same players (many of them young) made costly mistakes themselves.

After a performance like Saturday’s, it might be tempting to play the “what if?” game. What if Notre Dame could’ve gotten one more stop against Texas? What if key special teams errors hadn’t cost the Irish dearly against Michigan State? What if the defense played like this all year, not just over the last few weeks?

The “what if” game, especially when there’s so many possible questions, is dangerous, because it requires so many things to have gone differently — to the point where the chances of all of them happening would have been small.

So instead of playing the “what if?” game, let’s ask something different: what’s next?

Notre Dame is a young team, which while frustrating, often spells positive things for the future. Take the receiving effort Saturday, for example.

Losing a senior captain to injury, as the Irish did this week with Torii Hunter Jr., would be a blow to any receiving corps — let alone one as young as Notre Dame’s. But Notre Dame barely skipped a beat. Freshman Kevin Stepherson stepped up, with 75 yards receiving and a score, leading a crew of seven wide receivers to haul in a catch Saturday. Of those seven, just one — junior Corey Holmes — is an upperclassman.

Then there’s the rushing game, where sophomore Josh Adams carried the ball 15 times for 70 yards and a score. Or the secondary, where freshman Julian Love looks like a star in the making as part of a defense filled with youngsters. One could do the same exercise with most position groups.

You can’t find a way to deny that this Notre Dame season has been a disappointment — the Irish still likely won’t make a bowl game after starting the season a top-10 squad, and there’s still a reason Brian Kelly being the team’s head coach next season isn’t a certainty. But when that team does take the field, in 2017, 2018 and even 2019, it will be better for this year’s experiences.

Kelly, as any head coach, probably isn’t a fan of having to play as many freshmen as he has this season. The benefits, though, will be tangible down the road.

Over the last few weeks, Notre Dame — its youth and all — is starting to show some signs of life. That, in and of itself, should be reason for optimism.

But the pulse of the 2017 season will be set over the next two weeks, with Virginia Tech coming to South Bend and the Irish traveling to No. 15 USC. If Notre Dame can come away with one or two wins, it’ll be a success — one indicative of hope for the future. It’s an opportunity, beyond chasing a 6-6 record and a bowl berth, to take something away from an otherwise rotten season.

So let’s see what these kids have got.

About Alex Carson

Alex Carson graduated from Notre Dame in 2017 after majoring in Applied and Computational Mathematics and Statistics and living in O’Neill Hall. Hailing from the Indianapolis area, but born in Youngstown, Ohio, Carson is a Cleveland sports fan convinced that he’s already lived the “best day of his life.” At The Observer, Carson was first a Sports Writer, then served as an Associate Sports Editor (2015/16) and an Assistant Managing Editor (2016/17), before finishing his tenure as a Senior Sports Writer. A man of strong convictions, he ardently believes that Carly Rae Jepsen's 2015 release E•MO•TION is the greatest album of his generation, and wakes up early on Saturday mornings to listen, or occasionally watch, his favorite least-favorite sports team, Aston Villa. When he isn’t writing, Carson spends his time counting down the days to the next running of the Indianapolis 500 and reminding people that the Victory March starts with the lyric, “Rally sons of Notre Dame,” not “Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame.”

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