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SOUTH BEND – Over 30 years of coaching at various levels of college football has given Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly the ability to identify talent and potential holes at a position on a depth chart.
Outsiders see star rankings, workout numbers and physical appearances. Kelly sees desire, potential and heart.
With just over two weeks left before the season opener against Rice, Kelly believes he has plenty of that along the defensive front seven, no matter how young it appears on the depth chart.
The Fighting Irish have to replace a combined 64 starts in 2013 from departed players at defensive line and linebacker. The turnover on defense is such that sophomore Jaylon Smith is currently the leading returning tackler among the front seven, with Jarrett Grace still not 100 percent as he recovers from a leg injury.
But Kelly is not in panic mode. In fact, he is confident in his youngsters under first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.
“I think in years past I probably would (have some unease), but then my eyes tell me something different when I watch them,” said Kelly about his underclassmen on defense. “They have an edge to them.”
Early-enrollee Andrew Trumbetti has surged to the top of the depth chart at weakside defensive end and is currently in line to start against Rice. The 6-foot-3, 250-pound freshman has displayed physicality and a motor that has separated himself from not just his classmates but also others at the position.
“We don't talk about him enough because sometimes we forget he's a freshman,” said Kelly about Trumbetti. “We think that he's got a huge upside for us in so many different areas.”
Fellow freshman Nyles Morgan is in a battle with Joe Schmidt at Mike linebacker and, while he may not start against Rice, will be in line for significant playing time right away.
Morgan has stood out in camp for his tenacity and instincts in diagnosing plays.
“He is totally overwhelmed (schematically), but it doesn't matter because he runs all over the place,” said Kelly about Morgan. “He gets into more scuffles than any player I've coached in a long time. He is just a tough, hard-nosed kid.”
Freshmen defensive front-four prospects Jonathan Bonner, Daniel Cage and Jhonny Williams have also earned praise for their play in preseason camp.
“I know when you have holes, I've been around long enough” said Kelly. “I know when you look at it and go, 'Oof, that's not very good.'”
The transition to VanGorder's defense has both hindered and helped the young defensive players in their quest to see playing time. While there is a lot more happening schematically from play to play in the new system compared to former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's scheme, the additional blitz packages and pursuit responsibilities give more freedom to players who may not be experts in understanding the defense.
Kelly also said that this year's defense will see more liberal substitutions, with different personnel packages from first and second down to third down. The Fighting Irish will have more players seeing 12 to 15 snaps per game and less seeing 70 snaps.
Whether that translates into success out of the freshmen remains to be seen, but there definitely are positives.
“We may cut a gap loose, or may be in the wrong gap … but it will be fun,” Kelly said. “But they are going to cause a few moments of Coach VanGorder throwing his hat on the ground, I'm sure of that.”
McCarthy takes leave
Notre Dame announced on Thursday in a press release that current graduate assistant and former defensive captain Kyle McCarthy will be taking “intermittent leaves of absence” from the program due to a cancer diagnosis.
“A few weeks ago, I was diagnosed with a very treatable form of cancer,” said McCarthy in a statement. “(Wednesday) I began chemotherapy as the next step in eliminating this disease.”
We continue to be amazed by former captain Kyle McCarthy's fortitude as he continues to help the team while battling cancer.— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) August 14, 2014
McCarthy has impressed in his work with the safeties this preseason, earning praise from Kelly during spring drills.
“Kyle's attitude and outlook toward his treatment is remarkable,” Kelly said. “We will support him the entire way. We are very confident he'll receive the necessary treatment to make a complete recovery.”
McCarthy's final season with Notre Dame was 2009 and he ranks second among the program's defensive backs with 240 career tackles.