SOUTH BEND - Ishaq Williams still has just one tackle to show for three reserve appearances for the Notre Dame football team.
But when the 6-foot-5, 255-pound freshman outside linebacker rotates into the game, Notre Dame second-year head coach Brian Kelly’s heart beats a little harder, a little faster - for good reason.
The same lack of trepidation is true when defensive ends Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt, running back/kick returner George Atkinson III and the five other true freshmen who have seen action so far for the Irish (1-2) end up on the field in meaningful situations.
“I don't know that you ever want to play as many freshmen that we're playing, but times are changing,” said Kelly, whose unranked team visits Pitt (2-1) on Saturday. “College football is such that these kids are coming in physically so much more mature, that they can come in and physically handle the rigors of playing major college football.
“I always thought it to be a great weakness within your program when you had to play true freshmen. Not when they run as fast as George Atkinson or are as physical as Aaron Lynch.”
Redshirt is still considered a four-letter word at Notre Dame, even though the practice of preserving a year of eligibility for a potential fifth year has become more rule than exception at ND.
Protocol, not practice, is what makes Kelly uttering the term a no-no. Advanced development of high school players is making a slip of the tongue less likely.
“I think Brian Kelly is correct in looking at high school players as being more capable these days at earlier stages of their careers,” said recruiting analyst Allen Wallace, publisher of SuperPrep Magazine. “The world is moving so much faster in so many areas. Good players are now really thinking seriously about their college careers when they’re high school freshmen.
“There are camps and combines, 7-on-7 tournaments all over the United States that have really elevated both the expectations and performances of these athletes, who are so hugely overexposed, so well-known. And those higher expectations drive better training.”
So are more sophisticated recruiting networks.
Ten years ago, Williams’ high school, Abraham Lincoln in Brooklyn. N.Y., was more known from its Nobel Prize winners (Paul Berg, Jerome Karle, Arthur Komberg), pop singers (Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka, The Tokens), actors (Lou Gossett Jr., John Forsythe) NBA stars (Stephon Marbury, Sebastian Telfair) and even despotic billionaires (Leona Helmsley) than its college football prospects.
New York City, as a rule, underproduces when it comes to college football players and is thus underrecruited for its population base. Williams, was decidedly not underrecruited. And his decision to enroll early brought his potential to light quicker.
Since Notre Dame’s admissions office opened the doors to January enrollment for freshman football players in 2006, 21 Irish players have walked through it - 10 in the past two recruiting cycles in which Kelly has been the head coach.
Overall, 57 percent of them have played as true freshmen, with quarterback Everett Golson and offensive lineman Brad Carrico still in play for this year.
“I think early enrollment is a big part of the movement with freshmen,” said CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming. “That not only helps with their development, but I think it makes coaches more comfortable with playing freshmen. But freshmen have been a part of the mix since 1972.”
Kelly did play just as many true freshmen (nine) last season as this year so far. Former coach Charlie Weis also played nine in his final season (2009), eight in 2008 and 10 in 2007. So the shift is really more about the impact of and the comfort level in playing them than raw numbers.
“The last four or five years, these guys are weight-training all year,” Kelly said. “Nutrition is important to them. They're taking care of their bodies. (Strength and conditioning) coach (Paul) Longo said this ... was physically the most impressive group relative to their conditioning level when they came here.
“Usually, they come in a few weeks after the veterans are here. They come in and they're lost. They're so far behind. This group was not. They were physically ready to compete right away.
“So I think in the recruiting process, we're now - our eyes are wide open to ‘this guy can play right away.’ If we continue to recruit like we did this past year, we're going to have more of those stories moving forward.”
Upon further review
Kelly on Sunday vehemently decried the 15-yard excessive celebration penalty sophomore receiver TJ Jones received as a blown call.
Apparently, the Big Ten agrees with him.
Big Ten officials presided over ND’s 31-13 victory over Michigan State Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium and flagged Jones after he scored a touchdown and put his gloves together to form the Fighting Irish logo.
Kelly had been told before the season by both Big Ten and Big East officials, specifically, doing that would not be ruled a penalty.
“We got a clarification that, in fact, is not a penalty,” Kelly said during his regular Tuesday meeting with the media. “That was clarified (Monday) by the Big Ten officials. Now, if he does that and puts it in somebody's face or jumps into the Michigan State band, then that would be an unsportsmanlike penalty.
“We literally went over this specifically (before the season), because our gloves have the Fighting Irish (logo) on the inside. So when you put your gloves together, the Fighting Irishman is on the inside of the gloves.
“So that's my job immediately, because I saw that. That's like giving your 8-year-old a lighter, you know what I mean? I knew this thing was going to be something that we were going to have to deal with. Certainly we brought it up and got the green light, so there was miscommunication along the way.”
-- The family medical emergency that caused starting sophomore linebacker Prince Shembo to miss Saturday’s Michigan State game continues to move in a positive direction.
IrishIllustrated.com had reported that Shembo’s father, Maurice, suffered a brain aneurysm Friday night while in South Bend for the game. ND officials have not provided those kinds of specifics to this point.
“That family matter that we talked about has really turned out to be quite remarkable,” Kelly said, “so we're happy for Prince and his family.”
Shembo was back on campus Sunday, in class on Monday and has been practicing with the team this week.
-- Backup cornerback Lo Wood’s MRI over the weekend gave Kelly some optimism that the sophomore would be available for Saturday’s Pitt game.
But Kelly still has a Plan B in place, just in case, at perhaps ND’s thinnest position group.
Senior safety Jamoris Slaughter could flip to cornerback and freshman cornerback Josh Atkinson will also get some meaningful practice reps this week.
“It's more of a chronic acute tendon in the quad that has fired up,” Kelly said of Wood’s injury. “There's no structural damage. When he decelerates and engages the quad, he's got a lot of soreness there. We think we can get him through that. We'll manage him this week.
“But our expectations are that he's going to continue to get better and he'll be available for us this weekend.”
-- Special teams coach Mike Elston confirmed Tuesday after practice that a number of new potential punt returners were getting auditions this week.
That groups includes junior Robby Toma and freshmen DaVaris Daniels, George Atkinson III and Cam McDaniel.
Junior Theo Riddick and senior John Goodman have been the deep men on the 18 balls punted to the Irish this season. They’ve combined for three fumbles, two of them lost. The seven punts that were returned netted a total of five yards (0.71 average). Only six FBS teams have a worse average.
“When you’re in a punt return situation, the minimum you want to get is 10 yards,” Elston said. “We’ve been averaging going backwards. We’ve been making poor decisions.”
Senior backup quarterback Dayne Crist was named Tuesday to the prestigious 22-man Allstate AFCA Good Works Team.
Crist is the sixth Notre Dame football player since 1999 selected to the team that recognizes community service. The others were Tom Zbikowski, Bob Morton, Derek Curry, Courtney Watson and Grant Irons.
The Canoga Park, Calif., product has helped raise roughly $100,000 for St. Baldrick’s Foundation, a charity that raises money and awareness for childhood cancer research.
Staff writer Eric Hansen: