SOUTH BEND — With injuries to players like defensive ends Daelin Hayes and Julian Okwara and offensive linemen Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey, most teams would’ve folded. Notre Dame hasn’t, though, and a lot of that can be credited to the depth on the Fighting Irish roster.
That depth will have one more regular season game to show its strength Saturday at Stanford (4 p.m., FOX).
For Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, it was a systemic change following the 2016 season that has enabled the Irish to overcome big injuries better than they had in the past.
“Better depth in the sense that we have, 1-85 in our scholarship (players),” Kelly said Monday. “We started to look at 50 down to 85 and how important those numbers were in terms of developing those players so they could step in and keep this thing at a high level. Just recruiting; recruiting depth in your program and developing that depth to be at a high level.”
The depth for Notre Dame wasn’t built just by Kelly. The 10th-year head coach said it’s taken a number of people to help elevate the Irish from its 4-8 campaign in 2016 to a consistent winner the past three seasons.
“You just don’t do that in August: you’re building relationships and trust and accountability, and you’re doing that — after this season’s over, you’re doing it when you get back into the weight room in January,” Kelly said. “So, this is a year-round process. It takes an army to build it; an army in the sense that not one person, but a lot of people have to put a lot of time in, support staff, strength and conditioning, nutrition. There’s a lot of people that have a lot of hands in building a championship program. I’m very lucky to have a great staff as well.”
The depth has been particularly noticeable with the offensive line. Notre Dame lost the entire left side of its offensive line, Kraemer at tackle and Hainsey at guard, in back-to-back weeks. This thrust senior Trevor Ruhland and redshirt sophomore Josh Lugg into those positions, respectively, and the offensive line hasn’t missed a beat.
In the three games that Ruhland and Lugg have started, Notre Dame has allowed only two sacks. The 14 given up overall this season is tied for 16th in fewest allowed in the country.
Defensively, the Irish haven’t missed a beat as well with the losses of Hayes and Okwara. Redshirt junior Ade Ogundeji had a career day against Boston College on Saturday, recording two sacks and a forced fumble. Senior Jamir Jones, starting in place of Okwara, had three tackles against the Eagles and one quarterback hurry.
“You can’t have the success we’ve had, defensively, if you all of the sudden have this huge drop-off,” Kelly said. “We’ve had a number of players step in and play at a high level.”
Kelly singled out one player, though, who has helped maintain Notre Dame’s stingy defense.
“The first guy that hasn’t really gotten talked about, but he’s been just there each and every week doing a great job, is Kurt Hinish,” Kelly said of the junior defensive tackle. “He’s been steady, taking every snap, every rep. You can’t play the kind of defense we’re playing unless you have somebody you can count on at that position like we have with him. He’s been outstanding for us.”
Recruiting depth is one thing. Developing it is another. Coming into the 2019 season, there were a lot of question marks about the youth at certain positions for the Irish, specifically the linebacker position. Those questions have been answered, though, by the play of redshirt sophomore Drew White, senior Asmar Bilal and redshirt sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Those three players rank first, second and fourth in tackles for Notre Dame, respectively, in 2019.
Along with the on-field development, there’s been a mentality change for the younger Irish players as well. Kelly believes that has had as much to do with the late-season success as anything.
“Consistency in execution,” Kelly said is the biggest change on his team from fall camp to now. “We had a lot of younger players that, really, were just younger in developing in their particular positions, whether it be (Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah) at rover (linebacker) or Drew White or anyone of the offensive linemen, from Liam Eichenberg to Jarrett Patterson. Those guys, obviously, have developed. There’s been development across the board in every position … just the way that they’ve gone from a ‘practice’ mindset to a ‘game’ mindset in the sense that getting ready for games is a whole lot different. You have to play physical, you have to play fast, there has to be a discipline.
“It’s so much different than practice, and they really understand how to do that now.”