SOUTH BEND — With a number of starters graduated from the 2018 team, it was expected for some young players to have an impact for Notre Dame in the 2019 season. They did just that in the 35-17 season-opening win for the Fighting Irish on Monday in Louisville against the Cardinals.
Most notable was redshirt freshman tight end Tommy Tremble. The injury to expected starting tight end Cole Kmet thrust both Brock Wright and Tremble into the spotlight at the position, and they both delivered. It was Tremble who caught the lone touchdown pass from either team — a 26-yard strike from Ian Book that made it 28-14 Fighting Irish midway through the third quarter.
Tremble finished with three receptions, 49 yards and the touchdown. He was given the game ball for his performance.
Two other redshirt freshmen, wide receiver Lawrence Keys and center Jarrett Patterson, made their first career starts. Keys hauled in two catches for 15 yards, while Patterson helped lead a Notre Dame rushing attack that accounted for 230 yards on the ground.
One of the running backs reaping the benefits of strong offensive line play was yet another redshirt freshman, Jahmir Smith. This was also Smith’s first game, and he made his debut a memorable one with two rushing touchdowns.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly felt the offensive line had a strong performance in the Week 1 win.
“I thought it was solid,” Kelly said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday. “Any time you rush for over 200 yards against a defense that you really hadn’t seen, I thought our guys did a pretty good job.”
A point of emphasis to work on for the Irish offensive line is short-yardage conversions on third down. Notre Dame struggled in that department against Louisville, going 2-for-7 on third downs of four yards or less. Notre Dame was 5-of-12 overall on third down.
“Every third-and-short needs to be evaluated in terms of our game plan as well,” Kelly said. “We’re part of that, as coaches, as well. It’s not just the players. Those are loaded boxes, and some of it comes down to individuals making plays against unblocked (running) backs. So, there’s a little bit of all of those things in terms of that evaluation of your third-down package.
“Are we calling the right plays? Do we have the right personnel in the game? Are we going to what we consider our strength? We’re kind of learning all of that in the first game so we can refine what our third-down package looks like going forward.”
Defensively, a lot of eyes were on two new starting linebackers: redshirt juniors Drew White and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. The two combined for 15 tackles (Owusu-Koramoah nine, White six), four of which were tackles for loss.
Linebacker has been a position to watch for Kelly since the start of spring practice in March. Multiple linebackers played for the Irish on Monday, all contributing in different ways.
“I don’t think you saw (redshirt freshman) Jack Lamb on first down. You saw him on third down. You didn’t see Drew White on third down. You saw him on first and second down,” Kelly said. “(Redshirt junior Jordan) Genmark-Heath played in rotation. (Sophomore Shaye) Simon played in rotation. It’s a little bit of both of those things where there’s clearly still competition, but there’s also specific skill sets that we think these guys have that we want to take advantage of.”
Having a full game under their belt allows Kelly and the coaching staff to evaluate the linebackers more, giving them a better idea of how to use certain players for future games.
“There’s clearly, for us, some work out there, now that we’ve been able to evaluate from this game, that allows us to move forward with a little bit more of a plan than we had maybe before coming into this game,” Kelly said.
In the secondary, graduate senior Shaun Crawford and freshman Kyle Hamilton stood out with four tackles each. Hamilton also had two pass breakups. It was Crawford’s first start after three consecutive season-ending injuries the past three years.
“Shaun Crawford is a guy that we wanted to continue to get reps and play him,” Kelly said. “We like his overall sense and playing the wide field corner as well, with TaRiq Bracy.”
Overall, Kelly was impressed with how his young players performed on the big stage of a season opener on the road.
“From watching film — I don’t have all the grades from the coaches yet — but they were significant contributors in a positive way in a win against a team that played very well against us,” Kelly said. “From that perspective, when you go into a game where you have first-time performers in the kind of environment that it was, obviously there was some first-time jitters for some of them. But they settled in nicely into the game.
“It’s pretty apparent that they have the ability to impact this team and make it a better team as they continue to grow and get better.”