Blue and Gold Illustrated

Preseason 2018

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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48 PRESEASON 2018 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY BRYAN DRISKELL N otre Dame had an upgraded 2017 season on the field, roll‑ ing to a 10‑3 record and fin‑ ishing with a No. 11 ranking in the final polls. That was crucial to the Fighting Irish staff maintaining the positive momentum with arguably the best recruiting class in head coach Brian Kelly's tenure. The 2018 haul (No. 11) ranked be‑ hind the more touted 2011 (No. 10) and 2013 (No. 3) classes in the Rivals rankings, but the 27‑man class was the most balanced group in Kelly's tenure. The Irish struck all the right chords with the class, meeting needs at all positions, adding impact play‑ ers on both sides of the ball and fill‑ ing in depth gaps created by misses in previous classes. When the recruiting calendar shifted to the 2018 class, the Notre Dame coaches mentioned the desire to add more speed and athleticism to the roster, and it absolutely accom‑ plished that goal with this haul. Entering the campaign, there really aren't many areas where freshmen are being forced into the rotation like past seasons, but the class will still make an impact due largely to the overall skills and athleticism it possesses. Here's our annual preseason over‑ view of the freshman class and the impact it could make in 2018. READY RIGHT NOW It should come as no surprise that freshman safety Houston Griffith is poised for major snaps. The early enrollee ended spring practice as the backup Whip safety and, despite in‑ juries limiting him early in fall camp, was still in line to become a major contributor this season. Griffith possesses the size (6‑0, 205) and athleticism to play safety at a high level, but what has him in position to push for immediate playing time are his instincts and intelligence. The top‑ ranked Irish recruit in this class — he was listed as the No. 43 overall player nationally by Rivals — grasped the defense quickly and his feel for the game stood out from the moment he was moved to safety in April. The ability to stay disciplined, read his keys and make plays on the ball are advanced for a freshman, and they are traits Notre Dame was of‑ ten lacking in 2017 when the safeties combined for only five passes broken up and failed to intercept a pass. As of Aug. 20, senior Nick Cole‑ man and junior Alohi Gilman were running with the first‑team defense while junior Jalen Elliott was also pushing for minutes. Griffith has a better all‑around skill set than the returners ahead of him, but he is still behind them when it comes to a full knowledge of the defense. That is not surprising for a fresh‑ man, but Griffith is ahead of where most rookies tend to be, not just be‑ cause he was an early enrollee, but thanks to his natural feel for the game. Freshman wide receiver Kevin Austin was Notre Dame's highest‑ ranked offensive signee according to Rivals (No. 88 overall) and ESPN (No. 86), so him making an early impact should not be a surprise, ei‑ ther. The 6‑2, 210‑pounder physically looks like a college junior, and that gave him a leg up on the four other Irish freshman wideouts. Austin is far more than just a physi‑ cal player. His overall skill set and endurance are what truly made him a top recruit and has him in position to make waves early. The Fort Lauder‑ dale, Fla., native has the athletic tal‑ ent that helps fill a void on the roster. He explodes off the line of scrimmage and his long speed is eye‑catching. During one mid‑August practice, Austin found himself matched up against standout junior cornerback Julian Love. Austin released off the line, quickly got on Love and beat him by a step to the post. At that point, he started to pull away from Love, who could not close the gap on the freshman. Austin hauled in the pass and raced into the end zone. Austin made another impressive touchdown grab when he outplayed junior cornerback Donte Vaughn on a fade route, out‑jumping the veteran nearly 6‑3 corner and taking the ball away from him. Notre Dame likes to get the ball out quickly to its receiv‑ ers, and Austin has shown the ability to make plays after the catch with this aspect of the offense as well. FRESH BLOOD Notre Dame's talented rookies will make their presence felt early and often A combination of size, strength and elite ath- leticism will give wide receiver Kevin Austin a chance to shine early on. PHOTO BY BILL PANZICA

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