Blue and Gold Illustrated

December 2021

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

Issue link:

Contents of this Issue


Page 3 of 47

4 DECEMBER 2021 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED A youth movement and a fifth straight double-digit win- ning season, both in the same year? Now, t h a t's t h e s i g n o f a healthy program and a bright fu- ture … and that's exactly what Irish head coach Brian Kelly and his players delivered in 2021. I suggested in the preseason that because of the massive player losses from the 2020 team — a list that included nine NFL Draft picks, a three-year starting quar- terback on offense, the Butkus Award winner on defense and four veteran offensive lineman — 2021 was the perfect test of the pro- gram's strength and sustainability. Blue & Gold Illustrated beat writer Patrick Engel even reported that Notre Dame brought back only 47 percent of its statistical production from last season, the 123rd-lowest return rate in the country, yet it still survived and even thrived. "We have young players that have been really respectful of our process and have really bought into it, and that has helped us grow," Kelly explained. "If they would've been resistant or they hadn't bought in along the way, this could have taken longer." And this team's steady improvement and ascent late this season was as fun to watch as the growing pains were painful to sit through early on. Notre Dame probably shouldn't have beaten Toledo in early September, while by late November there probably wasn't a team in the country they couldn't beat, which certainly bodes well for when the Irish open their 2022 season Sept. 3 at Ohio State. "This is just the natural development of guys going out and developing and playing as we go, getting better each week," Kelly explained of the incre- mental improvement. "… I don't know that there was one thing that led to it as much as a consistency from week to week, and a natural evolution." Given the player losses of 2020, the 2021 season was supposed to be a bridge year and not necessarily a successful one. But instead of peeking ahead and mak- ing excuses while it prepared for 2022, Notre Dame got better and younger at the same time this season and put itself on a great course for years to come be- cause of Kelly's willingness to trust and play his young guys. That's something he's been reluctant to do in previous sea- sons but had no choice in 2021 because of injury, illness and attrition. "They were all good players, but they just needed more time," Kelly said of his talented underclassmen. "I think the depth of our football team was certainly called upon later in the season, and they have come through for us." In an effort to measure whether 2021 truly brought a youth movement, or if that just became a popular narrative, we went back to 2017 when the program resurgence took hold and evaluated the freshman contributions in the five sea- sons from then to now, and indeed, 2021 stands above the other four. Here are some of the freshman high- lights during that span: • 2017: Linebacker Jordan Genmark- Heath recorded 16 tackles; and offen- sive lineman Robert Hainsey earned a valuable rotational role and made four starts. • 2018: Cornerback Tariq Bracy tallied 18 tackles and forced a fumble; defensive back Houston Griffith made 14 tack- les with two passes broken up; and wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. had five catches for 90 yards. • 2019: Punter Jay Bramblett averaged 39.4 yards per kick; de- fensive lineman Jacob Lacey re- corded 14 tackles; and Freshman All-American safety Kyle Ham- ilton tallied 41 tackles, four inter- ceptions and a touchdown return. • 2020: Cornerback Clarence Lewis started and made 33 tack- les with seven passes broken up; running back Chris Tyree scored four touchdowns and was second on the Irish with 498 rushing yards; and Freshman All-Amer- ican tight end Michael Mayer caught 42 balls for 450 yards and two scores. • 2021: Entering the game against Stanford Nov. 27, quarterback Tyler Bu- chner was second on the Irish with 280 rushing yards and added another 302 yards with three touchdowns through the air; running back Logan Diggs was third on the squad with 203 rushing yards and scored four total touchdowns; offensive tackle Joe Alt was starting, and excelling, on the left side; and wide receiver Lo- renzo Styles had 12 catches for 181 yards. And this 2021 list doesn't include the important contributions from emerg- ing freshman standouts such as wide re- ceiver Deion Colzie, running back Audric Estime, linebacker Prince Kollie or of- fensive lineman Blake Fisher, who before a knee injury was the first rookie player to start a season opener along the Irish offensive line since Sam Young in 2006. "We're playing young players that are now much more mature, playing better," Kelly explained of the growing depth and his expanding player rotation. "We're ascending as a football team." And as a football program. ✦ Freshman running back Logan Diggs is part of a larger-than-usual youth movement for Notre Dame this season. Entering the Stanford game, he was third on the team with 203 rushing yards and had scored four touchdowns. PHOTO BY CHAD WEAVER Talent And Youth Blending Well Together UPON FURTHER REVIEW TODD D. BURLAGE Todd D. Burlage has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since July 2005. He can be reached at

Articles in this issue

Links on this page

Archives of this issue

view archives of Blue and Gold Illustrated - December 2021