Blue and Gold Illustrated

Nov. 26, 2022*

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

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BLUEGOLDONLINE.COM NOV. 26, 2022 7 BY PATRICK ENGEL T he window to give previously unused freshmen playing time without wor- rying about redshirt status coincided with the opening of two niche roles in Notre Dame's lineup. The Fighting Irish's 35-32 win over Navy Nov. 12 was its ninth game of the year, meaning the 10 healthy scholarship freshmen who had yet to see action at that point could play in each of the final four games and still preserve a redshirt year. The opportunity to debut two of them came when two small jobs opened for the Navy game. Notre Dame's leading tackler, senior linebacker JD Bertrand, was ruled out about an hour before kickoff due to a groin injury. Graduate student wide receiver Joe Wilkins Jr., whose main role had been as the "off returner" on kick return teams, entered the transfer portal Nov. 7. Head coach Marcus Freeman tabbed two freshmen to fill the voids their ab- sences created: linebacker Jaylen Sneed and running back Gi'Bran Payne. Two players who figured to see action at some point this year finally earned that chance. "We took into consideration that we have four games left," Freeman said. "They haven't played yet this year, and they can help us." Freeman and defensive coordinator Al Golden said in recent weeks Sneed was close to breaking through. The first sign of a potential 2022 debut came when he made the travel roster for the game against BYU in Las Vegas Oct. 8. Payne impressed in fall camp, but Notre Dame's three-back rotation left him without much opportunity. They had been knocking on the door before the Navy game, but the Irish staff didn't have a worthwhile enough place for them to justify letting them in at that time. "It's always that double-edged sword early in the season," Freeman said. "They could help us, but are they going to play enough where you want to burn the redshirt? If we can hold them, let's hold them." Notre Dame decided it couldn't hold seven freshmen: tight end Holden Staes, tight end Eli Raridon (who is now out for the season due to injury), wide re- ceiver Tobias Merriweather, linebacker Junior Tuihalamaka, cornerback Benja- min Morrison, cornerback Jaden Mickey and walk-on kicker Zac Yoakam. Each has been more notably fea- tured in a game than Sneed or Payne were against Navy. Morrison grabbed a starting spot in his third game and hasn't let it go. Mickey, Merriweather and Staes have rotation roles. Yoakam is the kickoff specialist. Tuihalamaka is a core special teamer who occasionally appears on defense. Yoakam, Morrison and Tuihalamaka have appeared in each of the first 10 games this year. Notre Dame frequently used the four- game redshirt rule last season, when nine freshmen made between one and four appearances. Through 10 games this year, though, that number was just four: Sneed, Payne, quarterback Steve Angeli and defensive end Joshua Burn- ham. Angeli and Burnham, whose reps came on the punt return teams, played in two of the first 10 games. Sneed played 9 snaps against Navy, making 1 tackle, with Tuihalamaka start- ing in Bertrand's place after a bump up of his own. Payne was the off returner next to primary return man Chris Tyree. Sneed's assignment wasn't daunting, but it was still against a triple-option offense with third- and fourth-down snaps. Those snaps don't come without building legitimate equity in practice. "With Jaylen, when they brought in an extra tight end or O-linemen, we brought in an extra backer and took out a corner just to match personnel," Free- man said. "That was his role. When they went heavy personnel, we went heavy personnel, and he was going to play man-to-man on the tight end. "It wasn't too challenging in terms of the mental aspect, but physically it was. He did a great job." If not for Bertrand's injury, Freeman said it wasn't clear how much Sneed would have played, if at all. A healthy Bertrand will likely limit Sneed to end- of-game or goal-line snaps unless another linebacker gets hurt. Payne, though, has a clear path to being the off returner the rest of the way with Wilkins out of the picture. Should another similar niche role need a short-term solution, it's unlikely another still-unused freshman fills it. "Sneed and Gi'Bran are the two in that situation — right on the cusp of playing," Freeman said. "Nobody else right now is in that situation." That doesn't mean the hopes of Year 1 playing time are gone for yet-to-debut freshmen like linebacker Nolan Ziegler or punter/kickoff specialist Bryce McFerson. But as Freeman sees it, those appear- ances would likely be nothing more than a couple mop-up duty snaps on special teams if Notre Dame finds itself in such a spot in the last three games. ✦ UNDER THE DOME GETTING A TASTE Freshmen Jaylen Sneed and Gi'Bran Payne made their college debuts versus Navy Sneed played 9 snaps against Navy Nov. 12 in his first college game. PHOTO BY CHAD WEAVER

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