Blue and Gold Illustrated

Nov. 4, 2023

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

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4 NOV. 4, 2023 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED C ollege coaches around the country face similar roster dilemmas about this time ev- ery year when it comes to balanc- ing the present with the future to determine which freshmen should play and which should redshirt. Per NCAA rules, freshmen are al- lowed four game appearances in a season without losing a year of eli- gibility. Play in five games or more, and eligibility preservation is lost. Irish head coach Marcus Freeman explained last week that during Notre Dame's bye-week practices between the USC and Pitt games, eligibility decisions and backup player observations took on added emphasis. And given the liberal approach that Freeman and his staff have used in playing their freshmen the last two seasons, having an off week for youthful evaluations became a valu- able assessment opportunity for the rest of this season and beyond. "That time is so crucial to be able to see those guys, when you talk about development of the bottom half of your roster and the future of your roster," Freeman said. "I wanted to see what those young guys could do and was pleased." Countless coaches around the country annually insist that if a freshman under- stands his duties and is talented enough to play, he's going to get on the field. But when the games start, most of these same coaches instinctively default to a veteran player for fear of a rookie mistake. It happens all the time in college sports. That hasn't necessarily been the case for Freeman and Co. this season. Through eight games, seven Irish freshmen had already played in at least six games, became regular contributors and officially burned a year of eligibility. Three of those freshmen — wide re- ceiver Rico Flores Jr., running back Jer- emiyah Love and tight end Cooper Fla- nagan — all appeared in each of Notre Dame's first eight games. Given his training camp performance and the immediate need for impactful wide receivers, Flores has expectedly made the greatest impact among the Irish freshmen. Through the USC game, Flores led all the Notre Dame rookies with 245 snaps, and recorded 15 catches for 178 yards and 1 touchdown. And with 137 snaps, 12 catches for 166 yards and 3 touchdowns in 7 games, freshmen wideout Jaden Greathouse joined Flores as arguably the best fresh- man wideout tandem in the country. Like Flores and Greathouse, Irish freshman tailback Jeremiyah Love par- layed his immediate opportunity into the lead backup role behind junior workhorse Audric Estimé. In his first seven career games, Love had 39 carries and 263 rushing yards, and he led all Irish tailbacks with an av- erage of 6.7 yards per carry. Flanagan was the third Irish fresh- man who played in the first eight games of this season. Roughly half of his 91 reps came on special teams, but he also played some situationally in multiple-tight-end sets. It's easy to make a big deal this time of the year over freshman eli- gibility and debate what's best, to play or to sit? But given the land- scape of today's college football, the importance of eligibility pres- ervation isn't what it used to be, especially at elite programs. Top college players are typically gone after three years, four at the most. And a growing percentage of players who stick around for a fifth-year transfer out and play their final season elsewhere. Freeman to this point this sea- son hasn't been reluctant to run his younger guys out there and hasn't worried so much about if a fresh- man will still be around as a fifth- year graduate in 2027. Instead, Notre Dame's approach is to get its best players on the field, no matter what. The Irish coaches under Free- man's guidance have demonstrated a willingness to follow that blue- print, while being transparent with the guys who will end up redshirting. "There is no blind obedience anymore," Freeman said. "There is honest conversations that aren't always pleasant to have, but they must happen so our kids understand why they're in the redshirt position they're in." There was a time not long ago that eligibility mattered because rosters didn't churn as quickly as they do now. Forecasting roster strengths and needs for future seasons was much clearer for coaches, pre-portal. In this day of transfers and NIL —es- sentially free agency — Freeman is wise in choosing a use-them-or-lose-them course now, instead of worrying about whether a player will still be around four years later, saying, "Let's give them a chance to show us what they can do." ✦ Heading into the final four games of the season, wide receiver Rico Flores Jr. led all Irish freshmen with 245 snaps and had 15 receptions for 178 yards with 1 touchdown. PHOTO BY LARRY BLANKENSHIP 'Tis The Season For Roster Management 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

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