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Friday, June 21, 2024
The Observer

Inexperienced Irish filling holes left by NFL draft

Ask senior defensive end Daelin Hayes what the key to bringing new faces into the fold was and he answers enthusiastically — Juice.

“This team can roll,” he said in a press conference following Saturday’s game.

While still only two games into the season, Hayes seems to be on to something about this team’s ability to take over moments in games, particularly pointing to some of the young players or veterans who are finally getting their opportunity on the big stage.

While last year’s loss to Clemson in the Cotton Bowl left a lot of questions to be answered, one thing was certain — this team would have to replace a lot of key pieces, whether to graduation or the NFL Draft.

Losing six players to the NFL Draft is never an easy task to replace. While technically the drafted players were split evenly between offense and defense, there was a sense that the losses on defense would be far more important to replace. While that’s true on most accounts, Saturday’s 66-14 win over New Mexico showed that the new faces of the Notre Dame offense are not to be ignored. Even more so, if performing at their full potential, they just might be enough to get this team through their perilous road schedule.

Against the Lobos, eight different players found the end zone, five of them for the first time in their Notre Dame career. Obviously, the addition of freshman safety Kyle Hamilton bursting onto the college football scene is a huge get for the Irish and he’s lived up to the hype so far. But the gradual progress of those other key contributors is the story of second chances, enduring patience and good timing.

Take Javon McKinley, the senior wide receiver, who hauled in two touchdowns for a total of 85 yards against the Lobos. McKinley saw the field six times in 2016 before missing the entirety of his sophomore season with an injury. This past year he appeared in four games but found himself in hot water again in March when he was arrested on charges of battery and effectively suspended from all team activities. While Kelly explained his reason for giving McKinley a second chance, citing an exemplary record prior to the incident in March, McKinley shined against the Lobos, demonstrating a type of power and grace that hasn’t been seen among Notre Dame football in a while.

Irish senior wide receiver Javon McKinley stiff arms a defender during Notre Dame’s 66-14 win over New Mexico on Saturday.

Or how about Braden Lenzy or C’Bo Flemister. In Lenzy’s first appearance with the Irish he recorded 74 total yards and a touchdown. Meanwhile, Flemister — who made two appearances last season — rushed for a touchdown of his own.

And how could you forget about Avery Davis? The man who seemingly is always on the cusp of breaking through only to be moved to another position and fall deeper down the depth chart. After making his return to the offense this weekend as a wide receiver, watching his 59-yard touchdown was a thing of beauty.

Now before you go saying that I’m too idealistic, I get it. This will not be the case in Athens. In fact, most of these guys will likely not even see the field. But for a program that is notorious for playing down to its competition, seeing these new faces rise to the challenge and make the most of their opportunities is reassuring for the team going forward.

While the defense certainly deserves a lot of credit for the ways they’ve stepped up in the absence of some key leaders and the stabilizing effect they’ve had on this team, it’s time to recognize the contributions of the offense — both the new faces and the old.