On a Saturday where Tommy Rees wedged his name into the Irish record books with five touchdown passes en route to a 45-10 victory, there was more on display than your average one-sided football game between Notre Dame and downtrodden Air Force.
So many fans had 2013-14 pegged as a special season. Even athletic director Jack Swarbrick admitted during last season's BCS run that he thought this was the year the Irish would be positioned for greatness.
That hasn't happened. The academic exile of Everett Golson, the early-season defensive struggles, and two September losses will keep Notre Dame from national-title contention. But those worried that the Irish's window was closing after this season got a glimpse of what could be the future, on Saturday, as Brian Kelly emptied the bench and let the youth on the roster run wild on the way to a 35-point victory.
Graduation won't be easy on the Irish. The loss of Louis Nix opens a 350-pound hole in the middle of the Irish defense, a position notoriously difficult to fill in South Bend. While junior Jarrett Grace recovers from a broken leg, the Irish will have to replace two inside linebackers, saying goodbye to fifth-year seniors Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese.
On offense, both Zack Martin and Chris Watt will step away after four straight seasons of consistent play. TJ Jones will depart after a four-year run in the starting lineup. And Tommy Rees will hand back the reins of the offense to Golson, set to return to campus at the semester break, penance paid for a lapse in academic judgment.
Nineteen underclassmen saw the field for the Irish. Four true freshmen started, with a half-dozen more playing.
The comfortable victory gave us a closer look into the future. And after watching the Irish defense hold Air Force to just three points after an opening-drive touchdown, and the young Irish skill players take advantage of their opportunities, you get the feeling that this team won't be starting from scratch next season.
Let's take a closer look at three position groups that are well-positioned moving into the future.
After wondering when Corey Robinson would work his way back into the offense, Brian Kelly made it clear that Saturday afternoon would be the day, with Tommy Rees targeting Robinson on the first play from scrimmage. That pass would fall incomplete, but Rees would hit Robinson for a 35-yard touchdown on the very next series.
At 6'5," Robinson possesses size that you can't teach and a catch radius that makes him a walking mismatch. While he's yet to show himself as anything but a one-route player, his highlight-reel catch against a helpless Air Force defensive back brings you back to the jump-ball glory days of Brady Quinn and Jeff Samardzija.
Not to be outdone by Robinson, freshman Will Fuller had the best day of his young career. The freshman speedster got behind the Air Force defense and connected for a 46-yard touchdown from Rees before catching a deep throw by Andrew Hendrix that set the Irish up for a short touchdown run.
Fuller has been working his way into the receiver rotation, making catches against Michigan State, Oklahoma and USC before these two bombs. But if you're looking for a guy who might be able to slide into TJ Jones' multidimensional shoes, Fuller is looking like the front-runner.
Sophomore Chris Brown finally found the end zone with a nice catch on a back-shoulder route. Pair him with James Onwualu's blocking and special teams work and that's a lot of young players making a difference.
Looking ahead, DaVaris Daniels comes back as the top receiver on the depth chart. Talented recruits Justin Brent and Corey Holmes don't expect to sit. A group that many thought was unproven heading into the season all of a sudden looks packed with talent.
After playing less than impressive football early this season, the back-end of the Irish defense held up incredibly well against Air Force. The Falcons weren't able to catch the secondary with their head in the backfield, and the cornerbacks and safeties played very well in run support.
Saying goodbye to Bennett Jackson won't be easy. But the competition to see the field will be as fierce, with starting-caliber players covering the two-deep. From his field cornerback position, KeiVarae Russell played a physical game, making six solo tackles, one for a loss, while also forcing a fumble.
Freshmen cornerbacks Cole Luke and Devin Butler also played a ton of football, a statement when you consider the sparse need for nickelbacks when you're playing an option offense. Luke notched six tackles as well, showing more than just cover skills.
With Elijah Shumate slowed by a hamstring injury, little-used safety Eilar Hardy took advantage of his opportunity. So did 5-star safety Max Redfield, who chipped in three tackles. They'll enter spring having to battle starters Matthias Farley and Austin Collinsworth, not to mention Nicky Baratti, who will be back from injury.
Perhaps no position will be more interesting than running back. Only transfer or injury will take someone out of the depth chart. Saturday night, Tarean Folston made a claim for more touches, earning 11 carries, as he added another dimension to a running game that might have been the lone disappointment in the Irish's victory.
Nobody expects Greg Bryant to stay off the field for much longer. George Atkinson still has the skill set that taunts this offensive staff. Cam McDaniel has proved himself to be steady, while Amir Carlisle might have better traits to play out of the slot.
On Saturday afternoon, Folston's vision and burst added something to the running game. But come spring time, this position battle could come to a boil.
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