Notre Dame football finding success despite defensive personnel injuries


INDIANAPOLIS — At his core, Brian Kelly is an educator. He has just chosen to offer instruction in an intense and high-profile classroom. And it is that teacher in him that is being put to use, perhaps more so, than at any time during his five seasons as the Notre Dame football coach.

The 11th-ranked Fighting Irish got by Purdue, 30-14, Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium in front of 56,832, but it proved costly from a personnel standpoint, particularly defensively.

As if the Irish could afford that.

Notre Dame played Saturday’s game — at times — minus six of its top eight defensive backs due to either suspension (KeiVarae Russell and Eilar Hardy), disqualification (Max Redfield), or injury (Nicky Baratti, Austin Collinsworth and Cole Luke), which leaves a whole lot of teaching on the fly going on along the sidelines.

“We’re down,” Kelly exhaled. “I mean, we’re depleted.”

The Irish have managed to win all three of their games so far, with not only the opposition not knowing who is going to line up in secondary protection, but heck, Kelly doesn’t either. The common denominator in all three games so far has been that whoever is called upon, they get what is expected of them — regardless of their age or inexperience.

Are you ready? #GoIrish

— Brian Kelly (@CoachBrianKelly) August 30, 2014

When Russell and Hardy got suspended prior to the season-opening game with Rice, Luke, a sophomore cornerback got thrown into a starting position to replace Russell.

When Collinsworth went down with an injury just days before that game, Elijah Shumate stepped into a far more significant role at safety.

And when Redfield got kicked out of the game Saturday for an illegal hit on Purdue quarterback Danny Ettling before halftime, it was true freshman Drue Tranquill’s turn to do the best he could.

“First of all, [the young players] know that they’ve been called upon,” Kelly said. “They have to step up for their teammates. That accelerates the [learning] process. They know that they have to pick it up.”

In the case of Tranquill, he didn’t come to Notre Dame this past summer with any illusions of grandeur. The Carroll High School graduate was — at best — going to play mostly special teams, but in a perfect world, he would’ve spent the season learning and preparing to play next year.

He played most of the second half at safety against Purdue out of pure necessity. And according to Kelly, “he did great.”

“[Tranquill] doesn’t know what he’s doing, but he’s awesome,” Kelly laughed.

The coach quickly admitted that he was joking and added that he has an absolute appreciation for what Tranquill is doing under duress.

“He does know what he’s doing,” Kelly said. “But we’re really trying to keep it simple for him out there. He was such a locked-in kid. We’re able to do some things with him, and he’s only been here, what, eight, 10 weeks? Where would we be without that young man? It’s really pretty incredible.”

It’s “incredible” what Kelly and his coaches have done with this defensive group, which also is missing starting defensive end Ishaq Williams and reserve linebacker Kendall Moore due to suspensions, as well as its most effective tackler from a year ago (injured linebacker Jarrett Grace). Oh, and throw in starting defensive end Andrew Trumbetti, who missed the Purdue game after suffering an injury last week against Michigan.

And when Bratti and Luke were injured against the Boilermakers (1-2)? Well, it was just par for the course with this team.

“You know that you’re going to face adversity,” Kelly said. “At some point it’s going to present itself to you. So it’s a matter of how are your teammates going to respond?”

So far this season, nothing has negatively affected this program. Not injuries, not suspensions, not its youth and inexperience, nothing.

“There’s no waiver wire,” Kelly said. “There’s no trading in college football. We’re trying to get young guys ready. That’s what we’re trying to do in the locker room.”

Surviving defensive injuries while making BCS among Brian Kelly’s biggest #NotreDame challenges yet. Story:

— Brian Hamilton (@BrianHamiltonSI) November 4, 2013

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