Notre Dame football freshman report: Who’s making an instant impact and who will redshirt?

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Marcus Freeman saw the future just before halftime of Notre Dame’s 48-20 blowout of USC when defensive end Boubacar Traore sacked Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams, a moment that ended with Traore getting carried away celebrating and the head coach calling a timeout. Then Freeman saw the future again during the program’s idle week when the Irish logged three practices before their first true weekend off since summer. The workouts weren’t completely geared toward the freshman class, but they gave that group a bigger spotlight to shine under.

Even if what Freeman witnessed hardly represented a full view of Notre Dame’s freshman class, the head coach has liked the view to date.

“That time is so crucial when you talk about development of the bottom half of your roster and the future of your roster to be able to see those guys, and we got to watch it as coaches,” Freeman said. “The coaches watched it, and let’s evaluate it and call things that they know how to do. Let’s give them a chance to show us what they can do. They’re not really able to show us what they can do if they’re confused. So I don’t care if we have two defenses called and three offensive plays called.

“I wanted to see what those young guys could do and was pleased.”

Freshmen can appear in up to four games without losing a year of eligibility. Of Notre Dame’s 25-man freshman class (including walk-on safety Luke Talich and two-sport receiver Jordan Faison), seven players have already burned a year of eligibility. Another nine are somewhere in the four-game realm. And nine have yet to see the field in any capacity.

While there have been some surprises in who’s played and how much among the freshman class compared to preseason predictions, how the group has been deployed has mostly tracked with expectations. The Irish needed the freshman class of receivers to deliver, and it has, just not exactly how most would have assumed. First-year offensive linemen have had their typical learning curve to get on the field, with redshirts again the rule after the exceptions of Joe Alt and Blake Fisher two years ago. And speed still kills, which is how Jeremiyah Love forced himself into a running back rotation that didn’t automatically have room for him.

With four games remaining and the College Football Playoff off the table, will Freeman push the envelope with the freshmen still on the fence about burning a year of eligibility? Here’s how Notre Dame’s freshman class breaks down coming out of the idle week in games played and snaps logged:

Rico Flores is tied for third on the team with 15 catches. (Matt Cashore / USA Today)

Early impact: No redshirting

  • WR Rico Flores Jr. (8 games, 245 snaps)
  • RB Jeremiyah Love (8 games, 95 snaps)
  • TE Cooper Flanagan (8 games, 91 snaps)
  • WR Jaden Greathouse (7 games, 137 snaps)
  • CB Christian Gray (7 games, 107 snaps)
  • LB Drayk Bowen (7 games, 86 snaps)
  • S Luke Talich (6 games, 49 snaps)

Flores leading all freshmen in snaps played isn’t a massive surprise, considering his training camp and Notre Dame’s needs at receiver. But for Flores to basically double Greathouse and log two more offensive snaps than Audric Estime is a shock for a player with 15 catches for 178 yards, plus that touchdown against Ohio State that felt like a potential game-winner. Flores has been a revelation since he enrolled, with Freeman highlighting him regularly for seeking coaching from Chansi Stuckey. That kind of appetite for feedback can win over a coaching staff when paired with physical tools. Flores checks both boxes.

Love and Flanagan are the other freshmen who have contributed in every game, although Greathouse would have done so too without that balky hamstring that sidelined him at Duke and has limited him since. Roughly half of Flanagan’s work has come on special teams, but he’s factored into multiple-tight end sets, too. Love looks like a future RB1 whose still learning the finer points of the position.

Gray, Bowen and Talich have all burned a year without making a real dent on the defensive depth chart. Gray has picked up some meaningful work on defense, but he’s playing at a crowded position. Bowen and Talich appear to be in the same boat — too athletic to keep on the bench but not ready to crack the rotation at linebacker or safety. Bowen has played in just one game on defense, getting seven snaps against Central Michigan. But he’s been everywhere on special teams, with no freshman playing more special teams snaps this fall. In a normal year, Bowen might be in the linebacker rotation. The presence of JD Bertrand, Jack Kiser and Marist Liufau does not make it a normal year.

Talich, the walk-on safety from Wyoming who turned down scholarship offers from Utah and Oregon State to test himself at Notre Dame, could be in line for a scholarship if he keeps up this pace. Though most of his work has come on special teams, the staff has described him as a “freak” and burning his first year of eligibility suggests a future scholarship might come if he continues to impress.

On the fence: 4 games or fewer?

  • LB Jaiden Ausberry (4 games, 47 snaps)
  • DL Boubacar Traore (3 games, 11 snaps)
  • WR Jordan Faison (2 games, 32 snaps)
  • WR Braylon James (2 games, 11 snaps)
  • QB Kenny Minchey (1 game, 5 snaps)
  • CB Micah Bell (1 game, 11 snaps)
  • S Adon Shuler (2 games, 19 snaps)
  • DL Brenan Vernon (1 game, 6 snaps)
  • LB Preston Zinter (1 game, 10 snaps)

The story here is Traore, whose game against USC felt like a young Isaiah Foskey flashing against Stanford when the super-rangy defensive end blocked a punt by using his plus length. Traore showed some of this in training camp, meaning he felt like a good bet to click at some point. Now it’s a question of how much Notre Dame wants to push the envelope considering he’s already played three games. Does the staff try to save a year by playing the four-star prospect only once more? Considering Notre Dame’s pass rush needs and the fact a New Year’s Six bowl is still on the table … there’s a chance he continues to play.

Also, if Traore is as good as he appears, he’s not coming back for a fifth year.

“Boubacar Traore is a really good pass rusher and is continuing to develop trust in the coaching staff,” Freeman said. “It’s great to see him go out there and make a huge play. Obviously, in that two-minute situation, we all know what happened after that. But more importantly, man, it’s good to see him put himself in his position to make that play for sure.”

It’s hard to imagine Faison, the lacrosse prospect who went on football scholarship at Louisville, doesn’t stay in the receiver rotation the rest of this season, even with the position getting healthy. The Irish aren’t blessed with overwhelming speed, but Faison has it to go with strong ball skills. If Faison can help in the slot, it lets the staff shift Greathouse to outside receiver.

Will Notre Dame play Ausberry in a fifth game, burning his redshirt? Considering the numbers at rover and how much that position actually plays — Kiser starts, Jaylen Sneed backs up and both need to play more — saving the year makes sense. It’s easy to imagine Ausberry growing into a multi-year starter at linebacker, either at rover or growing into a will linebacker.

The rest of the freshmen who’ve logged some action are certain to save the year of eligibility. They’re all at positions where Notre Dame has veteran talent or they simply need more development. Perhaps there’s more special teams work to come for Zinter, as backup linebackers often feature there. If Notre Dame blows out any of its final four opponents, this group could get snaps late in the fourth quarter.

Seeing red: Wait until next year

  • OL Sullivan Absher
  • DL Devan Houstan
  • OL Charles Jagusah
  • S Ben Minich
  • DL Armel Mukam
  • OL Joe Otting
  • OL Sam Pendleton
  • WR KK Smith
  • OL Chris Terek

Of the nine players who haven’t seen the field at all, seven play in the trenches, including all five prospects on the offensive line.

If Jagusah hadn’t suffered a leg injury in high school that required a long recovery, he might have got a look in the two-deep. Houstan had shoulder surgery after enrolling early, which turned him into an automatic redshirt. Houstan has also been two-time scout team player of the week, meaning he’s making the staff notice him. Smith has been out all season following shoulder surgery. Minich felt certain to play on special teams, but a hand injury has limited his development.

(Top photo of Jeremiyah Love: Frank Jansky / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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