Chicago Sun-Times
with Mark Lazerus

So many freshmen strength, not weakness

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It was impossible not to notice freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch, who who had five tackles, a sack and hit Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins six times during Notre Dame's 31-13 win on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium. Defenders Troy Niklas had three tackles, Stephon Tuitt two. 

Running back George Atkinson returned a kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown. 

While Brian Kelly may have once considered so many freshman playing pivotal roles to be a weakness, he now considers it a strength for the present and the future.

"I don't know that you ever want to play as many freshman that we're playing, but times are changing," the Notre Dame coach said. "College football is such that these kids are coming in physically so much more mature that they can come in and physically handle the rigors of playing major college football." 

Kelly said improved weight training and nutrition at the high school level is allowing more freshmen to compete against upper classmen. Notre Dame strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo, for example, called this year's freshman class one of the best he has seen from a conditioning standpoint, which has allowed them to compete for playing time since early in training camp.

"Usually they come in a few weeks after the veterans are here," Kelly said. "They come in and they're lost. They're so far behind. This group was not. They were physically ready to compete right away." 

Lynch has been the biggest surprise. Coaches expected the highly touted defensive end from Cape Coral, Fla., to be a dominating player, but not this soon.

"He's an extremely genetically gifted young man, and he's got a desire to want to get to the quarterback," Kelly said of the 6-foot-6, 265-pounder. "I mean, genetics are one thing. We all know he's extremely gifted. But he's relentless when it comes to rushing the quarterback. Some guys just have that relentless spirit to get to the quarterback, and he brings both of those. 

"He's a pretty good looking kid. We had about 11 [NFL] scouts in, and they said that he physically looks like an NFL player right now. He's got a lot work to do as it relates it all the other little things that come with being a great player. He's certainly not there as an everyday player yet. He can't play every down yet, but he's getting better."

The emergence of Lynch, Niklas and Tuitt are also making veteran players more effective because they don't have to play as many snaps. Last season, a lack of depth meant players such as Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore had to spend more time on the field and were sometimes less effective later in games.

"You just keep rolling out big bodies that can go, I think the big difference is we can keep those guys fresh," Kelly said. "We can get them in and out of game."

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This page contains a single entry by Neil Hayes published on September 20, 2011 2:19 PM.

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