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September 29, 2008

Youth featured, not just served

Four games into the 2008 season, Notre Dame has scored 14 touchdowns and 101 points.

Freshmen and/or sophomores have scored twelve of the 14 touchdowns; 89 of the 101 points have been scored by underclassmen.

Youth is not just being served; Charlie Weis and his staff are featuring it.

"Not to mention the fact that the quarterback is in that group, too," said Charlie Weis, referring to sophomore signalcaller Jimmy Clausen, who already has thrown nine touchdown passes-two more than all last year.

The recruiting classes of 2007-08 are showing up in a big way. Sophomore Golden Tate has three touchdowns. Sophomore Brandon Walker has struggled, but is second on the team in scoring with a field goal and 14 extra points. Sophomore Robert Hughes has two touchdowns. Freshman Michael Floyd has a touchdown, as do sophomores Armando Allen, Duval Kamara and Brian Smith, and freshmen Kyle Rudolph and Robert Blanton.

Only David Grimes, a senior, is a non-underclassman who has scored so far this season.

"It's fun to watch Michael Floyd out there," Weis said. "It's fun to watch Golden Tate out there. It's fun because they play with such enthusiasm."

Several other youngsters are making major contributions. Harrison Smith, a sophomore with three years of eligibility after this season, is starting at linebacker. Sophomores Ian Williams and Kerry Neal join Brian Smith in the starting lineup on defense. Freshman Robert Blanton's playing time will continue to expand. Sophomore Gary Gray, like Harrison Smith, a sophomore with three years left after this season, has seen his playing time increase at cornerback. Freshmen Ethan Johnson and Darius Fleming are getting playing time along the defensive front while Fleming serves on all four special teams. Freshmen Steve Filer and Jonas Gray have been added to the special teams as well.

On the offensive side of the ball, in addition to all the underclassmen scoring points, there's true freshman Trevor Robinson getting playing time at right guard and three juniors along the offensive line, including two with two years of eligibility remaining after this season.

A major reason why the Irish were able to attract a second straight top-notch recruiting class was the opportunity that presented itself on the heels of a 3-9 season.

"I'd say they had plenty of evidence watching games last year that they would have an opportunity to get into the mix," Weis said. "But at the same time, I've never seen a camaraderie like the one with (these freshmen) this year.

"Forget about the ratings. Forget about the rankings. The camaraderie that these guys had from the beginning to end of recruiting...When they were getting hammered and hammered (about Notre Dame's losing season), these guys stuck together. They formed such a close bond that they want to be a part of something special. A bunch of them are now getting themselves on the field."

While seniors Grimes, Maurice Crum Jr., David Bruton, Asaph Schwapp, Mike Turkovich, Terrail Lambert, Pat Kuntz and Kyle McCarthy provide leadership, it's become evident to the older players-particularly among those who have been surpassed by the younger players-that youth must be served.

"I think the older guys are all involved," Weis said. "They know how things go in practice is really how it's going towards playing time. They go together."

Tate and Floyd moved ahead of Robby Parris and George West when the latter two were slowed by injury during pre-season. It doesn't look like they'll be giving the playing time back anytime soon.

"While a couple of the other guys were banged up, waiting for them to get really healthy, these guys just stepped up, stepped up and stepped up," Weis said. "Now it's going to be tough to take them out."

Whereas last year some freshmen played out of necessity, Weis says this year's freshmen are filling in some of the cracks while standouts like Floyd and Rudolph simply have stepped to the forefront.

"With the exception of rare situations like Michael getting out there so much early and Kyle getting out there so much early, these guys have been able to get eased into it instead of thrown into it," said Weis of the freshmen.

"Now you get a guy like Ethan (Johnson). He didn't have to come out and play 50 plays in the first game. Each game after that, he's getting more and more playing time."

The present as well as the future is looking brighter and brighter with the youth of the Irish being served.



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