SOUTH BEND, Indiana—Academic issues have surrounded Notre Dame football of late, with quarterback Everett Golson making his return and a quintet of players being held out of practice and competition.
And while Golson stole the show Saturday with 336 yards of total offense and five touchdowns (two passing, three rushing), it’s worth analyzing how Notre Dame fared without cornerback KeiVarae Russell, wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, defensive end Ishaq Williams, linebacker Kendall Moore and safety Eilar Hardy in its 48-17 demolition of Rice.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly praised his team’s resolve in focusing on the task at hand without those five.
“They have been really focused on their job and going out there,” Kelly said following the victory. “They have been really purposeful every single day. They have not been a distracted group and that says a lot about them. I've got good leaders, and I've got young guys that have really followed the lead here.”
We’ll take a look here at how the Irish replacements performed in place of Russell, Daniels and Williams. Moore was not expected to have a major role, and Notre Dame’s depth at safety mitigates Hardy’s absence.
Cole Luke and Devin Butler
The absence of Russell might be the biggest setback for the Irish, but cornerback is a deep position. Cody Riggs held down one side, and sophomore Cole Luke started on the other.
Luke tallied two tackles and a pass defensed, providing steady play. Notre Dame had some breakdowns in the secondary, but the majority of those were blunders by safeties.
Great close by Cole Luke to blow up that screen— Irish Sports Daily (@ISDUpdate) August 30, 2014
Great coverage by Cole Luke, Jackson wanted to throw to Parks, but Luke had him locked down. Forced coverage sack— Irish Sports Daily (@ISDUpdate) August 30, 2014
Fellow sophomore Devin Butler saw time in certain sub-packages. Butler’s biggest play was forcing a fumble by Rice wide receiver Cameron Decell late in the fourth quarter.
All things considered, Notre Dame held its own in the secondary without Russell. Riggs has become an even more important cog in the Irish defense now that he has been elevated to the top spot. If Riggs continues to play like a No. 1 corner and Luke and Butler continue to develop, the Irish can at least weather Russell’s absence.
Still, you don’t replace Russell.
It’s tough to pinpoint one wide receiver who stepped in for DaVaris Daniels. Kelly and Irish offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock have said since the spring that multiple wide receivers will be utilized as Notre Dame spreads the ball.
That balance and variety was evident Saturday, as four different Irish pass-catchers reached at least 50 yards receiving. Sophomore Will Fuller tallied four grabs for 85 yards—75 of which came on the first-quarter touchdown pass from Golson—to lead the group. Senior Amir Carlisle added two receptions for 54 yards, and junior C.J. Prosise hauled in the 53-yard touchdown strike with five seconds remaining in the first half.
“I don't think we are going to have one particular guy that's going to eat up all the catches,” Kelly said. “There's not one guy. It's going to spread all the way across the board. Everybody is going to get touches.”
While Daniels is likely Notre Dame’s most complete receiver, the Irish have an intriguing crop of youngsters. Kelly commended Fuller’s “elite” speed, junior Chris Brown’s reliability and sophomore Corey Robinson’s “great matchup” ability.
No one receiver can match Daniels’ package of skills, but Notre Dame should be able to get good performances from a host of targets.
Sophomore defensive end Isaac Rochell didn’t boast an impressive stat line—one tackle—but he delivered a solid outing in place of Williams.
Kelly has raved about Rochell’s strength in recent weeks, and the second-year end mostly held the point of attack Saturday. “Isaac Rochell has been extremely physical and difficult to move with our offensive line,” Kelly said after the Rice game.
Asked if Notre Dame’s defense surprised him at all, Kelly lauded the line:
No, I thought as we progressed into camp and had settled into the past week or so, I like the physical play of our front four...I just really thought that we were going to be able to hold up very well, and Joe Schmidt with Jaylon [Smith] were outstanding. You've got those six guys; if they can hold up against the run, we're going to be from pretty good shape, and I thought that was going to be the case and it ended up being it today.
With more consistent play and continued development, Rochell can lessen the impact of the loss of Williams.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.