With a Next Man In philosophy, Notre Dame have overcome a string of injuries that could have derailed its College Football Playoff dreams
The occasion of his 60th carry as a college running back brought many words of congratulations for Josh Adams. This was not shocking, even if what prompted the felicitations was: A 98-yard touchdown run, merely the longest play from scrimmage in the history of Notre Dame football. As the freshman tailback caught his wind after that breathtaking burst against Wake Forest on Nov. 14, the veteran offensive linemen who helped create a path to history swiftly let Adams know how impressed they were.
You finally hit the hole, they told him.
“They always have a little fun with me,” Adams says. “It’s ‘Next Man In,’ so you have to make that guy feel like he’s at home.”
A dose of congenial humor can be healthy, especially if your roster is not. The Fighting Irish have teased out one solution after another, better than nearly anyone else in a year fraught with catastrophic injuries nationwide. Notre Dame has now lost nine starters to various season-ending tears and fractures and nevertheless travels to Stanford this weekend as a 10–1 team with a chance to make the College Football Playoff. That “Next Man In” mantra espoused by coach Brian Kelly and players like Adams has been less guiding principle than survival mechanism. The Irish needed something in reserve, or else.
As it stands, they may earn a shot at a national championship on the strength of a redshirt freshman quarterback who began as a backup and a true freshman tailback who started preseason camp as a third-stringer at best. It doesn’t always work so efficiently—more on that in a moment—but Notre Dame’s replacements have surpassed expectations, and the regulars have given them the self-assurance to do so. “When one guy comes out and the next man comes in, everyone’s posture is the same,” Adams says. “The body language is the same. They still have that standard they set, so you know when you get in there you have to play at a high level. There’s not anything where you’re feeling nervous or that it’s too much of a job for you.”
How much is too much? That is the question. “Next Man In” is a motto, not a guarantee. A year ago, a raft of defensive injuries stripped away experience and led to the Irish losing five of their last six in the regular season.
This year the attrition began early—defensive lineman Jarron Jones (knee) went down in preseason camp, lead tailback Tarean Folston (knee) exited in Week 1 and quarterback Malik Zaire (broken ankle) was lost in Week 2—and it never truly stopped. Against Boston College on Saturday, cornerback KeiVarae Russell suffered a fractured tibia and tailback C.J. Prosise—the senior who leapt from No. 2 to No. 1 after Folston’s injury and then amassed 1,032 yards—sprained his ankle in his first game back after a concussion. Maybe all this catches up to Notre Dame in northern California. It’s stunning enough that the Irish outran it to late November.
“If one guy goes down, they pick the flag up and the next guy starts moving,” Kelly said at his weekly news conference. “Guy goes down, they pick the flag up and they keep moving. One of those Revolutionary War scenes where they keep marching forward.
“They feel for the guys that go down, whether it was Malik or whether it was [linebacker Drue] Tranquill or [guard] Alex Bars. It's every guy that goes down. They feel that. It hits them, but they get right back up and they're ready to go.”
Withstanding injuries naturally begins with recruiting enough quality depth. And every program preaches readiness. But Notre Dame incorporated it as a day-to-day reality and subsequently got results. That began, to hear veterans tell it, at the very beginning. “We let the young guys know early, ‘From this point on, when you put the pads on, you’re not freshmen anymore, you’re part of the team,’” senior tackle Ronnie Stanley says. “We kept the pressure on them like we would keep the pressure on anyone.”
It’s one thing for a second-stringer to believe he might be needed; that’s an easy hypothetical to grasp. But Stanley insists it goes beyond that. Asked if Notre Dame’s fourth-string left tackle is preparing the same as the All-America-caliber starter, Stanley was unequivocal: They are doing the exact same things, tracing the same steps from film study to weight work, with the volume of practice reps the only difference.
“He knows what I’m doing,” Stanley says, “so if he goes in there, he knows exactly how to do it.”
That is a process. Though ribbed by his line following that record-breaking 98-yard score, Adams concedes every good joke carries some truth. He was like any freshman in camp, acclimating to game speed and running a tick less assertively than he’d prefer. But the 6’1 ½”, 212-pounder monitored the nuances of every rep he wasn’t taking. He watched the transition between plays. He absorbed pass protections and cataloged the pre-snap reads of the running back in the play. When one of his backfield mates hit the hole, Adams noted where the opening occurred and how he might arrive there quicker.
“Trying to stay locked in to your position and not getting caught up in the overall play—it’s just as important as getting the actual rep,” Adams says. When it came time to incorporate the mental prep into the physical act of actually running the ball, the freshman caught the eye of some teammates with a practice approach that was precocious and, well, practical. “He runs out every run, no matter what, like he’s scoring a touchdown,” senior center Nick Martin says.
The result is 592 rushing yards thus far for Adams, the fourth-best total for a Notre Dame freshman. But even he had time to marinate, at least a little—Adams was called upon for double-digit carries just once in the first eight games. DeShone Kizer enjoyed no such gestation period. The redshirt freshman went from backup to starter in an instant when Zaire went down against Virginia in the second game of 2015. Kizer became immediately responsible for keeping the offense humming, and he managed that by rambling on.
He entered the huddle in Charlottesville “talking a little crazy,” per Stanley, evidently overwhelmed by adrenaline, if not by the moment. You trust me, I trust you, you trust me, I trust you, Kizer huffed over and over. “It was like, ‘Relax, we trust you, don’t worry,’” Stanley recalls. But as amused as his more seasoned and imperturbable teammates might have been, this was in ways the ideal “Next Man In” approach.
There was no time to mourn. Kizer was in command, whatever the circumstances. Notre Dame was beholden to his energy that day, and for the rest of 2015, for better or worse.
“You get put in in your first game, in your first opportunity, and you're down a touchdown and you've got to try to put together a drive to win a game,” says Kizer, who now has 2,362 passing yards and 18 touchdowns on the year. “So the switch was on from Day 1 for me. There's not necessarily a specific time in which I saw myself as the guy who was relieving to a guy that has to take over because when you're playing the level of football that you play now, everyone has to be executing in all facets of the game. So I was always on, in that sense.”
At Notre Dame, this is the expectation up and down the depth chart. As evidenced by the collapse in 2014, expectations sometimes can’t help. But this year the confidence with which replacement players plunged into action—and the lack of a precipitous drop-off after that—was a boost even to the regulars whose bones and ligaments remained intact.
Frontline players saw how the team remained on solid footing despite the depth-chart erosion, and their unspoken concerns were replaced by renewed confidence. “Going back in time, in my mindset back then, I would’ve said no, I don’t think (Kizer) was ready,” Stanley says. “But looking back now, he was ready.” If the worst-case scenario turns out to be not so bad at all, then a team can play free and without apprehension.
“It’s a big lift,” Stanley says of the backups performing like starters. “That puts even more pressure on everyone to understand that, if they go in there, the same thing is expected.”
On Saturday, Adams will go in there once more, with Prosise doubtful to play against Stanford with a high ankle sprain. Adams averaged just 2.6 yards per carry against Boston College last weekend, but the Eagles are stingier than anyone in the nation against opposing ground attacks. The Cardinal are also solid in that regard if not spectacular, ranking 28th nationally against the run. However, the last time Adams faced a defense with similar credentials—Pittsburgh’s 25th-ranked run defense—he amassed 147 yards on Nov. 7.
Only now, three weeks later, the stakes are less abstract: National championship hopes at least partially rely on the ability of a freshman with 85 career carries to hold up and hold his own. “It feels great to be a part of a run like this,” Adams says. “Not everybody else goes through this.”
Injuries could have torpedoed everything Notre Dame aimed to accomplish for a second straight fall. That hasn’t occurred to this point, due to quick-study understudies. Still, on Saturday, on the threshold in Palo Alto, the call for backup is more consequential than ever. What’s asked of Adams, Kizer and the rest is no joke at all.
Each week, The Walkthrough usually talks to two assistant coaches about a key upcoming matchup. But since things are a little tighter in a holiday week/rivalry week, we opted for a change-up in Week 13: talking to the radio voices from Michigan and Ohio State about the state of both teams heading into the new era of the rivalry, with Jim Harbaugh on one sideline and Urban Meyer on the other.
Jim Brandstatter, Michigan radio play-by-play: “Ohio State standing in their way is huge. It means that other than the fact that it's a rivalry game, it’s like the old days, when everything was riding on this thing. It’s back to the future. The biggest difference to me has been the physicality at the line of scrimamge and their defense, which over the course of the year has been really, really outstanding. To see (Jake Rudock's) improved play, to see him make great decisions and make plays with his feet, which I don’t think anybody expected, has been a huge surprise. If you made a call to Iowa and asked if they think Jake Rudock had this in him, I think they’d say no. (A win) puts Michigan right back up there at the top of the Big Ten. Let’s face it, the last five years or so, Ohio State has been the standard-bearer. Michigan has struggled to keep pace. In the broad picture, it puts Michigan right back up there as a yearly contender for a championship and possibly getting into the College Football Playoff. If they win. They’ve got to take that next step. If they win, it gives them great momentum, and they’re back on the map perception-wise.”
Paul Keels, Ohio State radio play-by-play: “I don’t know that it’s that big a deal that it’s Jim that’s there, that it’s a new coach—it’s always a big deal because it’s Michigan. Even in recent years, when they struggled by their standards, it still was a big deal to people. This year because Ohio State is coming off a loss (to Michigan State), a win over their arch-rival will probably make folks feel a little bit better. The mood for the first 24 or 30 hours or so, as you imagine for a fan base that’s not used to seeing their team lose, it was kind of shocking the way the game played out, all the stuff with Ezekiel Elliott. I think people were kind of dumbstruck. No disrespect to Michigan State—based on what people have seen since Urban has gotten here, in the regular season, they got accustomed to (success). A win over Michigan, whether they’re having success or whether they’re struggling, means a lot to Ohio State football players. Those players put a lot of value in the gold pants they get every year they beat Michigan. From what players tell you, it’s the most physical game they’ve ever played. It may sound stupid to some people, but it’s a win over Michigan. That carries a lot of stock with Ohio State players and fans and people that are involved in it.”
• Texas Tech at Texas: Interim AD David Perrin says Charlie Strong is safe for 2016. But losses to the Red Raiders and Baylor on Dec. 5 would make the Longhorns 0–3 against in-state Big 12 rivals, not to mention 4–8 overall. The cumulative effect is Strong’s long-range problem.
• Navy at Houston: It’s a semifinal for the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six bowl bid with a trip to the American Athletic Conference title game at stake. Can Midshipmen QB Keenan Reynolds make a high-profile case for a trip to the Heisman ceremony?
• Iowa at Nebraska: The Hawkeyes are tied for fifth nationally in turnover margin (plus-11). Cornhuskers QB Tommy Armstrong has thrown six TDs and six INTs in his last three games. Goad the hosts into mistakes, and Kirk Ferentz and Co. can avoid an upset that would seriously undermine their playoff hopes.
• Baylor at TCU: If Trevone Boykin plays, you wonder if there’s enough Horned Frogs firepower to ruin the Bears’ fledgling playoff hopes—especially if Jared Stidham is still sidelined.
• Ohio State at Michigan: Oh, the joy for Wolverines faithful, watching the Buckeyes pop a few seams before Jim Harbaugh’s first shot in this rivalry. Was it just frustration that bubbled up for Ohio State after its first loss, or was it a full-on fracture?
• Clemson at South Carolina: If the Tigers blow their championship chances against a team that lost to The Citadel, they should be banned from the playoff forever.
• Alabama at Auburn: If you can only muster 13 points against Georgia at home, that does not bode well for what you can muster against this Crimson Tide defense.
• Penn State at Michigan State: The presence of Carl Nassib and Anthony Zettel is worrisome in general, but especially when it’s a young quarterback on the other side. If the Spartans are vulnerable anywhere, that’s where.
• UCLA at USC: The winner gets a Pac-12 title game spot and a chance to establish the most sidewinding, preposterous path to a Rose Bowl in recent memory.
• Ole Miss at Mississippi State: Remember: If Alabama loses and the Egg Bowl goes to the visitors…welcome to the SEC title game, Rebels!
• Notre Dame at Stanford: For anyone arguing that the playoff needs be expanded to eight or 16, I give you an organic quarterfinal matchup. There regularly aren’t enough worthy teams to expand, even if expansion is inevitable.
• Florida State at Florida: Could this be the last regular season game Jimbo Fisher coaches for the Seminoles? It seems like Florida State has an easier path to the playoff than LSU does annually, but you wonder if the SEC siren song is too strong to ignore, should Les Miles get the boot.
• Texas A&M at LSU: With the Tigers on a three-game losing streak, the reception Les Miles will receive will be fascinating alone, never mind what comes next.
• Oklahoma at Oklahoma State: The Cowboys’ face plant against Baylor last weekend sucked a lot of juice out of this Bedlam meeting. But spoiling the Sooners’ fledgling playoff hopes surely would be a welcome consolation prize.
The hair-raising end
It’s Week 13, the last (full) weekend of the regular season. Rivals clash. Championship hopes are bolstered or destroyed. In other words, the tryptophan will wear off quick.