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Not too young to contribute

Irish freshmen get lots of playing time


By Avani Patel

Tribune staff reporter

Published September 16, 2005



SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- He had a whole summer to prepare for his first college appearance, just a split second to indulge in nervousness and a single day to enjoy the outcome before getting ready for the next game.


In some ways, Notre Dame linebacker Scott Smith simply was doing what comes naturally to a guy who recorded 144 tackles as a senior at Highland Park High School last season.


"It was just pure instinct. I just saw the reverse and reacted to it," said Smith, explaining matter-of-factly how he was able to chase down Michigan wide receiver Steve Breaston and hold him to a 30-yard gain.


That prevented a Wolverines touchdown in the first half of Notre Dame's 17-10 victory last Saturday at Michigan.


That Smith was on the field for that play was no big deal. He was spelling starting middle linebacker Corey Mays, who had lost a contact lens.


That Smith was on the field at all, however, is unusual. Smith was the eighth of Notre Dame's 15 freshmen to log playing time this season.


He won't be the last.


"We knew this year a lot of these guys, if they played well, were going to get themselves into the mix," Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said. "It would not surprise me if more end up seeing time."


It could happen Saturday, when the 10th-ranked Irish (2-0) take on Michigan State (2-0) at Notre Dame Stadium.


Compared to years past, when coaches routinely played no more than a handful of freshmen, this season has seen many of them on the field.


Defensive lineman Pat Kuntz, listed as one of two backups to starting tackle Derek Landri, made his college debut in Notre Dame's season-opening 42-21 victory at Pittsburgh.


"I haven't seen that much time, but I'm trying to prepare like I'm going to be playing," Kuntz said.


The preparation for Kuntz and his 14 fellow freshmen began earlier than it had for past freshmen because of an NCAA rule change that permitted them to arrive on campus for summer school. They could work out with teammates and get two classes out of the way.


"After the first few weeks, just going to workouts and being in the same dorm, you get to know people a lot better," Kuntz said.


"It's a big benefit for all the freshmen to be able to know everybody going into fall camp."


Junior quarterback Brady Quinn, who was named Notre Dame's starter only four games into his freshman year, said the benefits of the early initiation for this year's class were huge.


"One of the big things is it has helped build is chemistry with the older players, where maybe that would take a little bit of time," Quinn said.


He said he believes an early arrival definitely would have smoothed his path to starting.


"It gives you a little time to get acclimated, understanding your way around campus," Quinn said.


Weis has another reason for liking it.


"They are a bunch of smart guys," he said. "It gives you an opportunity to push guys along mentally faster than you normally would be able to go."


For all that, however, Weis admitted his stomach did a bit of a flip when he was forced to send Smith into last week's game.


"The last thing you really want is to be there and all of a sudden see your freshman middle linebacker come running in for the first time playing against Michigan," he said.


"But I tell you what, he had one great hustle play on that reverse. I mean, he was already all the way up in the line of scrimmage and he turned and tracked a guy down and ended up making a hit on him right there."


That was no surprise to Highland Park coach Kurt Weinberg.


"The most important thing about Scott Smith . . . his motor is fantastic. He doesn't quit," Weinberg said.


And not only on the field.


"He has been coming in and just stepping up right away, doing things most freshmen don't do, studying film and just going the extra mile," said Mays, who was assigned to be an older brother figure to Smith.


"He really has done a phenomenal job since he has been here."


- - -


Young and eager


Irish freshmen who have seen game action this season:



PLAYER POS HOMETOWN Pat Kuntz DL Indianapolis David Grimes WR Detroit David Bruton DB Miamisburg, Oh. Asaph Schwapp FB Hartford, Conn. Paul Duncan OL Dallas, Ga. Michael Turkovich OL Bedford, Pa. Joey Hiben TE Chaska, Minn. Scott Smith LB Highland Park ---------- apatel@tribune.com

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Guest Snatchy_McPants

I love that these guys are getting playing time, and actually making contributions. The confidence boost must be huge. Theoretically, it's a bit of a risk putting them in for that first collegiate snap, but they have all risen to the occasion, looking nothing like freshman on the field. In my opinion, after these first few games, our freshman will be galvanized, ready to dig deep into their Irish careers. CW has done a wonderful job taking the opportunity to get these crucial players on the field when possible.

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