Irish newcomers prep for first test

September, 2, 2011
9/02/11
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In 1992, quarterback Kordell Stewart was planting the seeds for what went on to become one of the most decorated careers in Colorado history, lifting the Buffaloes to a No. 10 ranking as they readied for Iowa in Week 4.

But a sprained foot rendered Stewart ineffective against the Hawkeyes, allowing freshman signal caller Koy Detmer to step in during the second half and turn a one-point halftime lead into a 28-12 win.

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, then a freshman linebacker at Iowa, has come to appreciate what Detmer did to his Hawkeyes. Diaco is preparing at least five players to possibly play their first snaps of college football on Saturday.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's Louis Nix
: Matt Cashore/US PRESSWIRENose guard Louis Nix is one of several Notre Dame players planning to take the field for the first time in college.
"He was a freshman and we thought, 'OK, this is exactly what we wanted,' " Diaco recalled. "And he came in and he was lights out, ripped us and we ended up losing the game. So it works both ways."

Detmer completed 7 of 11 passes for 155 yards against Iowa. Despite working with his freshmen "every minute the NCAA will allow it," Diaco doesn't expect any flashbacks on either side of the ball this Saturday against South Florida.

"With that said, they're gonna go in the game and do dumb stuff," Diaco said of preparing newcomers for the big stage. "It's just the nature of the beast, and it's not unique to Notre Dame -- it's every single team in the country, including the NFL. It's inexplicable why some guys do the things they do on particular plays, and most of them are new players."

Take nose guard Louis Nix. Expected to split time with senior Sean Cwynar, Nix will be playing in a football game for the first time in two years after shedding more than 40 pounds since arriving on campus as an overweight freshman.

Though he has been on campus for a year now, Nix said his head is still in space thinking about his debut.

"It's a lot of responsibility," Nix said. "I can mess up one thing and it can cause an 80-yard run, stuff like that. I'm an important part, everybody has their individual parts that are relative to having the team come together."

Head coach Brian Kelly told Nix during spring practice that he planned to use the sophomore 12-15 plays per game, which was actually a disappointment in Nix's eyes.

Nix is hoping that number can climb toward the 25-30 range after a strong preseason, but a welcome-to-college-football-moment is seemingly inevitable.

"They're gonna see on game day what our coaches have been telling them that they can't do, they really can't do," senior end Ethan Johnson said. "Because it's gonna hurt on game day if the younger guys do some things that they like to do that they did in high school, it's not really gonna work against college teams."

Manti Te'o was hesitant to trot onto the field in his first college game, the 2009 opener against Nevada. But a blitz and a scramble by Wolf Pack quarterback Colin Kaepernick resulted in Te'o being in the right place at the right time, giving the linebacker his first career tackle.

"All I remember is just being all tense and running as fast as I could, and fortunately I made a tackle," Te'o said. "So quickly it became reality that I was playing college ball."

The initiation was less obvious for players like Harrison Smith, who cannot recall his first play with the Fighting Irish.

Four years later, the safety is telling the younger players to take in the thrill of it all.

"I think even I'm going to have that excitement. This is my fifth year doing it," Smith said. "I think, if you ask Ray Lewis how he feels before games, he would say he gets that feeling. You can't really describe it. I think that's something that you want to embrace, but at the same time, you know, be who you are.

"Be the player that you are, have the confidence that you're here for a reason and you're playing for a reason. Just go be who you are and play the game you've always played."

And if they can recall their first plays, all the better.

"If I don't remember my first play, I hope it's something good," Nix said. "And if I do remember my first play, I hope it's a touchdown.

"A fumble recovery for a touchdown."

Matt Fortuna | email

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