(Eds: With AP Photos.)By TOM COYNEAssociated Press
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) - Notre Dame freshmen are making a bigger impact as the season goes along.
Linebacker Jaylon Smith has been a starter since the season's start, part of a group that has been contributing all season.
But the freshman played their biggest role of the season in a 45-10 victory over Air Force, with Steve Elmer making his first start and Corey Robinson and Will Fuller catching their first touchdown passes.
Elmer's contribution may have been the most significant. The 6-foot-5, 317-pound lineman had been the backup right tackle but took over at right guard after Christian Lombard sustained a season-ending back injury during practice last week. He also played some at tackle when starter Ronnie Stanley was injured against the Falcons.
''He did some pretty good things out there. What I would probably underline is he doesn't play like a true freshman out there,'' he said. ''There's a lot to learn, but I really like his demeanor and the way he handles himself.''
The Irish have 11 players on their two-deep chart, with Smith and Elmer listed as starters. Smith struggled against the option at times Saturday. But he finished with eight tackles, tying for the team high, and a fumble recovery that might have gone for a touchdown if the officials hadn't mistakenly initially ruled it an incomplete pass.
''He battled and played well. He's just a tough, physical kid,'' Kelly said.
Robinson, the son of former NBA star David Robinson, and Fuller became just the third set of freshmen to make TD catches in the same game for the Irish, joining Golden Tate and Duval Kamara in 2007 and Derek Brown and Rocket Ismail in 1988.
Cornerback Cole Luke also played while the game was still competitive, finishing with six tackles, and Tarean Folston was second in rushing with 11 runs for 47 yards. Kelly said Folston has been impressive, but he's competing with three experienced upperclassmen.
''You have to be really good to take reps from those guys, but he's done that. He ran the ball well and effectively and he continues to get better each and every week,'' he said.
The Irish were able to get other young players in to the game as they had an easy victory for the first time since the opener against Temple.
''It gives them confidence and gives you a chance to get some reps off your veterans that have played so much football,'' Kelly said. ''We'd just like to do that earlier in the season once in a while.''
Left guard Chris Watt who injured his left knee against Air Force and defensive end Sheldon Day left the game after re-injuring his right ankle, but both are expected to play Saturday against Navy (4-3), Kelly said. Backup linebacker Ishaq Williams is doubtful with a knee injury, Kelly said. He also said nose guard Louis Nix, who didn't make the trip to Colorado because of knee tendinitis, is questionable for Navy.
The Irish (6-2) remain just outside the rankings, a point behind No. 25 Arizona State (5-2), a team it beat 37-34 three weeks ago. Michigan State (7-1), a team the Irish beat 17-13 on Sept. 21, is No. 24. The only other times the Irish were unranked with a record of 6-2 or better were in 1951 with a 6-2 record under Frank Leahy two weeks after a 35-0 loss to Michigan State and in 1940 after back-to-back losses under Elmer Layden.
Kelly, whose team is still aiming for a BCS bowl, said he's not concerned about being unranked.
''I think if we take care of business and win week after week, and we've got some quality teams in front of us, I think we're right where we need to be,'' he said. ''Just keep winning football games. I really believe that as long as we take care of week to week, we're going to be fine when it's all said and done.''