He is still more rumor than reality, more potential than performance, more raw than refined.
Aaron Lynch is mostly unbridled, at times undisciplined, seemingly unabashed and decidedly unfiltered - so much so the Notre Dame freshman defensive end has been sequestered from the media since late September.
Only a coincidence that happened right after he predicted a 10-sack day for his team against then-upcoming opponent Pitt?
He may not be allowed to be an official voice of Irish football yet, but he’s the next face of it, waiting in line behind burgeoning star linebacker Manti Te’o. Te’o himself was always more measured off the field but, at one point, every bit as unfinished on the field.
“He’s learning the same thing I had to learn,” said ND’s leading tackler this season. “In high school, you could just freelance. You could go to whatever hole was open, but he’s learning that if he has a gap, he has to stay in it. Once in a while, he’ll get out of his fit, but it’s rare now.”
It’s not just the X’s and O’s, though. It’s the swirl of expectations that followed the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Lynch all the way from Coral Springs, Fla., that challenge him. It’s having had to play out of position at times, on the defensive interior, and being pushed to start sooner than expected because of injuries on the defensive line.
It’s also knowing where the fine line is between being passionate and pungent.
“I told Aaron, ‘I love that edge, that nastiness about a player,’” Te’o said of Lynch’s propensity to draw personal foul/unsportsmanlike conduct penalties during his launch into college football. “(I said), ‘Never get rid of that.’ Just be aware of when to do it and when not to do it.
“‘Between whistles is the time to do it. After the whistle, it’s time to tone it down.’ He’s learning. He’s maturing.”
And Saturday night he faces a potentially intriguing benchmark when No. 22 Notre Dame (8-3) visits fourth-ranked Stanford (10-1) in Palo Alto, Calif.
It’ll be the best team he has faced to date, with arguably the best offensive line he’s ever seen - with both a Lombardi Award finalist (left tackle Jonathan Martin) and an Outland Trophy finalist (right guard David DeCastro). ... Oh, yeah, and perhaps the best quarterback prospect he’ll ever face in Andrew Luck.
It’s not a referendum Saturday night, mind you - more like an opportunity to take another step.
“I don’t think Aaron Lynch is thinking about much of anything other than his own improvement,” said ND defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. “He thinks about practice and meetings, and then tomorrow’s a new day, with new practice and new meetings. We’re trying to maintain that level of focus, not have a crescendo at the end of the week.
“When things start to go in that direction, we quickly get it corralled.”
And by all accounts, Lynch is buying into the corralling - the need for discipline, for structure, for an appreciation to adding the little things to a scary blend of speed and power.
It has translated more anecdotally than statistically, though there are flecks of great promise in the latter.
Five of his 22 tackles have been behind the line of scrimmage. His four sacks are second on the team, only to Te’o’s 4.5. And his 13 quarterback hurries, with two games to go, are eight more than anyone on the team had last season and the most since Victor Abiamiri’s 14 in his senior season of 2006.
All that in only four starts and six relief appearances, with Lynch having been held out of the Michigan game all together because ND head coach Brian Kelly was concerned at the time that Lynch wasn’t ready for the Wolverines’ option principles. No longer.
“It’s a very unique young man, that he can go in there and do the things that he does,” Kelly said. “He plays really hard for four quarters.
“Of all the guys that I’ve coached on the defensive side of the ball, he’s a very unique individual in the way he comes to practice, plays and the things that he does. It’s really fun to watch him.”
Especially since it’s a part of Kelly’s grand design.
When Stanford pummeled the Irish, 37-14, last Sept. 25, it reinforced to Kelly how he wanted to build his program.
“What I really liked about Stanford last year was, physically, they controlled the line of scrimmage, and their development of their players,” Kelly said, “and that, obviously, has been crucial to our success moving forward.
“I looked at the numbers, and I think we're 15-5 since we played them last year. And that's a step in the right direction of moving toward being more physical as a football team.”
Lynch and fellow freshmen Stephon Tuitt, Chase Hounshell and Troy Niklas have been a big part of that. Classmate Ishaq Williams figures to join the movement next season, if not before.
“I would say that it's really beyond what I would have expected,” Kelly said, “because you don't go into a season expecting freshmen to impact you the way they did. They certainly have.”
The key is to keep pushing, but also have patience. Stanford was 9-17 after two years under former coach Jim Harbaugh and 17-22 after three before last year’s breakthrough 12-1 season.
And for good measure 65 players on that team scored GPAs of 3.0 or higher the following spring.
Kelly’s grand vision now is to upgrade the skill positions to match the young talent on the defensive line and the veteran achievers on the offensive line.
The X-factor at Notre Dame, though, is how the bright lights will affect the plan. And no one in the new wave of potential stars has more scrutiny to deal with than does Lynch.
“His attitude has been positive,” Diaco said. “He can see the value of preparation and how it correlates to production.”
“I think he’s handled it well, for an 18-year-old to come into a college like Notre Dame, where there’s cameras everywhere,” Te’o offered. “One thing I learned (in that process) was just to be confident in who you are.“Never forget where you came from and who you represent. As long as you remember those simple things, you’ll be fine.”