Opportunity Knocks

June practice affords 23 incoming freshmen a better chance to see action in 2014. We offer our initial projection for each in this, the fifth in our annual series of summer predictions.

Over the first four seasons of his tenure in South Bend, Irish head coach Brian Kelly has employed the services of 38 true freshmen, topping out with a whopping 11 last season after nine freshmen saw action in each of his previous three seasons.

The breakdown below illustrates use of full-season starters, part-time starters, and special teams contributors, annually:

2010 (9): T.J. Jones (starting WR), Tommy Rees (late-season starting QB), Prince Shembo (full-season contributor as pass rusher), Bennett Jackson (top special teams player), Austin Collinsworth (special teams standout), Kona Schwenke (contributed as late-season DL), Danny Spond (ST, oft-injured), Lo Wood (ST contributor), Daniel Smith (late-season ST contributor).

2011 (9): Aaron Lynch (Starting DE, freshman All-American), Stephon Tuitt (part-time starting DE), George Atkinson (standout kick returner and on coverage Units), Troy Niklas (top ST contributor, part-time contributor at LB), Ishaq Williams (full-season reserve LB), Ben Koyack (full-season backup TE), Kyle Brindza (kickoff specialist), Josh Atkinson (late-season kick coverage contributor), Chase Hounshell (part-time contributor on DL near mid-season).

2012 (9): Keivarae Russell (starting CB, freshman All-American), Sheldon Day (full-season crucial reserve DE), Elijah Shumate (full-season nickel defender, ST), Davonte Neal (full-season punt returner), Nicky Baratti (backup safety, ST standout), Chris Brown (intermittent contributor at WR), Romeo Okwara (full-season ST, occasional backup Cat LB), Ronnie Stanley (backup LT prior to injury), Justin Ferguson (full-season ST).

2013 (11): Jaylon Smith (full-season starter, freshman All American), Steven Elmer (part-time starting T/G), Corey Robinson (part-time starting WR), Tarean Folston (late-season starting RB), Will Fuller (part-time starting WR), Cole Luke (full-season contributing CB), James Onwualu (part-time starting WR), Devin Butler (full season ST, contributing CB), Max Redfield (ST, Bowl game starting S), Isaac Rochell (full-season reserve DE), Greg Bryant (early season action/injured).

Each of Kelly's first four seasons included multiple freshmen starters -- the last three housed a freshman All American selection (Lynch, Russell, Smith). Players such as Tommy Rees, TJ Jones, Bennett Jackson, and Prince Shembo (2010), Lynch, Stephon Tuitt, and George Atkinson (2011), Russell, Sheldon Day, and Elijah Shumate (2012), and Smith, Steven Elmer, Corey Robinson, and Tarean Folston (2013) ranking among the roster's defining players in their respective seasons.

Others, such as Kona Schwenke, Daniel Smith, Romeo Okwara, and arguably Ben Koyack "burned" a season of eligibility that would have been helpful four seasons later, but that's par for the course in the modern era of 85 scholarships.

From top (Nyles Morgan) to bottom, 2014 should be no different.

"We will get the chance to work with the freshmen next Wednesday," Kelly offered at the outset of June practice. "They will come in Sunday and get their physicals on Monday. We should be able to clear them all except for (TE/LB prospect) Tyler Luatua, who won't arrive until Wednesday because of a graduation. We will get our first look at it then and we kind of have an idea of where we will move those guys and I will have a better sense of it by next week."

If history (and logic) can be your guide, movement and heavy participation next fall are the only guarantees. Notre Dame's best freshmen often find new positional homes, either prior to August camp or before their second season at the program. (Notable examples include: KeiVarae Russell, moved from RB to CB pre-season 2012; Bennett Jackson, moved from WR to CB prior to his sophomore year, 2011); and Troy Niklas, moved from LB to TE prior to his sophomore season, 2012.)

Regardless of their future positional slotting, the 2014 crop of rookies has a leg up on their freshmen predecessors due to the newly-instituted June practice sessions.

"Absolutely because we always count on freshmen coming in and contributing to what we are trying to do," said Kelly of the new group's inherent advantage. "Usually we would have to wait to August for them to come in but now for them to come in and get to know the terminology and what we are doing is a huge thing.

"I think them coming in earlier will definitely give guys a better chance of competing as a true freshmen."

(Some) Vacancy

At least three true freshmen could benefit from the lack of a proven starter ahead of them on the depth chart. They include:

-- LB Nyles Morgan: Senior Joe Schmidt and sophomore Jaylon Smith are entrenched as starters, though Schmidt's ascent is due partly to a dearth of competition inside. Morgan could spell Schmidt or contend for a starting SAM LB spot pending the weekly opponent.

-- LB Drue Tranquill: Unlike Morgan, Tranquill can't contend at two linebacker positions, but unlike Morgan, Tranquill appears ideally suited for the SAM spot currently occupied -- again, partially by default -- by junior John Turner, a former safety.

-- DE Andrew Trumbetti: At some point, enigmatic senior Ishaq Williams will have to produce, otherwise, members of a suddenly stacked, but wholly inexperienced and equally unproven defensive front seven, will force their way onto the field. Early enrollee Andrew Trumbetti has a motor that won't quit -- if Williams did, this wouldn't be a topic of conversation.

Predictions: Morgan starts multiple games this season, while, assuming good health, Tranquill plays all 13, including a role in the defense's oft-used sub packages. Trumbetti earns valuable reserve snaps reminiscent of Tony Springmann (a redshirt-freshman) circa 2012.

(6) Help Wanted, Needed

The Irish defensive front is high on numbers, low on proven production. As a result, look for one or more of the following "tweeners" to make waves as a situational pass-rusher in his rookie season: Grant Blankenship (likely a DE), Jhonathan Williams (likely a "rush end"), Kolin Hill (likely a rush end), Jonathan Bonner (future DE, likely a rush end this fall).

Likewise, either Jay Hayes (DE) or Daniel Cage (DT) will be needed -- or pressed into action -- at some point next fall.

Predictions: Blankenship cracks the official two-deep but Bonner makes the biggest impact, albeit intermittent. Hayes plays, Cage's eligibility is preserved, as is Hill's…Williams' speed proves too intriguing on special teams to sit.

(5) Stiff Competition

Had he entered the University in either 2012 or 2013, four-star man-to-man coverage maven Nick Watkins would likely have A.) started multiple games (2012), or B.) earned valuable dime package minutes (2013). The presence of KeiVarae Russell, Cody Riggs, Cole Luke, and Devin Butler clouds Watkins' early-season opportunities at cornerback for 2014. He'll have to fight his way to the top.

Tight end Nic Weishar has a chance to earn time as a true freshman should he prove more capable as a pass-catcher than likely No. 3 tight end (or to be fair, tight end "2B") Mike Heuerman. While fans might be inclined to pull for the true freshman, it's doubtless better for the program if Heuerman and Durham Smythe ("2A" to Heuerman's "2B" status) can prove capable as backups to senior Ben Koyack.

It would be ideal for Weishar and fellow tight end prospect Tyler Luatua to follow in the footsteps of Tyler Eifert, John Carlson, and Anthony Fasano and enjoy redshirt-season in 2014. Koyack did not -- and both he and Notre Dame would benefit if he were around for 2015 as well.

As an early enrollee last January, Justin Brent has a leg up on classmate and fellow receiver Corey Holmes entering June practices and August Camp. But both have seven capable, non-freshmen receivers in front of them on the depth chart. And each of those seven can play.

Predictions: Brent plays on ST and makes spot appearances with the offense, but there's too much talent ahead of him to earn regular scrimmage time…Weishar is pressed into action due to a tight end injury and he makes the most of his limited opportunity…Luatua moves to LB and presses for special teams action through August and September before redshirting…Watkins finds the field, first on ST, then from scrimmage, likely as an extra cover man at Florida State.

(9) Well-Preserved?

In both 2012 (Ronnie Stanley) and 2013 (Steve Elmer), Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand were forced to use the services of a true freshman offensive lineman. (Stanley was injured in September of his rookie year and is expected to receive a medical redshirt as a result. Elmer played the entire season.)

This fall, at least seven players are projected as viable offensive line starters with a full 11 linemen populating the roster as non-freshmen. As a result, Quenton Nelson, Alex Bars, Jimmy Byrne, and Sam Mustipher could each be put on the preferred five-year plan up front. Add to that quartet defensive tackle prospect/project Pete Mokwuah, quarterback DeShone Kizer, punter/kicker Tyler Newsome, and linebackers Nile Sykes and Greer Martini, and the 2014 crop should see its fair share of players learning on the scout team during game weeks.

But recent history indicates one from the group listed above will see the field, perhaps two. If it's more, something went wrong in South Bend.

Predictions: Much like potential 2014 OT starter Mike McGlinchey in 2013, Nelson earns a varsity spot during game weeks but his eligibility is preserved…Bars proves to be next in line, but there are far too many seniors and juniors available, not to mention multi-positional athletes up front, for the freshman to see the field…Mustipher shows well as the 2014 scout team center -- and future starter…Byrne hits the scout team -- not to mention Irish defenders -- his natural penchant for the physical starts a few (welcomed) practice field scuffles…Kizer travels with the team but is spared from action…Sykes and Martini settle in as third-string inside and outside 'backers, respectively and earn their stripes on the scout team…Newsome learns from Kyle Brindza…Mokwuah is put on the Paul Longo plan, a la Jarron Jones, circa 2012.

Add it up and I expect a Kelly-era record 12 true freshmen to see action next fall, with 13 a distinct possibility as the youth-filled Irish prepare for a run to the top of the sport in 2015.

FightinGators.com Recommended Stories


Up Next


Tweets