In Brian Kelly’s first game at Notre Dame, versus Purdue in 2010, the Fighting Irish opening kickoff featured five true freshmen in the lineup, an unofficial record to begin a new football season.
Corey Robinson hyperextended his elbow on this catch last Saturday, but he could still factor into the receiving rotation.
Bennett Jackson, Lo Wood, Austin Collinsworth, Prince Shembo and Danny Spond were all on that unit, while classmate TJ Jones even received one of the starting nods at wide receiver. At the time, so many rookies playing seemed to be a negative reflection on the program’s lack of bodies following 3-9, 7-6 and 6-6 campaigns.
Four years later, the Notre Dame program is in stronger shape while coming off a BCS National Championship appearance — yet Kelly might still see more freshmen in the lineup than he has in any of his first three seasons.
Of the 20 freshmen who reported to August camp in 2010, nine saw action that year. The following season it was 10 out of 23, highlighted by Freshman All-American Aaron Lynch (now at South Florida) and Stephon Tuitt along the defensive line. Last year, the smallish 16-man group saw nine get some game action, led by another Freshman All-American in cornerback KeiVarae Russell.
This year, half of the 24-man class that is rated a consensus top-four haul — Kelly’s highest ever — could see the field, especially on special teams. Although Kelly has stated that putting current front-line players on special teams to upgrade that unit will be a priority, come opening day against Temple on Aug. 31, there could be five or even more freshmen on the coverage and return units.
“We’re going to bring in a number of freshmen that I’m certain are going to be involved in special teams, especially some of those bigger-bodied guys,” Kelly said.
Among the first three he mentioned were the linebacker trio of Michael Deeb, Doug Randolph and Jaylon Smith. Last year, outside linebacker Romeo Okwara turned only 17 on June 17 but still started on special teams coverage, demonstrating just how cherished first-year, big-bodied and swift linebackers are on the special teams unit.
Also mentioned on special teams by Kelly were safety Max Redfield and cornerbacks Devin Butler and Rashad Kinlaw. That’s not even including another cornerback, Cole Luke, who might have a legitimate opportunity to work into the two-deep on defense the way Russell did last year. Naturally, five-star defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes, along with running backs Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston, will have their opportunities to make their presence felt right away.
Among the five early enrollees this year — wide receivers James Onwualu and Corey Robinson, tight end Mike Heuerman, offensive tackle Steve Elmer and quarterback Malik Zaire — the one Kelly singled out as physically most prepared to aid special teams was the 6-1, 215-pound Onwualu.
Malik Zaire (8) will likely bide his time at quarterback as a 2013 freshman.
“He’s such a conditioned athlete,” Kelly said of Onwualu even prior to spring practice. “He can play with the veterans.”
When Shembo was asked last week who he thought could surprise most, in any class, for the 2013 season, he cited Onwualu and Robinson first (sophomore slot C.J. Prosise was not included by Shembo because he noted he already saw what he could do on the scout team last fall, so his ascent this spring is not a surprise to him).
At an extremely lanky 6-4, 197, Robinson is not as physically advanced as Onwualu. However, he has demonstrated remarkable hands throughout the spring, including a sensational one-handed grab last Saturday of a fade down the sideline in which he hyperextended an elbow, which will sideline him for this weekend’s Blue-Gold Game.
“He’s not going to be ready at any time where we want him next year, but he’s certainly somebody who can help us win football games in a role,” Kelly said. “He’s going to be a role player, kind of like [receiver] Chris Brown was and you can say, ‘Hey, Chris helped us win a game against Oklahoma.’
“I think that’s how you’ve got to look at Corey Robinson. No, he’s not a finished product yet. He’s got to get bigger, he’s got to get stronger, but he does have a skill set. When you throw that ball up in the air, he comes down with it. I think there’s a place for him in our offense but he wouldn’t be a featured guy like a [DaVaris] Daniels might be.”
Similar to Robinson, the 6-4, 218-pound Heuerman has a lot more physical growth ahead of him. With juniors Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack and senior Alex Welch all ahead of him at tight end, and maybe walk-on Joey Brooks having a chance to see some action as a fifth-year senior, it might be prudent to preserve a year of eligibility for Heuerman, who Kelly says has “got a burst to him.”
The two positions that always seem most likely to preserve a year of eligibility as a freshman are offensive line and quarterback, which is where Elmer and Zaire come in.
From 2007-12, Notre Dame recruited 19 offensive linemen. Only one — Trevor Robinson in 2008 — did not preserve a year of eligibility as a freshman. Last year, Ronnie Stanley did come in for one play against Michigan when Zack Martin’s helmet came off during the game and he had to come out, but Stanley was sidelined the rest of the year thereafter.
At 6-6, 317 pounds, Elmer already looks like a veteran college lineman physically. However, unless a rash of injuries hit the line, the preference, per usual, is to preserve a fifth year for an offensive lineman while letting Stanley be the top backup behind both Martin and Christian Lombard at the tackle slots.
Kelly did note that in full team scrimmages, Elmer can hold his own.
“Generally those guys that are big, physical young kids, they look really good [in uniform] but they don’t play the game as well,” Kelly said. “He plays 11-on-11 football pretty good. He’s got good instincts, he understands front-side, back-side combinations. He’s still a work in progress obviously as a pass-setter. In the run game he’s pretty accomplished.
“So I think he’s surprised us a little bit in that he’s shown a pretty good sense and awareness of how to play the game at that position outside his physical abilities.”
Since the turn of the century, Matt LoVecchio (2000), Brady Quinn (2003), Jimmy Clausen (2007) and Tommy Rees (2010) all started as freshman quarterbacks at Notre Dame. However, the trend in recent years has been to not force them into action before their time, including five-star prospects such as Dayne Crist (2008) and Gunner Kiel (2012, but now transferring to Cincinnati), or even a gifted but raw early enrollee such as Everett Golson (2011).
With Golson now the clear starter and seniors Rees and Andrew Hendrix (who also sat out as a freshman in 2010) the seasoned and more than capable backups, 2013 spells a redshirt campaign for Zaire while he works on his accuracy, footwork and other fundamentals, although Kelly has praised his acumen for the game.
“From the mental end of things, he’s in the top group of guys that I’ve coached that really understands the nuances of the position and can understand coverages, rotations and pressures and movement keys and things like that,” Kelly said of Zaire at the halfway point of spring. “He’s really at a high level there.
“We have to tighten him up a little bit: quicker release, got to work on his footwork — the things we had to work on with Everett — but he’s really got a good mind for the game.”