Spring Forward: Redshirt freshmen

IrishEyes begins its spring column series with a look at the team's 10 redshirt-freshmen and their fight for playing time from mid-March through next fall.

Spring Question #1: Who's this year's Carlo Calabrese?

That is, who among a group of 10 redshirt-freshmen will not only improve and emerge over the course of the spring, summer and fall camp, but also cement a role in the Notre Dame starting lineup?

In 2010, Calabrese was one of two redshirt-frosh to earn an opening day starting role. The other, Zack Martin, proved a revelation: one of the team's top 10 players and its best offensive linemen at season's end.

Martin's unforeseen success is unlikely to be duplicated as it's exceedingly rare for a freshman withheld from action to play at such a high level as a sophomore. (As well, Notre Dame's preponderance of veteran returnees among its two-deep lends to fewer competitive opportunities than at this point last year.)

Like Calabrese and Martin, classmates Tyler Eifert and Cierre Wood eventually earned starting roles last fall – both found a spot in their respective position's rotation prior to ascending to a starting role.

Backup guard Chris Watt joined the quartet as a rotation member, earning playing time as the season progressed at guard after reportedly challenging for Chris Stewart's starting role late into fall camp.

Watt will likely earn that starting spot this spring, joining four returning offensive linemen, only two of whom (Taylor Dever and Trevor Robinson) will exhaust their eligibility at season's end.

Five redshirt freshmen played an instrumental role in Notre Dame's season-ending win streak. Two earned opening day starts. Can such depth again emerge from 10 untested sophomores-to-be in 2011?

Our (admittedly) two-months-too-early breakdown of the group is as follows:

Ample Opportunity: Louis Nix and Andrew Hendrix

Likely the former more so than the latter.

At 6'3" and mid-300-something pounds, Nix improved enough from August through bowl preparations in December to twice be noted by his head coach as a player who starred in the team's late-season, youth-filled scrimmages. Less important (but oh-so-intriguing) was the comment of two separate Irish players that Nix had become a practice force – and not only against his underclass peers – by season's end.

Standing in his way is still-undervalued season-saver Sean Cwynar, a senior-to-be (two years of eligibility remaining) who anchored the Irish front wall during its entire November run of defensive excellence. Cwynar is also the only Irish player with a major injury concern: back surgery (from which he's reportedly progressed well) and a stress fracture in his foot that could keep him out for another 4-6 weeks.

A rotation spot at nose guard is there for the taking for Nix, a player who due to weight issues just five months ago was considered light years away from competing at a BCS level. If Nix can make noise in the spring – and progress throughout the summer entering fall camp – he could earn a spot behind a healthy Cwynar at nose guard, thus allowing senior DE/NG Hafis Williams to remain in a valuable swing role on the defensive line.

QB1-2-3-4? Brian Kelly has noted that four quarterbacks will compete for snaps in the spring – that working each of the scholarship six at the position would hinder the development of those at the top of the chart.

Tommy Rees will be among that group. So too would be a healthy Dayne Crist. And if you listened to Kelly at any point over the 2010 season, Andrew Hendrix appears likely to be part of the competing quartet as well.

Kelly used the standard nomenclature to tout Hendrix's skill set after a season of Scout Team duty: he can extend plays, ball comes out quickly, make all the throws, maneuverability, etc.

Now Hendrix must overcome what Crist and Rees faced last spring, and especially last fall:

Failure. Because it's the only certainty that awaits the first-year player as he tries to win a job with the varsity rather than slinging it with the Scout Team.

Next Man In: True backups

Consider it a major surprise if any of the six unseats the position's current starter before the season's opening kick-off. But injuries, scheme tweaks, vast individual improvement, and the football gods have proven that nothing is as it seems in February.

Christian Lombard and Tate Nichols (OT): Both regarded highly by Kelly last August; both should compete for backup offensive tackle roles behind returning starters Zack Martin and Taylor Dever. In other words: they're an injury away from game day battle. (They're also a spring evaluation away from a move to guard where Mike Golic serves as the only veteran backup at present).

Kendall Moore (ILB): The defensive Scout Team Player of the Year won't beat out Manti Te'o. It's highly unlikely he'll beat out Calabrese, and he'll have his hands full vs. returning senior Anthony McDonald or possibly junior and former OLB Dan Fox this spring, summer, and August.

But the level of play at the WILL Linebacker position – that occupied by Calabrese last fall – was elevated by since-departed senior Brian Smith in November. In five starts to conclude 2010, Smith was a more complete linebacker than was his sophomore teammate in the first eight games last season.

However minute, there's a glimmer of starting spot hope for all WILL competitors over the next seven months and early next season.

Cameron Roberson (RB): I have a feeling the offensive Scout Team Player of the Year enters the spring as running back #2A rather than #2 behind Cierre Wood. Though I'm confident the perceived #2, Jonas Gray, can succeed with opportunity and consistent reps, the senior has yet to prove his wares over an entire month, much less a season.

The penciled-in name could (and likely will) change from game-to-game, but Notre Dame's No. 2 running back will receive ample playing time next fall.

Alex Welch (TE): Like Nichols, Lombard, Rees and T.J. Jones, Welch was singled-out by Kelly as an offensive freshman "that could play, now" as late as August 17.

The presence of Kyle Rudolph, Mike Ragone and the aforementioned Eifert turned Welch into a luxury item in 2010. In 2001, Eifert is the clear-cut starter while Ragone provides a physical presence as the No. 2 tight end.

But Notre Dame fans and coaches have waited four years for Ragone to make an impact as a pass-catcher. Welch might already be ahead of the likely 5th-year senior as a targeted weapon for Irish QBs. His ability to handle blocking responsibilities – and to hold off highly regarded freshman Ben Koyack and junior Jake Golic – will determine his role next fall.

Developmental cycle continues

Not all redshirt-freshmen will contend for a role – or see the field – as sophomores. Look for defensive linemen Bruce Heggie to continue his progress in search of future field time, and for quarterback Luke Massa to possibly help elsewhere if the athletic second-year player remains on the outside looking-in at QB.

The last of 10 players withheld from action last fall, outside linebacker Justin Utupo, is an interesting case. On the surface, his position group includes competition from stalwart Darius Fleming, super-rookie Prince Shembo, senior Steve Filer and early enrollee Ishaq Williams, not to mention the possibility that Dan Fox will switch back to his OLB role to escape an equally crowded house inside. Three more freshmen OLB competitors will join the fold in the fall.

Of those listed, only Fleming and Shembo have proven they handle the rigors of scrimmage action, and there's a chance both will remain at the CAT position for 2011. The frustrating (and likely frustrated) Filer is the odds-on favorite to finally emerge in the vacated DOG linebacker role.

In other words, it could be open season on the outside, and Utupo thus joins the handful of his classmates listed above that could be the Next Man In, in 2011.

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