Early Risers?

A quintet of semester freshmen look to follow the successes of their predecessors in Notre Dame's Early Enrollee program.

Collectively, they represent No.'s 17 through 21 in the program's history with the practice, though that dates a mere six years.

Individually, the forthcoming careers of Kyle Brindza, Brad Carrico, Everett Golson, Aaron Lynch and Ishaq Williams are likely to take divergent paths.

But judging from the success rate of their predecessors, the quintet has a strong chance, either athletically, academically, or in both pursuits, to succeed in their next four or five years at Notre Dame.

They're the 2010 "Early Enrollees," a practice that began in 2006 with Chris Stewart, James Aldridge, and George West, and has peaked over the last two January's with two sets of five Brian Kelly recruits arriving on campus ahead of their future freshmen classmates.

That arrival is intended to offer a leg up – athletically, socially, and in the classroom. But it's a sink or swim proposition as their 16 predecessors can attest.

Not always a home run

Jones, Clausen, Stewart, and Aldridge rank as obvious success stories and walking advertisements for the continuation – and perhaps extension – of the early enrollee program. Though it's not without its share of swings and misses:

2006

James Aldridge: Graduated in three and a half years (May '09) with a psychology degree and spent the summer of '09 studying Dutch art abroad.

Chris Stewart: Graduated in three and a half years (May '09) with a history degree. Stewart was accepted to the University of Notre Dame Law School in April 2010. Will pursue an NFL career prior to returning to his law pursuits.

George West: Graduated in May '10 with a degree in finance. West scored a touchdown the first time he touched the ball inside Notre Dame Stadium but was replaced in the lineup by an influx of wide receiver talent in 2008.

2007

Jimmy Clausen: Set numerous single-season passing records in '09 then elected to bypass his senior season (2010) to enter the NFL Draft in which he was selected in the second round by the Carolina Panthers.

Armando Allen: Finished his Irish career as the school's all-time leading receiver among running backs and 10th in program history with 2,560 total yards.

Gary Gray: The 5th year senior has appeared in 33 games over the last three seasons with 20 starts to his credit. Gray emerged as one of the team's three best overall players in 2010, his official senior season.

2008

Sean Cwynar: Started four games last season at nose guard in place of injured senior Ian Williams (the Irish allowed two offensive touchdowns with Cwynar as the starting nose guard over that span). Cwynar was withheld from action as a freshman in '08 and has three seasons of eligibility remaining. He missed the recent spring session recovering from off-season foot surgery.

Trevor Robinson: Has started 27 games in three seasons, earning three starts as a true freshman in 2008 (the fifth true freshman to start a game on the offensive line in the history of the program).

2009

E.J. Banks: No longer with the program and did not appear in a game for the Irish. Was suspended for the 2010 football season though he did return as a member of the Notre Dame Scout Team last fall.

Zeke Motta: Earned a monogram as a true freshman in 2010 and started 8 of 13 games last fall. Currently leads in a dogfight vs. senior Jamoris Slaughter for the starting safety role opposite team captain Harrison Smith.

Tyler Stockton: Appeared in six games last season after being withheld from action in 2009. Stockton has missed the 2011 spring session with a sprained left knee.

2010

Chris Badger: Expected to return from a two-year mission in Ecuador for the 2012 season. Badger took part in spring 2010 as an early enrollee before deciding upon and departing for said mission. The Provo, Utah native will have four seasons of eligibility remaining upon his return.

Spencer Boyd: Cornerback prospect left the University last summer after taking part in the 2010 spring session and semester. Has since transferred to South Florida, Notre Dame's opening opponent this fall.

Tai-ler Jones: Gainesville, GA native likely to start in 2011 as a sophomore but will rank, at worst, as the team's fourth receiver heading into August camp.

Tommy Rees: Undefeated as a starter and set freshman passing record in his first extended appearance, throwing for 354 yards in an October 31 loss to Tulsa.

Lo Wood: Appeared in 12 games last season, mainly as a member of the Irish coverage units. Battling for a nickel role with the 2011 Irish secondary and ranks as the third cornerback entering spring's final week.

Success on and away from the gridiron

2007 January enrollee Jimmy Clausen enjoyed the most statistical success between lines, setting program records en route to a second-round selection in the 2010 NFL Draft.

Graduated wide receiver George West made the first on-field impact among the school's semester enrollees, scoring a touchdown the first time he touched the pigskin in a collegiate game – an 11-yard end around inside the House that Rockne Built to begin a route of 2006 September rout of Purdue.

Academically, it would tough to beat former Law Student and three-year offensive line starter Chris Stewart, though that career is on hold as Stewart believes an NFL career beckons. Of course, classmate James Aldridge could give him a run for his money, at least in terms of varied academic pursuits.

And this year's squad will enjoy the leadership of eight former semester enrollees, with defensive stalwart Gary Gray and 2010 season-saver Tommy Rees the most well-known of the group. Of course, sophomore Tai-ler Jones remains the most precocious of the collection – unofficially earning a starting role no less than two weeks into his first spring practice session, then making good on that promise with a Game One start last September vs. Purdue, the first for a true freshman wide receiver at the program since Milt Jackson started the season opener of 1982.

Jones noted last spring that early enrollment, while no small task, was well worth the risk.

"The most important advantage has been getting adapted to the academic aspect of college, especially at Notre Dame where the academics are tops in the nation," Jones said last spring. "Getting a semester ahead (is key) whereas when I come into football season next fall, I'll already have some of the credits that the freshmen (need)."

One year later, Jones has as many receiving touchdowns (3) as any active member of the Notre Dame team. Without a certain suspended star in tow, Jones ranks as the most seasoned starter of a thin wide receiver corps. The fact that it's his third practice "season" rather than his second is not lost on the undersized competitor.

Jones has starting experience at two of three receiver positions (X and slot) and is well-versed in the third.

"It helps because our offense is concepts and playing each (position) helps me learn the concepts," he said following a recent practice. "We're moving around a lot more this spring than last spring. There are a lot of more formations where I'm moving inside and Theo is moving (to) single receiver. (Robby) Toma too. It's shifting more this year than last year."

As for his advice for this season's EE's?

"I try to talk to them about how to do their work or use Adam Sargent in Academic Services because that helped me a lot," Jones noted.

Worlds Apart

Extensive film study. Opponents 4-5 years your elder. Opponents (much) bigger, (much) stronger, and faster. Shockingly challenging classes. South Bend weather (and it was miserable upon arrival and 90 percent of the days since). And the added reality that all of the above is unavoidable.

There aren't many life experiences a 17-year old can draw upon when he hits Notre Dame's campus during what should be his final high school semester. He can brace for a daily academic and athletic grind and for 8,000 students of which he may share little common ground, but there's no manual to better prepare him for the challenge.

There are, however, 60-plus accepting teammates.

"The team is great," said Ishaq Williams. "As soon as we came if felt like we were part of the family. No hazing, no nonsense. It felt like we were automatically part of the team."

Williams' unofficial mentor is also the leader at his future position, CAT linebacker Darius Fleming.

"He's been a great help, like a bigger brother," Williams said. "He tells me all the plays, tells me what to I have to do. And he asks me questions so I can understand better."

Williams' crash course at the challenging CAT position ranks among the toughest tasks faced by the 2011 EE's. Then again, at least he's not wearing a camera on his head to track every waking glance.

"I had it on one time," said Everett Golson of the 2011 practice addition known as helmet-cam. "It helped, but I do get chewed out for (mistakes because of it). But it's a neat technology."

Golson, like Tommy Rees last spring, has endured trial-by-fire under center during his first college practices. His trio of competitors at the position knows more, have seen more, and have endured more through previous program experience.

But Golson is closing that gap. Quickly.

"He's always in the play room," said sophomore QB Andrew Hendrix of Golson. "That's a man working hard to get where he needs to be. It's inspiring to all of us. The man has a cannon and he obviously has some wheels. He's got a lot of talent and he's working hard to turn it into something."

Helping him toward that goal is the lead candidate for a 2011 starting spot, senior Dayne Crist. That altruistic act at first surprised Golson, a player technically trying to take the signal-caller's job in either 2011, 2012, or both.

"That's the funny thing; I asked him about that," Golson said of receiving sage advice from his competitor. "You don't see that too much, but Dayne's a real good guy and has a good heart. He said that somebody did it for him, so he's doing it for us. That's the thing about him. He pays respect to others before and those coming up."

Golson offered that the quartet of quarterbacks are competitors, but not necessarily competing.

"The quarterback group as a whole doesn't look at it as a competition. We're competing, but helping each other at the same time and we're working at the common goal of winning a national championship. So whoever's best for the job (will win)."

They've all been there

Also receiving a helping hand is the ballyhooed Lynch, both from his closest competitor for a key backup defensive end role and the unit's top dog.

"Prince Shembo's helping me. Manti (Te'o). Everybody's giving me help. Kona (Schwenke), they're all helping me," Lynch said.

"There's a transition," Lynch continued of his assimilation to the college game. "The linemen are a lot bigger so I have to bring more strength and speed off the ball. Academically it's a lot harder than I thought, but I work hard and do what I can do.

"I'm glad I came in to play spring ball, get the feel for upperclassmen linemen," he continued. "It's a big jump compared to (arriving in the summer).

Williams conquers with his classmate that the adjustment isn't easy.

"I'm still concerned about my progress though I'm use to the environment," Williams admitted. "I'm still concerned about how I'll end up. Time management is an adjustment, the speed of everything is way different."

Pressed for his most difficult class to date, Williams didn't hesitate.

"Anthropology."

While the study of humankind serves as Williams' most vexing current problem, for Lynch, that moment has already occurred – between the lines.

"I've been put on my butt a few times," he laughed.

At least he'll be better prepared for that reality next fall.

Note: We'll have more on semester freshmen Brad Carrico and Kyle Brindza in a future column.


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