Incoming Impact

We conclude our look at 30 seasons of impact freshmen with projections for the incoming 23 of 2011.

Note: Links to columns featuring the freshmen of the 80s, 90s, and the decade-past can be found at the conclusion of Part II.

Impact Imminent

With due respect to those listed in the groupings below, one Irish freshman stands above the crowd entering August camp:

  • Aaron Lynch (DE): Barring nagging camp injuries, I can't imagine Lynch earning anything less than the No. 3 defensive end role entering the season. He should thrive in a backup role to seniors Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore at defensive end and occasionally outside one of the pair when the Irish line goes to a 4-3 front.

    Quick summer prediction: Look for the bulk of Lynch's tackles-for-loss in 2011 to occur when the Irish are in a 4-3 defensive front.

Immediately in the fold

Their playing time will vary, greatly, but each of the six should be known to casual Irish fans by season's end.

  • George Atkinson (RB): Enters camp in a battle for the No. 3 running back role with fellow freshman Cam McDaniel – and there are no other scholarship options to stand in the pair's way. Both will get reps in August – look for Atkinson to serve as a change of pace ‘back with a chance at kick return duties, where he'll have to beat out, among others, classmate DaVaris Daniels. Atkinson may someday be a wide receiver at the school but his logical launching point is among the depleted running backs unit.

  • Matthias Farley (WR): I can't imagine he's not involved with both the kick and punt coverage units from the outset – the Bennett Jackson of 2011. Though I see him as a future safety, Farley enters the summer in a competitive situation at the back end of the wide receiver rotation (as described in the Davaris Daniels write-up, below).

  • Stephon Tuitt (DE): I've bumped him ahead of early enrollee Ishaq Williams because Tuitt, like Lynch, has the first-year advantage of playing a familiar role – the aggressor along the defensive front. Tuitt's first battle will be vs. surging (and growing) sophomore defensive end Kona Schwenke, who was listed at 285 pounds in the spring media guide. Both should play meaningful minutes though Schwenke likely has the nod entering camp/September.

  • Cam McDaniel (RB): He's the No. 3 or No. 4 running back by the time the team knocks heads with pads for the first time. Opportunity for a backup role exists, and McDaniel could surge ahead of Atkinson due to his familiarity as a read-option runner and vision through the holes.

  • Everett Golson (QB): I'd be shocked if he doesn't play – and if Brian Kelly plays a backup freshman quarterback with two veterans "ahead" of him, he'll likely make an impact.

    Quick summer prediction: You'll see an Everett Golson/Cierre Wood/Theo Riddick shotgun backfield inside the 10-yard line vs. South Florida, failing that, vs. Michigan State (though I'm not sure I want to see it for the first time, in prime time, at The Big House).

Opportunity (will) knock

Special teams openings abound and shaky depth from scrimmage offers a trio within the group a chance to earn backup roles at their respective positions during 2011.

  • Ishaq Williams (OLB): His advantage: five months and 15 practices in the program. His disadvantage? Darius Fleming, Steve Filer, Prince Shembo, and Danny Spond rank as a quality two-deep at OLB entering August. Williams must beat out Filer to guarantee time at CAT, but regardless of the CAT's No. 2, it will be the starter, Fleming, who ranks among the defense's leaders in total snaps next fall. (And should Fleming go down, Shembo could fill-in at the CAT position as well.) Nonetheless, Williams speed, size and relative experience with the program should afford him ample special teams opportunities.

  • Eilar Hardy (S): Standing in Hardy's way of a two-deep spot at safety is converted wide receiver Austin Collinsworth and solid walk-on Chris Salvi (the staff trusts Salvi, I might add). Whether Hardy dents scrimmage for meaningful time is likely irrelevant to his future development (the starting trio of Harrison Smith, Zeke Motta, and Jamoris Slaughter will dominate the snaps), but the freshman prospect could become a starter on special teams by mid-to-late August.

    Quick summer prediction: Collinsworth earns the final two-deep safety spot exiting August camp, but competition will continue for a calendar year as Hardy, Collinsworth, and at least two others (Chris Badger, Farley?) battle for spots behind Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta in 2012.

  • Kyle Brindza (K/P): The field goal kicking job is unlikely to be available (unless Brindza is actually the reincarnation of Morten Andersen), but the kick-off role is there for the taking. 2011 Lou Groza award finalist David Ruffer booted 11 touchbacks last fall – or three times as many as did Irish kickers from the 2007-2009 seasons, but Ruffer was briefly displaced in the role by Nick Tausch last October, and Brindza purportedly has the strongest leg on the squad. The best man for the job will win the role.

    The spring offered little in terms of punting opportunities (the Irish practiced inside for the majority of the 15 practices) but consider Brindza in open competition vs. sometimes spectacular, but thus-far inconsistent junior, Ben Turk.

  • Davaris Daniels (WR): The Irish don't have a proven No. 6 wide receiver (untested senior Deion Walker or converted QB Luke Massa are slotted presently). Daniels, or fellow frosh Matthias Farley (previewed above), has a chance to earn that spot from the outset.

    Kelly's 2010 offense rarely employed six wide receivers in a game, but position coach Tony Alford noted the need for a sextet at the ready entering every contest. Additionally, Kelly stated in April he'll require seven wideouts for practice purposes (the rest will serve on the scout team for game weeks). While competing for a "varsity" receiver spot, Daniels is also an immediate candidate for kick return duties next to junior Theo Riddick, and if he can consistently catch a punt, should at least challenge for that role as well.

  • Ben Councell (OLB): Strictly a projection due to his speed, size, and skill set that seems ideal for Irish special teams – and those units won't enjoy success with an exclusive list of DB, RB, TE, and WR on the coverage/return teams.

  • Jarrett Grace (ILB): Though I'm high on junior Dan Fox as a No. 3 inside linebacker, the Irish, in truth, have nothing close to a proven commodity behind starters Manti Te'o and Carlo Calabrese. While unlikely, it's plausible Grace could beat out sophomore Kendall Moore (red-shirted last year), and oft-injured seniors Anthony McDonald and David Posluszny, thereby crashing the two-deep inside. As with Councell, the quickest path to playing time is as a member of special teams, where aggressive hitters or willing blockers are always welcomed.

Somewhat-Educated Guess for those above: Nine of the 12 listed will earn playing time as true freshmen.

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