23 players faxed letters of intent to head coach Brian Kelly in February 2011. Two others transferred to the University with one original member since flying south. The end result is a 24-man group still on campus representing the Irish class of 2011.
Ten have played with 14 others ready to grace the field this fall. Below is a status update on each of the 10 that have already made their collegiate debuts. Part II this afternoon will examine the 14 red-shirt freshmen entering 2012 camp and offer an overview on potential starters for 2012.
Right out of the GateIncluding transfer Aaron Lynch (now at South Florida), five 2011 Irish freshman earned time from scrimmage in the first month of their collegiate careers. Each is projected to play a major role again this fall.
Stephon Tuitt: The current group's top talent, Tuitt's massive frame (6'6" 295) blended with a quick first step and raw power suggests a breakout campaign from both the right defensive end spot and as an interior player (DT, even NG) in the team's preferred nickel and dime packages. Tuitt's playmaking acumen does not rival that of departed bookend Aaron Lynch, but the former's versatility makes him one of the most important players on the Irish roster. Tuitt earned three starts and played in nine games last year, sitting out one (Michigan) due to coach's decision; another (Purdue) due to suspension for missing class; and two more after contracting Mono in mid-November, returning for the Bowl game where he recorded three tackles and a sack.
Troy Niklas: Started in emergency relief at the Dog LB position in a convincing win over Michigan State last fall and starred on the team's kick coverage units, eventually earning a role on the return group as well. His rare mixture of power, straight-line speed, and agility made him a potential weapon as a stand-up pass rusher from multiple looks during his freshman season. Niklas is now a tight end, likely serving as a roaming hammer in the Irish running attack while All-America Tyler Eifert handles pass-catching duties downfield. Niklas ended the spring with a concussion that sidelined him for the final week of spring practice. He played in 12 games, starting one, as a true freshman.
Ben Koyack: Made his scrimmage debut in his home state against the Pittsburgh Panthers in Game Four last fall, recording his only reception of the season. Koyack, who played in the final 12 games of the 2011 season, was in a dead heat with redshirt-sophomore Alex Welch for the No. 2 tight end spot at the end of spring ball (the former recorded a touchdown catch in the annual Blue Gold game).
Ishaq Williams: Technically the first freshman to play last fall (a blocker on the opening kick return) Williams played more from scrimmage in September than in any month last season. He enters 2012 August camp in a battle with junior Prince Shembo for the starting Cat linebacker position. Both will play often and play varied roles in the team's nickel and dime packages as well, most likely at defensive end positions in 4-man fronts. Much is expected of the 6'5" 255-pounder after just six tackles in 11 spot appearances last fall.
Burners in the Backfield?Both will play often on special teams, but the emergence of either from scrimmage would greatly aid the Irish offense this fall:
George Atkinson III: At worst, Atkinson enters his sophomore season as one of the nation's best kick returners. The next step: adding punt return duties to his repertoire, followed closely by weekly contributions as a runner from scrimmage. Cierre Wood is the starter, of that there is no doubt. Wood's classmate Theo Riddick will play often, mostly at running back. It's up to Atkinson to protect the football (a problem in the spring) and know his assignments in the passing game/pass protection, because the 6'2" 210-plus pounder can not only be a game-breaker once in the open field, but a player that can run through tackles to get there.
Amir Carlisle: Transferred to Notre Dame in January and had his waiver request to sit out the 2012 season granted by the NCAA. Carlisle is eligible to play but most overcome a broken ankle (all officially reports cite the ankle, not a bone in the foot as I noted recently) that forced him to miss all of spring practice. Carlisle's direct competition for playing time is Riddick, along with incoming players such as Keivarae Russell (RB/Slot), Davonte' Neal (slot) and to a lesser extent, senior Robby Toma (slot) and Atkinson (RB). As a freshman at USC last fall, Carlisle finished with 118 rushing yards on just 19 carries (6.2 per rush) and a long gain of 26 yards. He added 7 receptions for 41 yards and a touchdown.
First Year Follow-upFour other freshmen made their field debuts last season and each will play a role this fall, either from scrimmage, on the special teams, or both.
Josh Atkinson: Made his debut in Game Five vs. Air Force and appeared in each of the remaining contests, largely as a member of the kick coverage unit (Atkinson saved a touchdown on a 59-yard return by Wake Forest in early November). He began the spring behind boundary cornerback Bennett Jackson but moved to the field side to compete with junior Lo Wood near the tail end of the practice sessions. Look for Atkinson to serve as the team's No. 3 cornerback, a role that affords ample playing time throughout the season. The sophomore will likely be a key member of the Irish "run teams" (kick and punt coverage; kick and punt return).
Chase Hounshell: Like Atkinson, Hounshell first appeared in Week Five vs. Air Force, recording four tackles (his season total). Hounshell appeared in six of the team's final seven games, missing the Wake Forest contest. He sat out and was later limited in the spring while recovering from off-season shoulder surgery but is expected to be 100 percent for August camp. Hounshell enters the fall among the team's Top 6 defensive linemen and likely third or fourth in the pecking order as a true DE.
Cam McDaniel: Played in eight games, debuting against Air Force, and primarily on special teams. McDaniel switched from running back to cornerback following the transfer of 2012 early enrollee Tee Shepard. Though he's unlikely to be a consistent member of the two-deep at the position, his late-spring improvement, natural aggressiveness and innate football talent suggested McDaniel could carve out a niche role in the defensive backfield (potentially Dime linebacker with Austin Collinsworth sidelined for the season). Regardless, McDaniel will be a regular on the Irish run teams, joining the Atkinson twins and a pair of red-shirt freshmen to be detailed in Part II.
Kyle Brindza: Won and held down the team's kick-off specialist role as a true freshman, averaging 65.4 yards per boot with 12 touchbacks and 4 penalties for kicks out of bounds. Brindza enters a battle with senior Nick Tausch for that role as well as the field goal kicker spot for 2012. Look for the sophomore to win the former but backup Tausch at the latter, at least to begin September.
Note: Part II covering the 14 red-shirt freshmen will be published Friday afternoon.