Though low in number with just 15 remaining four years after National Signing Day, several of those that fought through both a coaching change, red-shirt seasons, and a tough first season with six losses have since shined on the field, As important, they've emerged as leaders of their units, side of scrimmage, and the locker room as a whole entering their final seasons.
Considering the level of developed talent included below, 16 losses in 38 contests to date seems incongruent with the class's production and cohesion.
Star Billing: Manti Te'o and Tyler EifertThe All-American duo entered campus under far different circumstances: Te'o the nation's best linebacker; Eifert arguably the second-best Notre Dame recruit from his own high school in a two-year period. But by midway through their junior season it would be impossible to know who had been the more highly touted high school prospect, a credit to the latter as Te'o has produced at a historical level.
Te'o enters 2012 eighth on the program's all-time tackles list and with good health and standard production, will likely finish in third place at season's end. More important than total tackles accrued by a middle linebacker are Te'o's 28.5 tackles-for-loss (he should finish near a host of players tied for #3 through #5 on the list if he continues his recent pace) and to his credit, and with the exception of last season's USC contest, the proud star offered standout efforts in Irish defeats last fall (a combined 44 tackles including 4 for loss and two shared sacks vs. USF, UM, Stanford, and FSU).
Eifert emerged from a string of top tier collegiate tight ends as the most productive of all, besting the single-season and career numbers of predecessors Anthony Fasano, John Carlson, and Kyle Rudolph. And he has a season to own every meaning tight end receiving record formerly held by three-time All-America, Ken MacAfee (1974-77).
Their production and performance ranks among the top tier of class tandems in recent program history.
On the CuspThree other seniors are among the team's 10 best players with the ability to excel at a national level in 2012. Each has a 5th-year of eligibility in 2013:
Cierre Wood: Only six former Irish players ran for more yards in a single season than did Wood in 2011. Should Wood match last year's 1,102 yards in 2012 he'll stand as one of three Irish runners (Autry Denson and Darius Walker are the others) to top the 1,000-yard barrier in consecutive seasons over the last 25 years, and the only member of the trio with a chance to do so with an average of better than five yards per carry.
Zack Martin: The two-year starter is already decorated as a two-time Guardian of the Year as the team's best offensive lineman. No player has won the award three times over its x-year history. Martin is a dark horse candidate for All-America/Lombardi mention at season's end, though Notre Dame's final record would need to be better than expected.
Chris Watt: Should finish as a three-year starter after taking an expected 5th season next fall. The former 5-star recruit and #2 ranked guard by Scout.com in 2009 was a late bloomer, earning his first start last season, but he finished 2011 and the spring of 2012 viewed by most as a top 10 player on the current roster, and one with the most room to still improve in what could be a dominant 2012 by the line's left side.
The Supporting CastEach has started in the past and with the likely exception of Calabrese, serve as the main starter at his position for the upcoming season. Two can return for a 5th season in 2013.
Theo Riddick: Aside from a four-game stretch early in 2010, his first season as a slot receiver, Riddick has produced modest numbers in extensive playing time. Back where he belongs as a running back (and occasional slot target), Riddick could better his career yardage total (1,145 combined receiving/rushing) and touchdowns (6) as a senior weapon. But that's hearsay from a player who's not shown a modicum of consistency since he caught 33 balls in a four-game span two years ago.
Zeke Motta: A part-time starter in both 2010 and '11, Motta assumes the full-time free safety role this fall. Solid but rarely a player of impact, Motta will look to pick up where he left off last season when he produced two of his five best career games to end the 2011 season. Has 38 games, 16 starts, and 102 tackles under his belt, never missing a game since joining the program.
Dan Fox: Unexpectedly beat out classmate Carlo Calabrese for the starting Will linebacker role last August and never relinquished it. Fox missed most of spring ball with a sprained PCL, making good health the only question hanging over his 2012 season as the staff is quite high on his production and potential. Fox has started 13 games, played in all 26 since his 2009 red-shirt freshman season, and accrued 68 tackles.
Robby Toma: Graduates from curiosity (Toma is a fan favorite as well as a player lauded by astute NBC announcer and NFL talent scout, Mike Mayock.) to major player for his final season. Toma has played in 22 of the 26 games in the Brian Kelly era, starting six. He has 36 catches for 415 yards with a touchdown. Toma burned his redshirt season with sparse action vs. Boston College, and Washington State as a true freshman under Charlie Weis.
Carlo Calabrese: Split time with Fox last season though the former played more snaps and bettered him in every statistical category as part of the Will linebacker tandem. Calabrese was at his best prior to mid-season 2010, excelling in his first six games as a starter as one of the team's true defensive surprise. He injured his hamstring in a poor performance at Navy and has had little impact since. A forthcoming court date for misdemeanor arrest hangs over his senior summer. Calabrese has 97 tackles in 8 starts/24 career games played since sitting out 2009 as a true freshman.
The SpecialistsRarely will a class include three specialists. Rarer still will the trio eventually represent 1/5 of its graduating members.
Nick Tausch: Set since-eclipsed program record with 14 consecutive field goals made as a true freshman in 2009. Tausch enters 2012 15 for 18 for his career (he missed his first attempt, then two straight following his record streak) and has attempted just one field goal during the Kelly era. Tausch was withheld from action last year as a true junior and is thus eligible through 2013.
Ben Turk: A regular starter since midway through his freshman year, Turk has a 39.0 average on 147 punts, forcing 50 fair catches while dropping 53 boots inside opponents' 20-yard line vs. 9 touchbacks (the staff looks for an 8-1 ratio on I-20 vs. touchbacks.)
Jordan Cowart: Notre Dame's first scholarship long-snapper held the role throughout 2009 and 2010 then for part 13 games last fall (Cowart injured his hand in Week Five at Purdue). He emerged as the team's short-snapper for each of the nine games he played last year, a first after two seasons exclusively in the LS role. Cowart has never had a punt blocked.
Program PlayersA pair of members from the class have yet to see extended action.
Tyler Stockton: Has played in six games, all in 2010, registering his only career sack at Boston College which also ranks as his only career tackle. Lost the end of 2010 to shoulder surgery and did not play in 2011 after missing spring ball due to a sprained PCL. Stockton was also withheld from action as a true freshman in 2009 under Weis. A former 4-star Scout.com prospect and the 121st overall player in the 2009 class. ESPN ranked Stockton as its third-best defensive tackle in the '09 cycle. Listed as a nose guard but appears to earn more work at defensive end in the media's practice viewings.
Jake Golic: Played in three games in both 2010 and 2011 after serving on the Scout Team in 2009 under weis. Was a 2-star prospect per Scout.com and has battled injuries (a broken list last fall plus rumors of back injury since). If healthy, Golic will look to earn a starting spot on the Irish special teams in his final season.
Note: A follow-up column examining the danger of low-total recruiting classes, a situation that bookends the 2012 Irish roster, is forthcoming.