But like his first two rosters from 2010 and '11, one player stands about among his peers.
"He's lapping the field," said Kelly of senior left tackle Zack Martin. "He's that good on a consistent basis. I think (offensive line) coach (Harry Hiestand) is grading him out in the 90s where guys are grading in the 60s and 70s. He's just a consistent player for us at a high level, and has been that way all year."
As the defending two-time winner of the team's Guardian of the Year award, Martin's been that way since Kelly's arrival. Only one other Irish player (Ryan Harris) has twice won the post-season award annually presented to the team's top offensive lineman. Martin appears on track to become the first in the award's 13-year history to take home the honor a third time.
With a fifth-year of eligibility available to Martin, the Indianapolis Bishop Chatard-product might need to clear mantle space for a fourth.
"I will say selfishly we're hoping that he's coming back," said Kelly of his 6'4" 300-pound co-captain. "But if he doesn't, we'll wish him the best. He has done so much for our offensive line and just the things that we're looking for, that toughness. He's such a tough competitor. He's a great communicator. He's a great leader. He's respected by everybody on the football team, not just the offensive linemen. That's why he's one of our captains with another season of competition remaining."
Senior Swan Song: Martin has a host of classmates playing the best football of their collective careers. Running back Theo Riddick's final-season rise is particularly gratifying after two seasons spent aiding the offense as a necessary slot receiver -- a practice that helped him Saturday on a game-tying touchdown catch from Everett Golson.
"I think that's been a great success," said Kelly of Riddick the running back. "He's run hard, run physical; he's caught ball for us. He's really been productive as a football player for us, so I would say that that was as well as we could have hoped. And we still got a lot of football left. Up to this point it's worked out very, very well."
Riddick leads the team in rushing attempts (136) and yards (610), and is tied for the team lead in rushing touchdowns (4) while placing third in receptions (25) and pass targets (42).
Two-Trick Pony?Among Kelly's blossoming players is the receiving corps fastest target, true freshman Chris Brown. Pegged as a future star by Irisheyes.com in August, Brown appears to have the internal make-up to become a complete receiver -- one who'll just as likely mix it up inside zone coverage as he will take the top off a secondary with breakaway speed.
At present, he's a deep threat learning the tricks of the trade, especially downfield blocking, a reality that will afford Brown more snaps in the season's final month.
Blocking isn't a problem for Brown's position mate Daniel Smith. The South Bend (Clay, HS) product has enjoyed the first extended action of his career as a true junior. It's his willingness to get his hands -- and pads -- dirty that's cemented his spot in the rotation.
"Physical blocker…he's a big kid," said Kelly of the 6'4" 215-20 pound Smith. "We wanted to be able to use what we thought to be right now, his talents. I think they're going to be more (diverse) down the road in terms confidence in catching the football, route running, things of that nature. But he's a kid that is not afraid to stick his nose in there and make big blocks for us.
"The long touchdown run we had against Oklahoma a couple weeks back (is) largely attributed to Daniel Smith getting in there and blocking a Sam linebacker," Kelly continued. "So we feel really good about getting him on the field when we need the block, but obviously you can't put him on there just when you're going to block. You got to be able to throw the ball to him. I think he's showing you us we can continue to move in that direction and make him a more of a complete receiver."
Smith has caught six of the seven passes in his direction this season but for just 37 yards this fall.
"We are pretty cognizant of the fact of our personnel groupings that go on the field that it's just not, 'Hey, it's run when (Smith) comes in.' He's involved in the passing game; he's caught some balls. But I think that that's an evolution for him. When we develop more confidence and trust in him during the week of practice you'll see him more and more in other situations as well."
Around the RosterThe Irish started 2012 training camp with 14 scholarship offensive linemen. Transfer (Jordan Prestwood) and medical scholarship alleviation (Brad Carrico) lowered that total to 12 before the season began.
Its now a mere 11 in terms of available bodies with recent news that junior OT Tate Nichols examination over the weekend revealed the worst.
"Injured his knee. We think it's a PCL, but we need to get the swelling out before we get any further," said Kelly of the 6'8" 330-pound backup right tackle. "He's out for the season."
Nichols was withheld from action as a true freshman in 2010, missed 2011 due to injuries, and played in just one game this fall (Miami).
Fresh faces: It's that time of year. Time for the annual inquiry regarding the team's most valuable commodities, at least in the eyes of Irish fans and recruit-niks: Freshman yet to play a down.
"I would say guys that really catch my eye," said Kelly when pressed for information: (Safety) C.J. Prosise. He's a young man that is fun to watch. (Quarterback) Gunner Kiel is whipping the ball around there. Big, physical kid on scout team. Really like watching him play.
"(Defensive lineman) Jarron Jones is doing a great job on our scout team. Hard to block, big, long, physical kid. I would say those kids jump out at me right now. (Running back) Will Mahone is doing a very good job for us as well. I'm sure I'm missing some of those guys, but those guys have jumped out at me."
The key, of course, is that they continue to jump out at him next August and September.