Surge or Slump?

Two handfuls of true freshmen saw action last season for Brian Kelly's national runner-up Irish. Irisheyes.com examines the prospects of each for a breakout sophomore season.

Its not commonly referred to as a "sophomore slump" because of its infrequent occurrence.

A decades-long list exists of college football and basketball freshmen -- and professional sports rookies -- that instead of progressing at an expected rate in their second seasons, slump following an initial campaign of quality, sometimes standout play.

But at Notre Dame, there's likewise a "Who's Who?" string of players that first showed promise as freshmen, then later excelled as sophomores, with defensive end Stephon Tuitt the latest example of an outstanding encore effort.

Tuitt was preceded by the likes of Manti Te'o in 2010, Kyle Rudolph 2009, Golden Tate 2008, Darius Walker 2005, Ryan Grant 2002, Autry Denson and Kory Minor in 1996, and the only challenger to Tuitt's crown as the program's best sophomore over the last two decades, cornerback Bobby Taylor,1993.

The program's 2013 true sophomores might not have a Taylor, Te'o, or Tuitt among its ranks, but each of the nine that contributed in 2012 has a chance to make an impact as a starter or key reserve in 2013:

Cornerback Keivarae Russell: Along with quarterback, the most likely position for the dreaded "sophomore slump" is that of the lonely corner. Russell was the nation's most surprising Freshmen All-America selection last fall, starting all 13 games and finishing fourth on the squad in tackles while adding two interceptions -- one apiece vs. rivals Michigan and USC -- the latter in a one-on-one deep coverage situation against the nation's best receiver, Marquise Lee. Primarily a zone coverage corner in 2012, Russell and the rest of the Irish corners will likely be tasked with a heavier sampling of man coverage responsibility this season with a young tandem at safety.

Defensive End Sheldon Day: Penciled in for a starting defensive end spot after the loss of 5th-year standout (and four-year starter) Kapron Lewis-Moore, Day vastly out-performed my projections for him as a true freshman, finishing as the team's fourth true defensive lineman and a key member of the weekly rotation with 23 stops including 3.5 for loss as part of both the base D and occasional nickel package fronts. Day's greatest challenge for 2013 will be a massive increase in snaps, always a tough chore for a true sophomore that previously thrived in a backup role.

Defensive Back Elijah Shumate: Third behind Russell and Day for the most meaningful and consistent playing time last fall, Shumate nonetheless saw roughly 65 snaps from scrimmage (over 13 games), all in a nickel coverage role. He's expected to compete this season for a starting safety spot, but unlike most of his young competitors, there's little doubt he'll find a prominent role as a weekly competitor if not starter/part-time starter. Shumate technically worked at cornerback last season, though that was likely to increase his reps in practice and improve his coverage skills in the slot -- his alignment as the team's nickel defender.

Wide Receiver Chris Brown: Targeted for 11 passes, the bulk of which were post routes attempting to stretch the defense, Brown's next step is to establish enough consistency, both as a downfield blocker and route-runner, to cement a spot in the team's rotation, with a starting role there for the taking. All of 6'2" and barely 182 pounds last August, Brown was nonetheless one of the most impressive receivers in training camp, showing no hesitation in traffic and making plays vs. the first-team defense. Its a major step from one-trick pony downfield as a rookie to BCS-level contributor in Year 2.

Safety Nicky Baratti: Made two major, memorable contributions to Notre Dame's undefeated regular season, intercepting a Michigan pass at the goal line in late-September (and deftly turning his body to remain in the end zone for a touchback), then later tackling dangerous USC punt returner Robert Woods one-on-one early in the fourth quarter of the season finale. Along the way, Baratti cemented a spot in the two-deep defense as a safety -- he'll encounter heavy competition from four or more players for a starting spot this season vacated by graduated senior Zeke Motta. Baratti and Shumate could engage in an entertaining, calendar-year battle for the starting spot opposite Matthias Farley.

Slot Receiver/Punt Returner Davonte' Neal The fan's choice as a pick to click in 2012, Neal technically had opportunity in a 13-game role as the team's punt returner. But poor blocking and later, issues tracking the punted ball contributed to another poor return season by the unit, this the first with the purportedly explosive Neal as its return man. Neal has a chance to earn the starting slot role after the graduation of Robby Toma while doubling as the punt returner again this season. Like his classmate Brown, Neal was fearless in August camp practices -- another year and spring session of schooling should afford the competitive Neal a shot to show his wares in space this fall.

Linebacker Romeo Okwara: Lauded by his head coach for improvement after a rough start on special teams, Okwara showed well in a backup role, his coach and Irish fans alike taking notice of a crushing tackle-for-loss and strip late vs. Oklahoma. A logjam exists at both Cat and Dog linebacker -- Okwara's present slottings -- a move to the defensive line could be in his future as the 17-year-old could easily (and has probably already) add to his 6'5" 240-pound frame.

Offensive Tackle Ronnie Stanley: Played early as a backup tackle last season but can likely receive a medical redshirt after sitting out the final 11 games due to elbow surgery. Stanley is likely slated for backup duty outside, the first tackle off the bench should either Zack Martin or Christian Lombard go down. Stanley's best football will likely be played from 2014-16 as a three-year starter at tackle.

Wide Receiver Justin Ferguson: The forgotten man after a four-receiver haul in 2013 and his classmates Brown and Neal enjoyed far more snaps is 2012, Ferguson has a game-ready body and cut his teeth playing in 11 games last season as a kick return blocker on the front line (Brown was in that role as well, aligned on the opposite wing.)

With two seniors (T.J. Jones and Daniel Smith), junior DaVaris Daniels, and fellow soph's Brown and Neal the leaders for two-deep roles, the sixth receiver spot is available for Ferguson this spring. He'll receive competition from early enrollees James Onwualu and Corey Robinson, plus more next August. The 6'2" 200-plus pound target from Pembroke Pines, Fla., can set himself apart from the freshmen crowd with physical play after the catch, and as a perimeter blocker in the ground game.

Note: Click here for Part I and a look at the returning senior starters, and here for a preview of senior non-starters from 2012 and those returning from injury.

A breakdown of returning junior starters can be found here, with returning junior reserves profiled here.


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