Notre Dame's 23-player recruiting class will come together for the first time this weekend. Just five from the group have received their baptism by fire: January enrollees Steven Elmer, Mike Heuerman, James Onwualu, Corey Robinson, and Malik Zaire, each of which knows already how much more difficult a college football practice is at the highest level of the sport.
Their 18 incoming brethren will find out in early August after a taste of elevated competition during workouts this summer.
Step One to that end begins as the neophytes join their veteran teammates for informal off-season workouts next week. Step Two is August camp, when reality will first strike for most.
"I would say that when they're ready, we're ready. If you're the best player, you're going to play," said defensive coordinator Bob Diaco of incoming freshmen in general. "But we'd like to think that if you've been in the program two years, three years, four years, its going to be hard for a high school senior to come in and supplant someone that's been in our program for three or four years. I would think.
"I'm not saying it can't happen. I'm sure Coach Kelly would say the same thing. Coach Kelly runs a developmental program. We don't have any expectations of what those brand new players are going to bring to the organization on any kind of immediate basis."
That's the correct mental approach, because expectations are rarely met. Precious few from this 23-player haul will ever be as good as they are at this moment, because its much easier to be good in theory than in practice and on game day.
Of course, without the crucial contributions of 2012 true freshmen Sheldon Day, Keivarae Russell, Elijah Shumate, Nicky Baratti, and Chris Brown last fall, Notre Dame wouldn't have qualified for the BCS Championship game. (They might not have qualified for the Belk Bowl.)
(Note: To begin a 30-year journey through Notre Dame's top impact freshmen, Click here)
In the modern 85-scholarship game, (or 82 in the case of the 2013 Irish), the best freshmen must contribute, and in the three-year Kelly era, 28 have played with at least 12 (inarguably) playing a crucial role.
Who'll add to those totals in Year Four? I have a few ideas:
"That's No High School On the Field"Current Irish senior Andrew Hendrix used that phrase to describe 18-year-old phenomenon Aaron Lynch, just minutes after the 2011 early enrollee wreaked havoc on his veteran Irish teammates up front -- and as a result, on the quarterback Hendrix himself.
Hendrix will get a chance to see another precocious prospect this summer -- one likely to stick around longer than the enigmatic Lynch -- 5-star linebacker Jaylon Smith.
Smith will play in 2013, as there's not a specialty unit -- or "run team" -- for which he's not ideally suited. He'll likely play plenty from scrimmage as well, but his projected position, outside linebacker, is chock-full of developed BCS talent. He'll have to be great, not good, to forge his way onto the field over the likes of Prince Shembo, Danny Spond, and Ishaq Williams.
Nevertheless, he'll play alongside them in some capacity, and Smith thus ranks No. 1 on our list of likely contributors for 2013:
1.) Outside Linebacker/Nickel/ST Jaylon Smith: I explained my projection for Smith's debut here. But whether he plays to the field (Dog), the boundary (Cat), or the nickel position as posited, he's going to play. 6'3" 225-pound 'backers that run like gazelles don't usually matriculate to South Bend.
2.) Safety/ST Max Redfield: Likely too athletic to keep off special teams, though I'm in the minority of colleagues who feel sophomores Elijah Shumate and Nicky Baratti will hold down the field safety spot for 2013. Look for Redfield to also find a home in nickel or dime packages, because none of Notre Dame's 15 other defensive backs have his combination of size, speed, and raw talent. He has an outside shot to find work as a punt returner, though I think Kelly will go with one of his quartet of spring options at the outset.
3.) RB Greg Bryant: Has a battle on his hands for playing time, and he might not start a game, but my initial projection for Bryant was for meaningful carries by the time Notre Dame hits the post-game showers vs. Michigan State in Game Four, and I'm sticking to it. (It should be noted I offered something similar of Cierre Wood prior to the 2009 season and Wood redshirted. It could likewise be noted that Wood shouldn't have redshirted, and that Notre Dame finished 6-6 that year, but I digress…)
4.) Quarterback Malik Zaire: My least likely freshman to contribute from what was then a 24-player list three months ago to No. 4 overall? That's what happens when you're program's starter and his 5-star backup find their way off the roster. I can't imagine Zaire sitting and Kelly fiddling while Tommy Rees and Hendrix navigate 12 different defenses over three months. It's all hands on deck at every position when you're trying to win at the highest level, and Zaire has a skill that can help Notre Dame's offense be better than average again -- his feet.
5.) Wide Receiver/ST James Onwualu: We're about to split hairs, because I don't think Onwulau will technically emerge as the team's No. 6 receiver (Notre Dame employs seven for varsity practice in game week; ideally six on game days), but at 6'1" 215 pounds, and with 15 spring practices under his belt, I'm confident the all-around football player will be part of the specialty units.
6.) Cornerback/ST Cole Luke: Has a shot to supplant No. 4 cornerback competitors Jalen Brown and Josh Atkinson, or to fill the nickel role vacated by sophomore Elijah Shumate who will focus on the field safety duties this fall. Like most reviewed in this column, Luke's speed translates to an early evaluation on the Irish run teams, too.
7.) Wide Receiver Corey Robinson: Conversely, I don't think the 6'5" 197-pound Robinson will come anywhere close to an Irish special teams snap…but the kid can go get the football. This might be a stretch, but if healthy, and considering Notre Dame's propensity for poorly-thrown fade patterns as the preferred red zone method of attack, I'd like to think the Admiral's son will be called upon to keep a few fluttering pigskins in the field of play and possibly put points on the board as a result...
8.) Cornerback/ST Rashad Kinlaw: Kinlaw's high school coach Dennis Scuderi told Irisheyes.com recruiting reporter Anna Hickey that his former pupil will hit South Bend at 6'3" 185 pounds, with a 4.4 electronic 40-time in tow. (I put no stock in reported 40 times, but at least this particular exaggeration means Kinlaw can't be slow.)
Add to that Kelly offering Kinlaw's name as a freshman that could help on special teams, and I'm sold on Year One kickoff and/or punt coverage contributions from the neophyte defensive back that will otherwise breathe through a fire hose while learning cornerback at the college level.
Part II will examine Notre Dame's remaining 15 freshmen prospects, a handful of which could also force their way onto the field in 2013. Recent history indicates at least two will...