The Backbone

Part II of our look at the progress of Notre Dame's classes under Brian Kelly examines the 2011 freshmen haul. Now juniors, the collection has aided the Irish to 28 wins (and counting) as their third season at the program comes to a close.

The graduating seniors of 2013 won 36 games of their 51 played to date, all under fourth-year head coach Brian Kelly. A win against a yet-to-be-determined bowl foe would tie the 2010 freshmen with Lou Holtz's 1991 freshmen class for 37 wins (37-9-2) for the most at the program over the last 22 seasons.

More important to Irish fans, Kelly's classes that remain behind are likely to surpass their 2010 predecessors. Below is part two of our four class reviews at the conclusion of the 2013 regular season.

(Note: Click here for our initial installment and a look at the freshmen class of 2010, the winningest group at the program since Lou Holtz's 1992 freshmen.)

2011: The Backbone

Famously referred to as "the guys I recruited" Kelly's self-proclaimed first full class numbered 23 on Signing Day 2011 but has since dwindled to 20 with a transfer (Aaron Lynch), a medical casualty (Brad Carrico) and a suspension (Everett Golson). The group entered 2013 with 20 wins, has reached 28 and could finish their third season with 29, a total last bettered by the juniors from Lou Holtz's 1993 squad (31-5-1 after their initial three seasons).

Amir Carlisle joined the class as a transfer from USC in January 2012 while preferred walk-on Joe Schmidt earned a scholarship in the offseason, one he parlayed into a starting role in the team's dime defensive package at midseason.

Including Golson, Carlisle and Schmidt, the 2011 freshmen class is again comprised of 23 members.

2011: Just the Facts

Fourteen from the group earned starting roles, full or part-time, this fall: Amir Carlisle, Troy Niklas, Ben Koyack, Kyle Brindza, George Atkinson, Eilar Hardy, Matthias Farley, Jarrett Grace, Stephon Tuitt, Ishaq Williams, Cam McDaniel, DaVaris Daniel, Conor Hanratty, and Matt Hegarty.

-- Five are currently on the injured list, either sidelined from the outset or since injured and thus out for the rest of the season: Chase Hounshell (shoulder), Tony Springmann (knee), Jarrett Grace (ankle), Ben Councell (knee), and Nick Martin (knee). Grace (ASU), Councell (Navy), and Martin (BYU) were in-season injuries. Hounshell and Springmann have missed the entire season.

-- 14 redshirted in the past and are thus eligible through 2015: Hounshell, Martin, Golson, Daniels, Rabasa, Brown, Councell, Hardy, Hegarty, Hanratty, Springmann, Grace, Carlisle, and Farley. (Hounshell could apply to play through 2016, missing two seasons due to surgeries prior to the opening kickoff.)

-- Record to date: 28-10
-- Record vs. Top 25 teams, either at game time or at season's end: 7-8 (does not yet include USC 2013)
-- Record as favorites: 24-4
-- Record as underdogs: 4-6

Pertinent Story Lines

The status of two members of the class, Everett Golson and Stephon Tuitt, ranks as important issues 1 and 1A for the next two months.

Golson is expected to return to campus this month to take part in bowl practices and enroll for the spring semester while Tuitt, a near-certain first-round NFL Draft selection, is undecided on returning for his final season in 2014. (Unlike senior classmate Louis Nix, Tuitt will not have his degree at the end of the fall semester, further clouding the latter's decision.)

Below is a player-by-player review of the juniors' progress this fall:

Steps Forward in 2013

Cam McDaniel, Nick Martin, Ben Koyack, Conor Hanratty, Eilar Hardy, Matt Hegarty. Kyle Brindza, Troy Niklas, DaVaris Daniels, Joe Schmidt, and Jarrett Grace.

-- Daniels didn't reach All-America status as many fans projected but he was a better, more consistent football player in 2013 than he was in 2012. Notre Dame would have likely lost to a miserable Purdue team if not for his fourth quarter dominance and he was the driving force in a win over Brigham Young on senior day as well.

-- McDaniel unexpectedly led the team in rushing yards (625) and attempts (135) the latter by a wide margin, while tying for the team lead in rushing touchdowns (3) -- at present the lowest "leading" touchdown total in program history. He earned the staff's trust and will enter spring 2014 in heavy competition for the starting role.

-- Martin started 11 games at center and fared well prior to suffering a severe knee injury on senior day. Hegarty filled in and played well vs. both Brigham Young and more impressive, at Stanford. His play after undergoing heart surgery just under 12 months ago is remarkable.

-- Hanratty moved into the lineup due in part to injury to first-string guard, but also because he proved his wares when given an opportunity. He's an odds-on favorite to exit spring 2014 with a starting nod.

-- Grace took a starting spot from 5th-year senior Dan Fox prior to suffering a broken ankle on October 5. Fox improved thereafter and Grace will enter spring 2014 as a no-doubt starter in the middle.

-- Schmidt earned a scholarship then won a starting job in the team's dime package, a crucial role as the only linebacker in obvious passing situations. He'll have to fight Grace (or perhaps Jaylon Smith) to retain the role in 2014 but his place on the team's special teams and as a reserve linebacker is secured.

-- Hardy earned a starting role just seven months after his defensive coordinator revealed the junior had a "very, very low" evaluation. The former four-star prospect was twice suspended for games this season for a violation of team rules, the latter offense occurring on Thanksgiving Day. There's little chance he'll regain his starting spot for the team's bowl matchup.

-- Niklas and Brindza are among the two or three best in the nation at their respective positions entering 2014 (and were among the top five this fall as well). Kelly's move of Niklas from the defensive front to tight end was a resounding success. (Time to eat crow: I loved the 6'7" 270-pounder as a defensive end prospect following his freshman season played at linebacker.)

-- Koyack evolved into a top tier No. 2 tight end after beginning the season as a non-factor in the passing game and whipping boy up front for opposing outside linebackers. He'll enter 2014 among the nation's best backups at the position and likely play a huge role in a base two tight end offense. (If not the focus of the attack, the team's "12 package" will be utilized early and often.)

Treading Water

George Atkinson, Ishaq Williams, Anthony Rabasa, Ben Councell, Stephon Tuitt.

-- Atkinson set a career-high in rushing yards (555) but ran for more touchdowns (5) as a third-string tailback last season than he did as the de facto "starter" this fall (3). The junior posted 32 percent of his rushing yards in one game -- a standout effort in a loss to Oklahoma in Game Five -- while more than 33 percent of his carries occurred vs. the Sooners and Arizona State in back-to-back weeks.

-- Rabasa has been slotted as an inside linebacker, and outside linebacker, and a defensive end in his three seasons. His best position is likely outside (the Cat) but playing time will be tough to find for the former four-star Scout.com prospect in 2014.

-- The inclusion of Councell might be harsh: he was a backup to Danny Spond -- an outstanding drop linebacker in 2012 and remained a backup, this time to Jaylon Smith, an outstanding drop linebacker in 2013. Councell tore his ACL in a November 2 win over Navy, likely removing him from any contact this spring. The junior from Asheville, North Carolina played well against the Midshipmen, Air Force Academy, and Michigan State Spartans prior to his season-ending injury.

His future could be at inside linebacker, a position of need, as there's not much room at the inn behind Smith, Williams, and sophomore Romeo Okwara on the outside.

-- Williams earned a greater role this season, playing defensive end in the 3-4 base, defensive end as a pass-rusher in the 4-3 dime package, and also rotating behind Prince Shembo at the Cat (3-4 OLB) position. He also earned snaps as a nickel linebacker in September but Bob Diaco's defense no longer employed the package over the final two months.

The former five-star prospect missed two games due to a hamstring injury and was limited upon his return for the season's final two contests. He registered more tackles and tackles for loss last season than in 2013.

-- It's illogical to argue that Tuitt, a 2012 All-American and Hendricks Award finalist (nation's top DL) was better as a junior in 2013 than he was as a sophomore last fall. He has a bright future, either at Notre Dame or in the NFL (or both), but Tuitt was a better football player in 2012, surgery following a sports hernia doubtless the root cause.

Steps Back in 2013

Josh Atkinson, Jalen Brown, Matthias Farley, Amir Carlisle, Everett Golson.

-- Atkinson's August camp move to wide receiver likely ended his chances of competing for playing time from scrimmage at the program. There's no reason, however, the lightning-fast Atkinson can't dedicate his game and become a standout special teams player next season.

-- Brown technically enters the spring prior to his senior season as the team's No. 4 cornerback -- he entered the spring of his sophomore season as the No. 3/No. 4 CB as well.

-- Farley was a revelation as a rookie starter in 2012 but he struggled as the safety unit's most experienced player in 2013. Don't be surprised if an undisclosed injury was partly to blame as Farley in no way resembled the aggressive, confident player that played alongside Zeke Motta for the bulk of Notre Dame's run to No. 1 last season.

-- Technically Carlisle's return to the field after a 2012 season lost to injury qualifies as a step forward, but much more was expected of the former four-star prospect (both by the staff and by your favorite beat writer.) Of Carlisle's 201 rushing yards, 132 came in the season's first two games. Since fumbling late in a narrow win over Purdue, the junior transfer received just 16 carries, gaining 53 yards over the final nine contests. He was the only Irish regular among the top 10 skill position players not to score a touchdown.

Carlisle will need a huge spring to remain in heavy competition for a backfield role next fall.

-- Golson's suspension for "poor academic judgement" was a major blow to the 2013 offense and season as a whole.


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