More important to Irish fans, Kelly's classes that remain behind are likely to surpass their 2010 predecessors. Below is part three of our four class reviews at the conclusion of the 2013 regular season.
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.
Click here for a detailed review of the current juniors, the freshmen class of 2011.
2012: Early Attrition, Early SuccessThe sophomore class's 20-5 start (with one game to play) is the best two-year run since the 1993 sophomores raced to a 21-2-1 mark after two seasons.
Now just 13 deep, the 2012 recruiting class once reached 17 members. Four have since transferred, two of whom never played a game in an Irish uniform:
- Five-star cornerback Tee Shepard: An early enrollee (a loose application of the term, apparently), Shepard left the program prior to spring ball 2012. He currently plays for Holmes Community College (Mississippi).
- Five-star quarterback Gunner Kiel: Redshirted in 2012 and transferred from the program prior to spring practice 2013. Kiel will be a junior at Cincinnati with three seasons of eligibility remaining next season.
- Four-star wide receiver/cornerback prospect Davonte Neal: Started at punt returner for the 2012 Irish before transferring to Arizona during spring practice 2013.
- Three-star wide receiver Justin Ferguson: Earned a monogram with the 2012 Irish as a true freshman. His transfer coincided with Neal's during spring 2013. Ferguson is now enrolled at Western Michigan.
Steps Forward in 2013Romeo Okwara, C.J. Prosise, Jarron Jones, Scott Daly, Ronnie Stanley, John Turner, Sheldon Day, KeiVarae Russell.
-- Russell is the most experienced and decorated of the group though on the whole, his sophomore season wasn't that much more impressive than his first year albeit under vastly different circumstances. Like 2012 when he struggled early, Russell was much better as the 2013 season progressed. Stanley started all 12 games on the right side and improved greatly from September as well.
-- Okwara worked his way into the dime package rotation as a pass-rusher (both edge and interior) and into the mix as a cat linebacker/defensive end when the base fronts showed 4-3. He made what would have been a signature play for the season Saturday, stopping Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan on a third-down run late but the Irish offense was unable to capitalize.
-- Jones emerged from scout team exile in mid-October to start Saturday and play well previously in a win over Brigham Young. His evolution from off-the-radar to certain rotation member entering December and beyond was one of the most important developments of the season.
-- Prosise was targeted less than a dozen times (catching five) but after not playing last season and moving to the slot receiver position in winter 2013, his three starting assignments and occasional run-after-catch skills signify definite improvement. The same holds true for John Turner, a 12-game starter on Notre Dame's kickoff and punt units. Turner was nowhere near the Saturday playing field as a true freshman in 2012 -- he might have to bide his time as a scrimmage hopeful, however.
-- Daly handled all punt, field goal, and PAT snapping duties and will likely do so through graduation.
-- Day was not a force as expected but a trio of ankle sprains -- from late in Game Three through Game Nine vs. Navy -- contributed to a challenging, rarely full-strength season. He's a top 10 returnee entering 2014.
Treading WaterNicky Baratti, Chris Brown, Elijah Shumate, Mark Harrell, Will Mahone
-- Baratti's inclusion is a matter of semantics: he missed the entire season due to shoulder surgery, this after shoulder surgery impacted his off-season and kept him from contact in the spring. The Spring, Texas native is eligible through 2016 after showing great promise as a freshman safety in 2012.
-- Brown was likely impacted by the loss of Everett Golson and his deep arm strength (not to mention ability to extend plays), but the bottom line is production, and it was lacking from the sophomore speedster. A one-trick pony as a deep threat in 2012, Brown regressed to the role of a one-trick pony again in 2013 as well -- this time as a hitch-route receiver. Brown's best is yet to come, but he lost his regular spot to tight end Ben Koyack and shared reps with the freshmen trio of Corey Robinson, James Onwualu, and Will Fuller as the season progressed. A good spring is necessary at a crowded position.
-- Shumate was never able to fully stake a claim to a starting safety role despite repeated issues along the back line. His suspension for violation of team rules (apparently, tardiness) dampened what was to be a regained starting role at the end of the season. In his first season at safety, Shumate made no more of an impact than he did as a rookie last fall as the nickel back, though he's a much better fit in his current role. Notre Dame needs the prodigious hitter to emerge as a starter for 2014.
-- Harrell is the only member of the class yet to appear in a contest though that should change this month: he's the first player off the bench at each interior position and is the only non-freshmen offensive lineman in good health for the bowl game. In other words, if not Harrell, it has to be a freshman burning eligibility in the event of an injury -- however brief the absence -- to one of the game's starters up front. At minimum he'll receive ample December practice reps.
-- Mahone injured his ankle in mid-August then after a return and brief stint in kick coverage, suffered an undisclosed (to the media) broken foot. He'll enter bowl season and/or spring ball as the No. 6 running back and has a tough road to ho for playing time.