Below is a look at a handful of younger players on the rise, both as evidenced by their finish to 2013 and the need for their eventual ascent next spring and fall. Each should receive increased practice -- and game reps -- this month. Included is one redshirt freshman who did not receive varsity action this fall, but one who'll be counted on to play in his first collegiate game during Notre Dame's bowl matchup.
Redshirt-freshman defensive end Jarron JonesSenior Kona Schwenke will likely start the bowl game but that doesn't mean the future NFL hopeful should garner the lion's share of December snaps. Look for Jones to make an end-season push for a starting nose guard spot entering the spring -- he'll receive a stiff challenge for that spot (and playing time as a whole) from senior-to-be Tony Springmann who sat out 2013 after August knee surgery. Springmann was light years ahead of Jones prior to the Fort Wayne native's early camp injury four months ago.
Jones performed well vs. Brigham Young and admirably against Stanford -- "admirably" included working as the anchor of a line that was gashed for more than 250 rushing yards. Improvement, consistent, and aggression are needed from the gentle giant, beginning with his first bowl practice.
Sophomore linebacker/defensive end Romeo OkwaraMade the play of the day in Saturday's loss to Stanford, shedding a block and drilling Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan on a designed third-down keeper to give the Irish a final chance to tie. Okwara can play in space but his future might be with his hand on the ground -- the 2014 cat linebacker replacing long-time starter Prince Shembo. (Ishaq Williams, be warned.)
Still just 18 years old, Okwara would have benefitted greatly from a freshman redshirt season in 2012. He has, however, become much more comfortable with the college game, doubtless the result of his 25-game assimilation to date.
Freshman running back Tarean FolstonSpring will re-open the competition regardless, but Folston should receive every opportunity to be the lead 'back for what amounts to a post-season exhibition game. It's time to see if Folston can carry himself as a No. 1 'back, off the field, in practice, and in game preparations over an extended period. Folston is the only X-factor from the available quartet of talent (Cam McDaniel, George Atkinson, Amir Carlisle).
The staff knows what it has in Cam McDaniel -- does 15 carries and 82 yards vs. an unranked foe later this month mean that much to Notre Dame's future backfield? Let's see what Folston can do.
Freshman safety Max RedfieldIf Notre Dame's two-deep safety duties are as complicated as Kelly suggests, shouldn't something be done to simplify them? Redfield sat behind a safety unit that was the least productive and effective at the program since at least the 2009 season (and that unit housed the team's defensive MVP in Kyle McCarthy).
Would potential mental errors from Redfield have damaged the defense as much as did missed tackles, end zone pass interference penalties, and coverage breakdowns? Did anyone else notice Stanford's opening score was the direct result of a coverage mistake between a senior captain cornerback and 20-plus game starting safety?
He won't' start in the bowl game, but is rotation time from scrimmage out of the question?
Offensive Lineman Mark HarrellThe only member of the 2012 recruiting class yet to see the field, Harrell will likely enter bowl preparations as the first man in at left guard, center, and right guard -- each spot manned by a backup as the result of injury to the initial starter (Conor Hanratty for left guard Chris Watt; Matt Hegarty for center Nick Martin; Steve Elmer for right guard Christian Lombard).
With the exception of Harrell, Notre Dame's entire allotment of backups along the offensive front are freshmen who did not play in 2013 -- thus, their eligibility has been preserved.
Should either starting tackle go down, Zack Martin on the left, Ronnie Stanley on the right, a current starting interior player, right guard Steve Elmer, would be asked to fill in their stead. That puts Harrell on the field if ANY of the team's starting quintet is injured on game day.
Extensive varsity reps for Harrell are mandatory this month.