When Youth Must Be Served

Defections from Notre Dame's senior and junior classes helped transform the Irish into a youth-filled roster, two-deep and beyond, for 2014.

An exasperated subscriber to Irish Eyes posted the following question prior to Notre Dame's 43-40 overtime defeat at the hands of Northwestern:

"Why is ND perpetually young and inexperienced and lacking depth?"

They were the opposite in 2012, of course when the 12-1 Irish were comprised of battle-scarred veterans with a healthy blend of youth. Top players Manti Te'o, Tyler Eifert, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Zeke Motta, Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood, Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Braxston Cave, Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox, and John Goodman were seniors or graduate students that had tasted defeat, both bitter and humiliating, and emerged as better players for it.

Experienced juniors T.J. Jones, Prince Shembo, Louis Nix, Christian Lombard, Bennett Jackson, and, in a unique manner, Tommy Rees, made huge third-year improvements over previous seasons.

Intermix an influx of talented youngster such as sophomores Stephon Tuitt, Everett Golson, DaVaris Daniels, KeiVarae Russell, Tony Springmann, Sheldon Day, Matthias Farley, Ishaq Williams, George Atkinson, and Kyle Brindza, plus a few upperclassmen that came into their own (Danny Spond, Kona Schwenke, and Mike Golicr, Jr.) and the final product was Notre Dame's best team since 1993 -- both squads, unfortunately, bestowed with national runner-up status for their efforts.

What's my point?

The opposite came to fruition for 2014, when many remaining seniors and graduate students struggled to carve a niche and the juniors, while heavy in contributions by percentage, had precious little remaining to choose from in what was already a smallish recruiting haul.

If you're an angry fan, one frustrated with too many turnovers and missed tackles in 2014 -- not to mention a trio of consecutive losses due in part to head-shaking coaching decisions -- your next (rhetorical) question is likely, "And who's fault is that?!"

If you're glass is instead half-empty, you likely remember that the same standout seniors and grad students from 2012 listed above were previously twice-riddled by Navy, upset by Tulsa at home, murdered three times up front by the Stanford Cardinal, flailed and failed in their attempts to tackle Michigan quarterbacks Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson, and were pounded into overtime submission at home by Connecticut's running game on Senior Day.

Connecticut had been an FBS program for seven years at the time of that 2009 contest.

Yes, as the late Al McGuire once mused, "The best thing about a freshman is he becomes a sophomore."

Which brings us back to the remarkable attrition that debilitated Notre Dame's current crop of seniors and juniors -- a reality that gave way to sophomore and freshmen starters and key reserves being left to deal with the fall-out.

2011: We Hardly Knew Ye

Twenty-one prospects signed with 10 since lost due to injury, suspension, transfer, or NFL departures. The class benefited greatly from two key additions in walk-on Joe Schmidt and transfer Amir Carlisle.

Pre-graduation losses to the 2014 team from the 2011 crop are staggering:

-- 3-star offensive guard Brad Carrico: Never played, received a medical scholarship waiver following his freshman season (foot injury)
-- 5-star defensive end Aaron Lynch: Transferred to South Florida following his freshman season
-- 5-star defensive end Stephon Tuitt: Elected to forgo his senior season and enter the NFL Draft.
-- 4-star tight end (offensive tackle, per Scout.com) Troy Niklas: Elected to forgo his senior season and enter the NFL Draft.
-- 3-star RB George Atkinson: Elected to forgo his senior season and enter the NFL Draft.
-- 5-star defensive end Ishaq Williams: Suspended by the University for academic dishonesty
-- 4-star wide receiver DaVaris Daniels: Suspended by the University for academic dishonesty
-- 3-star defensive end Tony Springmann: Missed 2013, received medical scholarship waiver (back) entering 2014 season.
-- 3-star linebacker Jarrett Grace: Missed the 2014 season due to complications from a broken leg suffered midway through 2013.

-- 3-star cornerback Josh Atkinson unofficially missed the 2014 season due to a hip injury suffered in August camp. He did not appear in a contest.

-- 3-star cornerback Jalen Brown: Dressed for one game (Purdue, Shamrock Series). Has not appeared in a game since November 2012 (at USC).

Add to the 11 above three-star defensive end Chase Hounshell, whose three shoulder surgeries since 2011 proved too much to overcome, and 12 of the original 21 signees from the class of 2011 weren't available to head coach Brian Kelly as seniors this fall.

Carrying the Torch

Though contributions from the current crop of seniors was far less than should be expected from a top-tier program, they weren't insignificant:

-- Safety Eilar Hardy was unofficially suspended for the season's first eight contests as part of the oft-referenced cheating probe. He's appeared in each of the last three in a backup role and as a special teams starter. Hardy cannot play for the Irish in 2015 as a result of deferred suspension but he could graduate with a Notre Dame degree and play a fifth-season elsewhere.

-- Rush end Anthony Rabasa came through with a big play as a senior, registering a third-down pass defended (on his only snap) vs. Florida State's Jameis Winston. Rabasa played in 11 games over his career to date including three this season (Rice, UNC, FSU). A return for a fifth-season is likely dependent on scholarship availability. Rabasa is a well-respected figure in the Irish locker room.

-- Linebacker Ben Councell battled back from November 2013 knee surgery to appear in 10 of 11 games this season, missing the FSU contest due to a concussion (his third over the last 15 months). His return for a potential 5th-season is pending invitation, acceptance.

-- Guard Conor Hanratty started the season's first three and has appeared on the field goal unit as a blocker since. Like Councell, his return for a potential 5th-season is pending invitation, acceptance.

-- Guard Nick Martin served as a team captain starting all 11 games. A lock to be invited for a 5th-year in 2015.

-- Center Matt Hegarty started the last nine games, eight consecutive at center. A lock to be invited for a 5th-year in 2015.

-- Nickel Matthias Farley rebounded from a poor 2013 season to become one of the defense's chief playmakers in the scheme's most challenging role. A lock to be invited for a 5th-year in 2015.

-- Quarterback Everett Golson roared to a nearly perfect three-game start following academic exile but has, over the last eight games, intermittently played the role of hero and goat, seemingly on a drive-by-drive basis. A lock to be invited for a 5th-year in 2015.

-- Former walk-on linebacker Joe Schmidt emerged as the unofficial defensive captain and, in retrospect, officially the defender the unit could least afford to lose. A lock to be invited for a 5th-year in 2015.

-- Transfer Amir Carlisle played in 10 games, starting five, missing one due to a knee injury and has produced three touchdowns over the course of 2014 as a converted slot receiver. A lock to be invited for a 5th-year in 2015.

-- Tight End Ben Koyack leads the team's skill position players in total snaps through 11 games and was named a Mackey Award semi-finalist this month. Koyack is in his final season of eligibility.

-- Running back Cam McDaniel served as a team captain in his final season of eligibility, leading the squad in rushing yards twice (Michigan and Stanford).

-- Kicker Kyle Brindza is in his final season of eligibility and will graduate following 2014 as the program record-holder for field goals made and attempted. Brindza's final month was the most challenging of his otherwise stellar collegiate career.

Fifth-years in Review: Christian Lombard started 10 games at right tackle and guard while safety Austin Collinsworth, a team captain, missed the bulk of the first nine games due to knee and shoulder injuries, playing extensively in the last two. Defensive tackle Justin Utupo has been a regular contributor from both scrimmage and on special teams throughout 2014, earning his first career start last week. Transfer Cody Riggs was outstanding for the season's first two months before a foot injury sidelined him for most of the team's three recent outings -- all losses.

-- On a related note: potential fifth-year senior Louis Nix bypassed his final season of eligibility for the NFL Draft while fellow nose guard Kona Schwenke lost his potential fifth season due to an ill-advised, brief appearance vs. Purdue as a planned sophomore redshirt in 2011.

-- Fifth-year linebacker Kendall Moore was suspended as part of the aforementioned academic dishonesty investigation while 2013 graduate Alex Welch was asked to return in a backup role at tight end but chose to attend Miami University (Ohio) for his final season of college football.

-- Finally, asked back for 2014 by head coach Brian Kelly and set to return was holder and backup wide receiver Luke Massa. The Notre Dame graduate thereafter received a job opportunity Kelly called, "too good to pass up."

Massa was, unfortunately, conspicuous in his absence as a holder for the 2014 Irish and their scattershot field goal unit.

Note: Part II of "When Youth Must Be Served" will feature the ever-shrinking junior crop and efforts of the team's freshmen and redshirt-freshmen to replace the lost contributions of Notre Dame's senior and junior classes

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