When Notre Dame first allowed early-entry football players to begin their matriculation to the collegiate level in the spring – six months ahead of the rest of their class – the idea was that these players would be in better position to get a head start on their competition.
Nine years and 31 players later, the fact is nearly half of the early entries have been full-time starters for the Irish with some – quarterback Jimmy Clausen, offensive lineman Trevor Robinson, quarterback Tommy Rees, wide receiver TJ Jones, offensive lineman Steve Elmer, defensive end Andrew Trumbetti – starting as true freshmen.
There’s no way of knowing whether those players would have worked their way into starting roles if they had arrived on campus in June instead of January. But the fact is a high percentage of those early-enrollees either started as freshmen or became full-time starters down the road.
Nearly 20 percent (7-of-31) of the early-entry players left Notre Dame before using up their college eligibility, including quarterback Gunner Kiel and defensive end Aaron Lynch. Kiel has found his niche with the Cincinnati Bearcats; Lynch went to South Florida and now finds himself with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers.
For players such as quarterback Malik Zaire, outside linebacker James Onwualu, tight end Mike Heuerman and wide receiver Justin Brent, only time will tell. But early-entry players are here to stay, and these are the 35 – including the four who began classes on Tuesday, Jan 13 – who have exercised their option to begin the college process at Notre Dame ahead of schedule.
• RB-James Aldridge: Knee injuries in high school and at Notre Dame curtailed his productivity. His high-water rushing mark came during his sophomore season in 2007 when he totaled 463 yards. All three of his rushing touchdowns were scored as a junior in 2008 when his highest rushing output per carry for a season was 3.9. Aldridge rushed for 979 net yards and a 3.8-yard average per carry with the Irish.
• OG-Chris Stewart: Thirty-five game starter for the Irish at guard after a trial run at nose tackle during spring practice of his sophomore season. Stewart was a stalwart blocking for Jimmy Clausen during the 2009 season and an inspiration to anyone hoping to balance academics and athletics at the highest level with his law school pursuits while still playing for the Irish.
• WR-George West: Emerged as Notre Dame’s top kick returner as a freshman in 2006, averaging 26.0 yards per his 12 returns. Stepped forward as a sophomore with 21 receptions for 172 yards. But a knee injury cost him his junior season, and the diminutive speedster never regained his form.
• RB-Armando Allen: A broken leg suffered during his senior season of high school seemed to take away Allen’s zip with the Irish, although he began breaking tackles during the second half of his collegiate career and finished with 2,144 yards rushing, a 4.5-yard average and eight touchdowns. Season-best was 697 yards, but long rush of his career was just 30 yards. Allen is the last running back to make an early-entry to Notre Dame.
• QB-Jimmy Clausen: Five-star recruit made quite a stir with his flamboyant entrance to Notre Dame. Took over as starting quarterback during his rookie season in 2007, where he struggled, as did the rest of the team in the 3-9 campaign. Threw 25 touchdown passes as a sophomore but 17 interceptions as well.
Put it all together during his third and final season with the Irish in 2009 when he tossed 28 touchdown passes and just four interceptions while completing 68.0 percent of his passes for 3,722 yards. His junior year was as fine a season as any quarterback has had in Notre Dame history.
• CB-Gary Gray: Flashes of brilliance followed by game-altering struggle earmarked Gray’s career with the Irish. The high point came in 2010 when the 13-game starter had an interception, seven passes broken up and five tackles for loss. Primed for what looked like a great 2011, Gray struggled with his confidence, surrendering the game-winning toss to Michigan with two seconds remaining in a 35-31 defeat.
• DT-Sean Cwynar: Played in 36 games, starting seven, on the defensive interior after arriving as a defensive end. Finished with 49 career tackles and three tackles for loss. Bypassed an opportunity for a fifth year. Gave the Irish unspectacular yet steady, heady play.
• OG-Trevor Robinson: One of the more productive early-entry performers for the Irish with 26 starts in his last two years and 40 total from 2008-11, including three starts in ‘08 to become just the fifth freshman to start on the Irish offensive line since 1972.
• CB-E.J. Banks: Never saw action for the Irish, preserving a year of eligibility in 2009 and then departing Notre Dame following the fall semester of 2010. Banks transferred to his hometown of Pittsburgh where he played special teams and eventually transitioned to quarterback.
• S-Zeke Motta: Started 29 games for the Irish, emerging as a standout with a scoop-and-score in the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl, followed by finishing second on the squad in tackles in 2012 with 77. Became a surprise captain/leader of that national-title runner-up squad after arriving as a shy, soft-spoken, yet always hard-hitting safety.
• DT-Tyler Stockton: After failing to make a dent on the depth chart through his first four years in the program, Stockton was a surprise choice to occupy a roster spot in 2013. Still played sparingly as a fifth-year senior, but saw action in 10 games, making three tackles, and emerging as one of the most improved players on the team.
• S-Chris Badger: Came to Notre Dame, began his academic/athletic career, went on mission in Ecuador for the LDS Church, and then returned to Notre Dame before deciding to transfer to Brigham Young. Finished with six tackles in 12 games for the Cougars in 2014.
• CB-Spencer Boyd: Enrolled at Notre Dame in 2010, but spent just one semester in South Bend before returning to his home state of Florida. Enrolled at South Florida under then-Bulls head coach Skip Holtz.
• WR-TJ Jones: The most accomplished of the offensive players – along with Jimmy Clausen -- who have early-enrolled with the Irish the last decade. Also emerged as a captain despite his soft-spoken nature.
The son of the late Irish OLB Andre, Jones sits second on the all-time Notre Dame reception list with 181 and is fourth in receiving yards with 2,429. Caught 70 passes for 1,108 yards as a senior in 2013 with nine of his 19 career receiving touchdowns coming in his final season with the Irish.
• QB-Tommy Rees: Few Irish quarterbacks have faced as much criticism as Rees, who was forced into the lineup as a true freshman in 2010 when Dayne Crist suffered a season-ending injury. A lack of mobility and arm strength contributed to his 32-to-22 touchdown-to-interception ratio during his first two seasons. He then lost the starting job to Everett Golson in ’12, although his relief work played a significant role in the Irish going unscathed during the regular season and playing for the national title vs. Alabama.
Returned to the starting lineup in 2013 with the suspension of Golson and doubled up on touchdowns-to-interceptions (27-to-13) for the first time in his career while throwing for 3,257 yards.
• CB-Lo Wood: Never could quite crack the starting lineup after putting himself in position to do so as a junior in 2012. Suffered a pre-season injury that opened the door for KeiVarae Russell to start as a true freshman, which prompted Wood’s transfer to Miami (Ohio) following the ’13 season.
Played in 32 games for the Irish and finished with 31 tackles as a starting cornerback for the RedHawks in 2014.
• K/P-Kyle Brindza: Multi-record holding kicker who handled kickoffs as a freshman and then converted 57-of-81 field goals over the next three years, including his last one – a 32-yard boot in the Music City Bowl as time expired to give the Irish a 31-28 victory over LSU.
His 57 field goals are the most in Irish history while his 288 points rank him third all-time behind running back Allen Pinkett (320) and kicker Craig Hentrich (294). Also made himself into an accomplished punter in 2013-14.
• DL/OL-Brad Carrico: Listed as a defensive lineman upon his enrollment, Carrico moved to the offensive line before a foot injury during his sophomore season in 2012 put an end to his career. He remains at Notre Dame as he works on completing his degree.
• QB-Everett Golson: Preserved a year of eligibility in 2011, and then took over as starting quarterback in 2012. Brian Kelly protected Golson as he learned the ropes, leaning heavily on a ground game that averaged better than 200 yards during the season as well as one of the best defenses in Irish history. Golson completed 58.8 percent of his passes for 2,405 yards and a 12-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio as a red-shirt freshman.
After missing the 2013 season due to suspension, Golson returned to the starting role in ’14, leading the Irish to a 6-0 start. But 22 turnovers in a nine-game span contributed to five losses and led to Malik Zaire starting the Music City Bowl.
Golson collaborated with Zaire for the 31-28 victory over LSU. His 3,445 yards passing in ’14 are the third most in school history behind Brady Quinn (3,919 in 2005) and Jimmy Clausen (3,722 in 2009). He is expected to graduate from Notre Dame in May with the option of staying with the Irish or playing his fifth year elsewhere.
• DE-Aaron Lynch: The talented yet mercurial defensive end never quite found his niche with the Irish. He played in 12 games as a freshman, starting six, and finished with 5.5 sacks, 7.0 tackles for loss and 33 tackles.
But Lynch left after the spring, transferring to South Florida, where he had some real bright moments. He finished with 18 quarterback hurries and 11.5 sacks in two seasons with the Bulls. Drafted in the fifth round by the San Francisco 49ers, Lynch was credited with six sacks and 23 tackles in 14 games as a rookie.
• OLB/DE-Ishaq Williams: Four seasons later, the Irish are still waiting for Williams to live up to his five-star label. It appears Notre Dame will get a fifth year out of the 6-foot-6, 275-pounder after he missed the ’14 campaign due to academic suspension.
Williams was pegged for the starting left end role in Notre Dame’s newly-configured four-man front before being sidelined during the ’14 pre-season. Prior to that, he had been a pass-rush specialist from an outside linebacker position. Yet Williams had just one sack in 35 games from 2011-13.
• DT-Sheldon Day: The most productive among the early-entry defensive players at Notre Dame to date. Began his Irish career as a key off-the-bench contributor in 2012 before moving into the starting lineup as a sophomore in 2013. Emerged as a leader of the defensive line and one of four captains on the ’14 squad.
Day recently made the decision to return to Notre Dame for his senior season as opposed to entering his name in the NFL draft. A certain two-time captain with 96 career tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. His return to the fold gives the Irish a firm anchor for the 2015 season.
• QB-Gunner Kiel: Never took a snap for the Fighting Irish after a tumultuous recruiting process that included verbal commitments to Indiana and LSU before signing with the Irish. His stay in South Bend was short-lived, transferring to Cincinnati, sitting out the 2013 season, and then leading the Bearcats to a 9-4 record with 3,254 yards passing, a 59.7 completion percentage, and a 31-to-13 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
• CB-Tee Shepard: Came and went in a blink of an eye with academic issues and a reported heart condition, which ultimately led to a stint in junior college, signing with Mississippi, a season-ending toe injury, and hope for the future.
• OL-Steve Elmer: One of the returning cornerstones to an offensive line that has the makings of a dynamic front in 2015. Played in 10 games, starting four as a freshman, before starting the ’14 season as the right tackle.
After three games, the shift was made to guard, where Elmer was arguably Notre Dame’s most consistent run-blocking offensive lineman over the final 10 games. A horse upon which the Irish can strap their cart for two more seasons.
• TE-Mike Heuerman: Repeated health setbacks, not as much length as some thought when he signed, and the inability to hold his weight have prevented the brother of Ohio State national champion tight end Jeff Heuerman from making inroads in his first two years in the program. It remains an uphill battle.
• WR/LB-James Onwualu: A backup receiver as a freshman with two receptions and six tackles on special teams, Onwualu was tabbed last spring as a safety prospect in Brian VanGorder’s first Notre Dame defense.
But when fall rolled around, VanGorder loved what Onwualu brought to the equation as an outside linebacker. Onwualu was credited with 24 tackles, two for lost yardage, and figures to be one of the many building blocks the second time through in 2015. Played perhaps his best game against LSU in the Music City Bowl.
• WR-Corey Robinson: The easy-to-like son of NBA great David Robinson was a situational receiver as a freshman in 2013 as the Irish tried to take advantage of his 6-foot-5-and-growing frame. He caught just nine passes with one touchdown as a rookie, but his ability to draw interference calls as well as his three catches for 54 yards against Michigan State played an integral role in handing the Spartans their only loss of the 2013 season.
Robinson’s role expanded in ’14, finishing second on the team in receptions (40) and touchdown catches (5). The high point of his season came against Florida State when he scored twice and came within an offensive interference penalty of making it three, which would have been the game-winner.
Robinson is still seeking consistency in his performance, making just 13 catches over the final six games following his eight-catch, 99-yard performance against the Seminoles. He remains, however, another building block for an improving offense.
• QB-Malik Zaire: Stuck behind Everett Golson for 11 games and nearly two quarters in 2014, Zaire finally got his chance against USC, took advantage of it, and parlayed Golson’s struggle with his emergence to land the starting job against LSU in the Music City Bowl.
Zaire completed 12-of-15 for 96 yards and a touchdown against the Tigers while bolstering a revitalized rushing attack with a team-high 96 yards and another score. At the very least, he’s made it a true competition for the starting job should Golson choose to return.
• WR-Justin Brent: Impressed Brian Kelly with his physical maturity upon his arrival, but ultimately landed in the head coach’s doghouse for his off-the-field antics. Struggled finding his niche as a pass receiver as well. Played in nine games, mainly on special teams.
• DE-Andrew Trumbetti: Trumbetti has a chance to rival Sheldon Day’s top productivity among early-entry defenders with the strong start to his collegiate career. In fact, he’s a notch ahead of Day after one year following his 12-game, 22-tackle performance in ’14 with his first career start coming against LSU in the Music City Bowl. Also finished with 5.5 tackles for loss and five quarterback hurries.
One of the true bright spots in the freshman Class of 2014 with a promising future tied to his non-stop, on-field motor.
• LB-Tevon Coney: With his early enrollment, the Irish can breath a little easier, knowing they won the battle with Florida for this Sunshine State talent. Part of a set of talented incoming linebackers.
• DL Micah Dew-Treadway: A long road ahead for the aggressive but unorthodox youngster out of Bolingbrook, Ill., who’ll need to harness his skills into consistency/fundamental defensive line play.
• C/OG-Tristen Hoge: Built for interior line play, the nephew of former NFL running back Merrill Hoge looks to be the heir apparent at center if he can work his way into competition with Mark Harrell behind fifth-year seniors Matt Hegarty and/or Nick Martin.
• DL/OL-Jerry Tillery: Delighted to be given a shot on the defensive side of the football, don’t be surprised if Tillery – who appeared to be playing hard-to-get during the recruiting process while visiting other schools – quickly returns to offensive tackle, where his skillset is the best match.