Kelly's Annual Sophomore Surge

A look back at the best sophomore efforts of the five-season Brian Kelly era. Who'll join the list for 2015?

Annual occurrences were the unplanned theme of this week's football columns reviewing the tenure of head coach Brian Kelly era in South Bend. Year-by-year changes to his offensive scheme and red zone struggles were covered previously -- today we'll examine another constant, one that has buoyed Kelly's squads in each of his first five seasons at the helm:

The sophomore surge.

2010 -- REDSHIRT FRESHMEN SHINE
The 2009 recruiting class proved to be vastly undervalued (ranked No. 18 by Scout.com) though due in part to the presence of three specialists among the smallish 18-player haul.

True sophomore Manti Te'o was the main man in Year 2, Kelly's first at the helm, and converted slot receiver Theo Riddick had his moments prior to a mid-October ankle injury, but it was the influx of a quintet of redshirt-freshmen that rose to the occasion to help the Irish through Kelly's initial trying campaign:

-- RB Cierre Wood: Paced the team in rushing yards (603 at 5.1 per rush), becoming the first previously redshirted freshmen in program history to ever go on to lead a Notre Dame team in rushing at any point in any season (not just as a sophomore).

-- TE Tyler Eifert: Took over for injured star Kyle Rudolph following Game Six (Pittsburgh) and shined through the final seven games, notching 26 of his 27 receptions with two touchdowns as the Irish finished strong.

-- OT Zack Martin: Won the starting job on the left side in spring practice and never looked back -- for four years and 52 consecutive games. Will forever rank as the only four-time winner of the program's Guardian of the Year award presented to the top offensive lineman.

-- ILB Carlo Calabrese: Was a standout run stopper for eight weeks before a season-ending hamstring injury against Navy truncated his rookie campaign. Calabrese was the defense's player of the game in a 31-13 blowout at Boston College.

-- OG Chris Watt: Emerged as Notre Dame's "sixth-man" up front, the first guard off the bench whose playing time increased and peaked late during the squad's 4-0 finish.

Slot receiver Robby Toma, safety Zeke Motta, and inside linebacker/ST Dan Fox also contributed in reserve roles while Ben Turk served as the punter. (Motta started eight games.)

2011 -- BIG LOU AND A YOUNG TRIO
In retrospect, it's of little surprise that Kelly's 2010 "Class-on-the-Fly" collection of freshmen ranks as the least impactful group of second-year players during an otherwise star-studded five seasons. They were ranked No. 19 by Scout.com.

Nose guard Louis Nix emerged as a redshirt-freshman force and the true sophomore trio of Tommy Rees (12 starts, eight wins, more than 2,800 yards and 20 touchdowns), T.J. Jones (38 receptions, 3 TD), and Austin Collinsworth (Special Teams Player of the Year with a whopping 16 tackles) likewise shined from the class of 2010. Fish-out-of-water Prince Shembo received ample work at drop linebacker, moving to the cat position for which he was best-suited the following season, shining as a true junior in 2012.

Nix was the best of the second-year bunch (by a wide margin), serving as the anchor of a resurgent Irish rush defense and helping to establish the youth-filled front as one of the nation's best leading into 2012.

Sophomore special teamers Bennett Jackson and Kendall Moore also proved valuable.

2012 -- REDSHIRT FROSH TO THE FORE ONCE MORE
Scout.com's No. 8 ranked recruiting haul from the previous season matured, as Stephon Tuitt (Hendricks Award Finalist, 12 sacks) evolved into a force at defensive end while fellow sophomores Troy Niklas (No. 2 tight end in the preferred "12 Package"), OLB Ishaq Williams, RB/KR George Atkinson, and K Kyle Brindza all played key roles in a championship run.

Paving the path, however, was a quartet of redshirt-freshmen without whom the run to 12-0 would not have been possible:

-- QB Everett Golson: Kelly noted last fall that his then redshirt-freshman triggerman "Rode the Bus" to the BCS Championship game. In truth, without Golson as the starter against Oklahoma, Pittsburgh, and perhaps USC, Kelly and his Irish would have instead taxi'd on the runway of a second-tier bowl site rather than been feted for a week in Miami.

-- S Matthias Farley: A converted slot receiver, Farley was the year's unexpected "season-saver" emerging as a key starter when 5th-year standout Jamoris Slaughter was lost midway through Game 3 (Michigan State) due to a torn Achilles. Farley shined as a goal line defender, helping to secure goal line stands -- and thus, victories -- over both Stanford and USC.

-- DE Tony Springmann: Notre Dame's No. 5 DL in a super six-man rotation as redshirt-frosh in '12, Springmann should be remembered today as the undervalued missing piece from the 2013 and 2014 defenses that would have benefitted greatly from his presence. His career ended last August due to a lingering back injury.

-- WR DaVaris Daniels: Served as Golson's fourth option (Eifert, Jones, Riddick), but was instrumental in victories over Purdue, Oklahoma, and Pittsburgh, as well as showing up on the main stage when most teammates fell flat against the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Offensive lineman Nick Martin (T/G), RB Cam McDaniel, TE Ben Koyack, and LB/ST Jarrett Grace also contributed in reserve.

2013 -- SMALL IN NUMBER, NOT IN IMPACT
Five backups and three standout starters made an impact on Kelly's smallest class, an impressive number considering four from the 16-player haul transferred prior to the season while another, Nicky Baratti, was out for the year due to shoulder surgery.

-- CB Keivarae Russell: Started 13 games for the second straight season, emerging late as one of the projected top returning players for the 2014 squad. 51 tackles, 9 PD, 2 picks.

-- RT Ronnie Stanley: Played well enough the previous spring and summer to push 13-game RT starter Christian Lombard to right guard.

-- DE Sheldon Day: Healthy only for the opening month, the Irish defensive front was never the same when Day wasn't 100 percent. Graded as the team's top defensive linemen per position coach Mike Elston despite missing three games due to injury (ankle).

True sophomores Elijah Shumate (S), Chris Brown (WR), and Romeo Okwara (DL), plus redshirt-freshmen Jarron Jones (NG) and C.J. Prosise (Slot/ST) also contributed to the cause.

The group ranked No. 16 in Scout.com's final tally as incoming freshmen but has since lost six members including two five-star and three four-star pledges (including the currently suspended Russell). A seventh, the aforementioned Baratti, has lost nearly two of his three full seasons due to injury.

2014 -- SOPHOMORES RULE THE ROOST
Scout.com's No. 5 ranked recruiting haul from 2013 made the biggest impact of any sophomore class at the program since the 1988 national champions featured program legends/standouts Ricky Watters, Tony Brooks, Todd Lyght, Chris Zorich, Mike Heldt, Andre Jones, Scott Kowalkowski, Tim Ryan, and George "Boo" Williams.

The 2014 sophomores, now juniors, serve as the backbone of the upcoming season.

-- LB Jaylon Smith: Led the defense in tackles (112) and tackles-for-loss (9) earning second-team All-America honors.

-- WR Will Fuller: Over the last 25 years, only Rocket Ismail, Derrick Mayes, Golden Tate, and Michael Floyd were (arguably) as impressive as second-year wideouts, though none matched (approached) Fuller's production.

-- RB Tarean Folston: Solidified the ground game, registering six outings in his final eight contests between 73 and 149 rushing yards.

-- CB Cole Luke: Led the squad with 15 PD while tying for team honors forcing two fumbles and recording four interceptions.

-- DL Isaac Rochell: Produced 7.5 tackles-for-loss with an official team-best 10 QB hurries. Not bad for a "run-stuffer."

-- WR Corey Robinson: A top complimentary target with five touchdowns among his 40 receptions.

-- S Max Redfield: Curious November benching notwithstanding, Redfield's athleticism saved countless touchdowns through 2014.

-- OG Steve Elmer: Drive-blocking power player started all 13 games including the last 10 at right guard.

-- LB/ST James Onwualu: Second in special teams tackles while playing his two best games from scrimmage vs. physical foes Stanford and LSU -- a portent of things to come?

Running back Greg Bryant, QB Malik Zaire, RT Mike McGlinchey, CB/ST Devin Butler, and WR Torii Hunter, Jr., also lent valuable contributions (with Zaire and McGlinchey starring in the Music City Bowl victory over LSU), while NT Jacob Matuska, and TE Durham Smythe tasted their first bit of action.

2015 -- Who Among Them? Who'll step to the fore next fall? That discussion resumes Saturday afternoon at Irish Illustrated.


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