The 2014 Notre Dame season offered a glimpse at the future, with 25 of the team's top 40 contributors from scrimmage collected among the squad's sophomore and freshmen classes.
While the 2015 juniors rank as the program's backbone, it's the sophomores-to-be and the development of two, perhaps three handfuls of competitors from that crop that will likely determine if Notre Dame can contend to the end.
(To review the best Kelly-era sophomores, 2010-present, click here.)
SOPHOMORES -- THE EXPECTED
Two from the first three could start, the other enters spring ball as the definitive No. 2 at the sport's second-most important position -- and he's expected to log starter's reps for the entire session.
-- DE Andrew Trumbetti: Expect him to again work in tandem with Romeo Okwara at defensive end, though both should receive ample reps this spring, assuming top DE Isaac Rochell cross-trains inside. The sky's the limit for Trumbetti but a pairing with his senior competitor Okwara is again likely for 2015 -- and it will likely make both better over the three-month crunch.
-- LB Nyles Morgan: Could start at mike, or will, or sam. Or backup any of the three. Morgan's slotting is pending Joe Schmidt's health (mike), the potential move of Jaylon Smith from will to sam, and the slotting of current sam James Onwualu (either he secures the starting job or moves to safety).
-- NT Daniel Cage: Won the backup nose tackle role as a true freshman -- perhaps by default, but it's notable nonetheless. Now he could be the starting nose tackle for spring ball -- again by default, with senior Jarron Jones felled by injury. (Cage is one Irish player unable to complain about lack of opportunity.) Concluded the season injured, battling a knee sprain suffered Nov. 15 vs. Northwestern but fought back to play vs. USC (injured again) and was available for the Music City Bowl, but did not appear.
Cage gets an A for effort as a true frosh in the trenches, but improvement is essential.
-- Tyler Newsome: Notre Dame needs a starting punter. Newsome's a scholarship punter. (This is ground-breaking analysis!)
THROUGH THE RANKS
The two-deep awaits -- reserve roles, that is -- and in most cases, that was their impressive true freshmen status throughout 2014 as well.
-- S Drue Tranquill: Would obviously fit into the section above if not for November surgery to repair a torn ACL. Kelly noted of Tranquill in early November that, as he continues to develop, "He could be a linebacker, right now he's a box safety." Tranquill unexpectedly started at safety 10 days later -- it's fair to say he looked better at linebacker, a role in which he thrived as a dime package player for the first two months of 2014.
-- DE Grant Blankenship: Could have used a redshirt-season in 2014, but those live bullets give the athletic Blankenship a major leg up in his forthcoming competition with a host of defensive ends, both classmates and upperclassmen alike. If Ishaq Williams returns, what happens to Blankenship's reps and therefore, second-year development? Will get his chance this spring as Rochell does some work inside.
-- TE Tyler Luatua: Played his best game of the season against LSU to close his freshman campaign. Notre Dame's use of Luatua and its potential preponderance of two tight end sets will be predicated on the quarterback -- and method of offense -- of choice for 2015. He's far ahead of his young competitors as a blocker and not in their class as a pass-catcher. Special teams work awaits, regardless.
-- LB Greer Martini: Unlikely to start if Joe Schmidt, Jaylon Smith, Nyles Morgan, and James Onwualu remain in good health (though the versatile Onwualu might be asked to lend a hand at the struggling safety position), but Martini is a quality Next Man In at either inside linebacker spot. Martini started on all four Irish run teams (coverage and return units) and likely will again.
-- OG Quenton Nelson: Many project the ultra-talented Nelson to start as a redshirt-freshman guard. Those people should get ahold of the ND/LSU game tape and watch a pair of returning 5th-year seniors operate in unison at LG and C. Regardless, Nelson will be at worst the first guard off the bench, and one the staff will likely integrate as they did Chris Watt as a redshirt-freshman in 2010. Could also work at tackle, though that seems nonsensical for 2015 given the overall unit's makeup.
-- OT Alex Bars: Kelly's December comments that Bars ranks as "one of the best I've seen in 25 years" was likely more a shot across Mike McGlinchey's right tackle bow than something to be taken at face value -- expect Bars to be described as decidedly human, along with the rest of college football's young linemen, in the coming months. Regardless, his forthcoming competition with McGlinchey, who produced a standout effort in the second half of the Music Bowl City Bowl, ranks as a top spring storyline.
The pair of linemen above represent the future at Notre Dame. Expect them to be the first guard and tackle off the bench in 2015.
-- DT Jonathan Bonner: Backing up Sheldon Day means Bonner's potential to earn a starting role is the lowest among not only those listed in this category, but perhaps the roster. He's nonetheless a crucial cog over a four-month, 12-game season because A.) Day hasn't stayed healthy since a reserve role in 2012, and B.) 10 quality snaps per game as Day's backup would prove invaluable over the long haul.
-- CB Nick Watkins: Ranks as the team's No. 3 cornerback entering winter workouts with a chance to overtake No. 2 Devin Butler, either by head-to-head competition this spring, or the need for Butler's services to augment a thin safeties unit. The expected addition of Keivarae Russell means neither will start in 2015, but the squad's nickel defense could use a coverage boost in third-and-long situations.
Talent abounds, both from the members of this grouping and the upperclassmen at their respective positions.
-- DE/Rush End Jhonny Williams: A man without a position last season, look for Williams to carve a niche as the dime package "Rush End" by spring's conclusion, and for him to hold that vs. fierce competition in August. True defensive end work might have to wait for one more season, especially if senior Ishaq Williams rejoins the fold.
-- DE/DT Jay Hayes: Inside or outside? Or both? I expect a dual-role is the answer for Hayes for 2016, but he's a luxury item at DE projecting toward this fall with defensive ends Trumbetti, Romeo Okwara, perhaps Ishaq Williams and Blankenship already in the fold. Regardless, Hayes ability to play both inside and out is a future necessity up front.
-- WRs Justin Brent and Corey Holmes: Before you pen an angry response, exactly which member of these projected returning receivers are going to be beaten out? Will Fuller, Corey Robinson, Chris Brown, C.J. Prosise, Amir Carlisle, Torii Hunter, Jr.
Both Brent and Holmes will have to be definitively better than someone from the group of six above to breech the two-deep, though I do expect both to play roles next fall. (It's likewise clear there's only room for one to earn quality time, barring injury, of course.)
-- DE/Rush End Kolin Hill: Won the rush end job last September and shined vs. Michigan and Purdue thereafter, but Hill's playing time came to a halt as October hit. Undersized as a true defensive end, he'll be locked in a battle with Williams for the rush end role this spring. Could he redshirt as a sophomore if Williams earns the nod at rush end?
-- TE Nic Weishar: It's crucial for Weishar's 2016 development that he emerge ahead of fellow detached TE candidates Mike Heuerman (Jr.) and Alize Jones (Fr.) this fall. Jones is not an early enrollee, giving Weishar a chance to earn quality reps among a tight end quartet this spring.
-- OG Jimmy Byrne and Center Sam Mustipher: Mustipher should get second-team center reps this spring, but Autumn's backup center role falls to either Nick Martin (LG/C) or Matt Hegarty (C/LG). Byrne is expected to battle with Colin McGovern, John Montelus, and Mark Harrell among the interior reserves.
-- NT Pete Mokwuah: Goal for spring 2015 and through December should be to supplant Jacob Matuska in the three-deep NT rotation, but Matuska's emergency playing time in 2014 gives him a leg up, at least early.