It's come and gone. The day when all incoming runners show "burst," all pledged quarterbacks are "students of the game," and all linemen have some sort of enviable, developable, pliable "frame" with which to work.
There's upside, there's potential upside, and there's ample amount of untapped potential -- heck, there might even be "untapped upside potential" all rolled into one if you searched transcripts nationwide.
A full boat of twenty-four pledges signed for head coach Brian Kelly's 2015 Irish, which means at least *28 percent of next year's squad will be true freshmen. (*As an aside, if the roster total hits the allotted 85 spots, 38 percent will be comprised of freshmen/redshirt-freshmen; players that did not see the field last year.)
It's likely no more than nine of those 24 true freshmen will find the playing field next fall.
The sentence above isn't meant to denigrate the future student-athlete as much as illustrate simple, 2015 math in South Bend -- math that relates to the influx of freshmen that debuted for Kelly & Co. in 2013 and 2014, a whopping 22 -- none of them have since transferred.
With a potential 53 returning "regulars," to the 2015 squad, there's a new reality facing the program, and it's one that should benefit the Irish greatly -- there's not a lot of playing time available at Notre Dame's Two-Deep Depth Chart Inn.
Reasonable minds can disagree on the use of true freshmen -- or which true freshmen -- and the reason for a given rookie's debut often varies.
Some, such as nose tackle Daniel Cage last fall and fellow pivot man Ian Williams in 2007, fill a critical position in need of immediate aid. Others, are injury related: quarterback Tommy Rees and defensive linemen Kona Schwenke (early Nov. 2010), and Jay Hayes (late-Nov. 2014) are notable examples.
Of course, some are too good to sit, the main example of which is Michael Floyd, who'd have made his Irish debut as a freshman in any given season since the school began participating in the sport.
But for most, a year of weight training and assimilation to the University is a necessity.
What's the determining factor? We'll examine those this week in a position-based series reviewing -- with the benefit of hindsight, in most cases -- the use of players throughout the Kelly era.
First, however, is something on which everyone can weigh in with an opinion:
In this case, the five-season Kelly era covers anyone that played for him from his first season, 2010, through the present. It's irrelevant who recruited them.
The lists below illustrate an interesting and undeniable reality -- the best college football players don't necessarily debut as true freshmen. Inarguably, four of the top 10 players of the Kelly era were freshmen redshirts -- Zack Martin, Tyler Eifert, Harrison Smith, and Louis Nix. And that can be extrapolated to at least 7 or 8 of the Top 15.
As both lists expand, the numbers go heavily in favor of those that played from the outset -- those deemed or made ready as freshmen -- as only 10 or 11 of the top 30 combined players among the two lists below were redshirt-freshmen.
Admittedly, I'm splitting hairs trying to rank the individuals after about No. 9 on this initial list:
1. OT Zack Martin -- I can't think of a reasonable argument for him at No. 2
2. TE Tyler Eifert -- The best at his position since legendary pass-catcher and 1977 champion, Ken MacAfee.
3. S Harrison Smith -- Best overall athlete to redshirt since…?
4. NG Louis Nix -- Rookie redshirt was mandatory, but Big Lou worked his way to 2012 stardom.
5. QB Everett Golson -- Where would he have ranked had this list been created in late October?
6. DE Kapron Lewis-Moore -- Freshman redshirt made possible a standout 2012 campaign.
7. OG Chris Watt -- The program's best guard since the Bob Davie era.
8. MLB Joe Schmidt -- Redshirt was never in question. Now, neither is his ability.
9. RB Cierre Wood -- The only redshirt to ever later lead the program in rushing yards. Remarkable (and telling).
10. C Braxston Cave -- Third-team All-America center as a 5th-year senior. Three-year starter.
11. S Jamoris Slaughter -- Injuries dropped him from Top 10. Slaughter was a snake-bitten potential star.
12. WR DaVaris Daniels -- He giveth and he taketh away...
13. C/G Nick Martin -- Story still unfolding; excellent vs. FSU, LSU last fall.
14. S/Nickel Matthias Farley -- From solid to sieve to playmaker -- with Season #4 pending...
15. ILB Dan Fox -- Good compliment to Manti Te'o in 2012; came on strong in final eight games 2013.
16. ILB Carlo Calabrese -- At his best as a redshirt-freshmen and 5th-year senior. Which is odd...
17. NT Jarron Jones -- Can take a massive leap up this list; will need fifth year in '16 to reach potential.
18. Slot C.J. Prosise -- Could jump six spots by the end of 2015; another 2-3 after '16?
19. RG/RT Christian Lombard -- Three-year starter and he played hurt for nearly two seasons.
20. CB Gary Gray -- Name is unfortunately synonymous with his poor 2011 season; he was excellent in 2010.
Other Notables: Starting offensive linemen Chris Stewart, Taylor Dever, Mike Golic, Jr., plus nose guard Sean Cwynar, defensive end Tony Springmann (a crucial 2012 reserve), and WR John Goodman (ditto), as well as K David Ruffer (a walk-on transfer from William & Mary that earned a 5th year at ND). Ruffer was nearly perfect in 2010-11 (23-24 FG) but struggled as a fifth-year.
Inclusion pending 2015 (Not including current redshirt-freshmen): QB Malik Zaire, RB Greg Bryant, OT Mike McGlinchey, C Matt Hegarty, LB Jarrett Grace, WR Torii Hunter, Jr.
There's a lot more talent to choose from, and reasonable minds can disagree on the rankings between No. 9 through about No. 20 (or even through 40, perhaps).
1. LB Manti Te'o -- Kind of hard to argue with the hardware...
2. WR Michael Floyd -- Became a complete receiver under Kelly; was dynamite with Weis.
3. LB Jaylon Smith -- Similar to Shaquille O'Neal's inclusion among the NBA's Top 50 just three seasons into his tenure, this is a pre-emptive strike.
4. DE Stephon Tuitt -- What could have been? Tuitt seemed destined for all-timer status.
5. WR Will Fuller -- Could reach as high as No. 3 (No. 2 with a BCS Title).
6. DT Sheldon Day -- The most underrated defensive player since…?
7. RB Jonas Gray -- Was our 2011 Team MVP prior to Senior Day injury. Deserved more carries.
8. WR TJ Jones -- Improvement from soph., to junior, to senior was commendable. Team MVP.
9. RB/Slot Theo Riddick -- Crucial component in 2012; put forth a heroic, championship effort vs. USC to secure 12-0
10. OLB Prince Shembo -- Peaked in 2012 but was officially named Defensive MVP in 2013.
11. OLB Darius Fleming -- Imagine Fleming with one more season (2012) in South Bend!
12. OT Ronnie Stanley -- Has Top 5 potential. I'll guess he settles at about No. 7
13. TE Troy Niklas -- Two-season contributor; one-season standout. Left some on the table...
14. CB Robert Blanton -- Best DB in 2011 and dynamite nickel in 2010
15. S Zeke Motta -- Shoots up to No. 10 if you only count his 2012 senior season.
16. RB Tarean Folston -- Has Top 6-10 potential if he stays two more years.
17. CB KeiVarae Russell -- Should rocket up the charts this fall.
18. CB Cole Luke -- I've chosen to ignore the 2014 USC game. Luke was/is outstanding.
19. DE/DT Isaac Rochell -- A season-saver for Kelly, Brian VanGorder, and Mike Elston last fall.
20. TE Kyle Rudolph -- Played seven games for Kelly and was injured throughout.
Next in line (somewhat in order): CB *Cody Riggs, NG Ian Williams, CB Darrin Walls, WR Corey Robinson, LB Danny Spond, CB Bennett Jackson, RB Robert Hughes, RB Armando Allen, K Kyle Brindza, QB Tommy Rees, TE Ben Koyack, DE Aaron Lynch, LB Brian Smith, KR/RB George Atkinson, RB Cam McDaniel, Slot/KR *Amir Carlisle, DE Ethan Johnson, RG Trevor Robinson, Special Teams/S Austin Collinsworth.
*Riggs and Carlisle, both transfers into the program after serving as freshmen contributors at their initial schools, Florida and USC, respectively, were difficult to rank. Carlisle's listing seems appropriate while Riggs would have qualified among the top 20 non-redshirts had he played an entire season rather than the better part of nine games.
Inclusion pending 2015 efforts: WR Chris Brown, S Max Redfield, S Elijah Shumate, LB Nyles Morgan, DE Andrew Trumbetti, LB James Onwualu, OG Steve Elmer, DE Romeo Okwara, S Drue Tranquill.
Note: Part 2, an examination of the the lines of scrimmage and quarterback, will be published Tuesday.