Upon his first interview with a small media contingent in December of 2009, new Irish head coach Brian Kelly offered his theory on the use of true freshmen linemen at a successful program.
"I think (in terms of positions) it does make a difference," said Kelly. "Mentally and physically, there are a couple of positions, in particularly the offensive line, that would in my experience mean they're probably not ready to play as true freshmen."
Kelly's initial comments regarding rookie offensive linemen has proven accurate over his first five hears at the helm. The other side of scrimmage has been the polar opposite -- and that's not necessarily a negative.
At least one true freshman defensive lineman has been pressed into -- or forced his way into action -- during Kelly's five seasons:
-- 2010: Kona Schwenke -- Then about 60 pounds heavier than his 2013 playing weight, Schwenke entered as pass-rushing defensive end in Game Nine (Tulsa) and played in each of the final four outings thereafter.
-- 2011: Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt, Ishaq Williams, and Chase Hounshell -- Lynch and Tuitt played from the outset (though curiously not in Game 2 at Michigan) while Hounshell found a role in Game Six vs. AIr Force to help defend the triple option. Williams was a hybrid OLB/DE (largely a cat linebacker) that appeared in 11 games. Each member of the quartet earned time in the Champs Sports Bowl loss to Florida State, with Lynch and Tuitt starring in the contest.
-- 2012: Sheldon Day -- The super sub among Notre Dame's best defensive line in the program's last 20 seasons (and counting).
-- 2013: Isaac Rochell -- Appeared in the first 11 games, serving as Kelly's chief surprise of August camp.
-- 2014: Andrew Trumbetti, Daniel Cage, Kolin Hill, Grant Blankenship, and Jay Hayes -- Trumbetti benefitted from early enrollment to emerge as 1B to Romeo Okwara's 1A as a weak side defensive end while Cage earned the backup nose tackle role early in camp. Hill emerged late in August to secure a rush end job in the dime package and Blankenship secured a spot behind the aforementioned Rochell from the outset on the strong side. Hayes was forced into action in Game 11 (Louisville) as a result of myriad injuries up front.
He was then lost to injury one week later at USC.
-- 2015: Who among them? If previous early enrollees are an indication, freshman defensive tackle prospect Jerry Tillery has a chance to see the field as a rookie as did all of his spring semester predecessors (Lynch, Day, and Trumbetti) up front.
It's assumed Notre Dame's youth-filled defensive front (12, potentially 13 non-freshmen populate the unit for 2015) won't need the aid of Tillery's fellow early enrollee Micah Dew-Treadway or incoming linemen Brandon Tiassum, Bo Wallace (a rush end) and Elijah Taylor.
(Kelly-era DL redshirts: Jonathan Bonner, Jhonny Williams, Pete Mokwuah, Jacob Matuska, Jarron Jones, Tony Springmann, Justin Utupo and Louis Nix.)
The Verdict on Playing Defensive Linemen: If they're good enough to help in any capacity, get them in the game, because the best won't stay for a fifth season anyway (i.e., there's little chance a player like Isaac Rochell would need a fifth season in South Bend.)
True interior players recruited to the program (nose guards, nose tackles) generally need a year of conditioning to drop bad weight a la Louis Nix, Jarron Jones, Pete Mokwuah, and Daniel Cage (and Tyler Stockton, Brandon Newman before them). Cage would have been redshirted last season had the staff had a reliable veteran at their disposal.
The Verdict on Playing Jay Hayes in Game 11: In retrospect, it didn't work out, as Hayes was lost to injury in Game 12 at USC, but playing Hayes gave Notre Dame a chance to hold up against Louisville on Senior Day, and though Mean Joe Greene couldn't have helped the Irish beat USC, that reality is only present in hindsight.
Said Kelly of pulling Hayes' redshirt in mid-November: "Look, we think Jay Hayes can play at the next level. We think he’s that good of a player. We haven’t had a lot of NFL defensive linemen hang around here for five years."
Neither person of interest in the paragraph above will likely be in South Bend in 2018 -- a reality that likely made Kelly's decision much easier.
RARELY READY: THE OFFENSIVE FRONT
Of the 19 freshmen offensive linemen to enroll during the Kelly era, just two have seen the field as true freshmen: part-time starter Steve Elmer in 2013 and early-season left tackle reserve Ronnie Stanley in 2012.
Stanley's opening game inclusion was curious behind the unit's rock, Zack Martin, but a pre-existing elbow injury truncated his season (following Game 4 against Michigan) and it's clear he won't need a fifth season in South Bend, regardless.
An early enrollee, Elmer was one of the team's top seven linemen exiting camp in 2013 and worked his way into a part-time starting role (10 games played, 4 starts).
Kelly-Era Redshirts Include: Alex Bars, Quenton Nelson, Jimmy Byrne, Sam Mustipher (2014), Mike McGlinchey, Colin McGovern, John Montelus, and Hunter Bivin (2013), Mark Harrell (2012), Jordan Prestwood, Brad Carrico, Matt Hegarty, Nick Martin, Conor Hanratty (2011), Bruce Heggie, Tate Nichols, and Christian Lombard (2010).
From that group, Lombard, Martin, and Hegarty emerged as multi-season starters while Hanratty and McGlinchey also served in starting roles. (Prestwood transferred and both Carrico and Nichols took medical scholarships along the way.)
The 2016 starting offensive line will likely include four former redshirts (plus Elmer) while the 2015 front will have three (save for Stanley, Elmer). More relevant, eight of the 10 players along next season's two-deep will be former redshirts.
It's a system that works in South Bend, one that has rarely caught the Irish without enough experience or seasoning when the bullets go live.
Final verdict on redshirting offensive linemen: It should be a practice across the board assuming the unit has a quality backup option at both guard and tackle exiting training camp and September. Even "NFL prospects" (is there such a thing for an incoming freshmen OL?) could benefit down the line from a freshman season redshirt because injuries are a reality at the position -- if a senior goes down in Game Six, and he earned just spot duty as a freshman OL, his collegiate career is over.
Top Former Redshirts (2000-Present):
-- LT Zack Martin, Jordan Black
-- LG Mike Gandy, Chris Watt, Nick Martin
-- C Jeff Faine, John Sullivan, Braxston Cave
-- RG Dan Stevenson (actually a LG, too), Dan Santucci
-- RT Mark Levoir, Jordan Black, Kurt Vollers
-- LT Ryan Harris
-- LG Eric Olsen
-- C None
-- RG Steve Elmer
-- RT Ronnie Stanley, Sam Young
Top Former Redshirt DL (2000-Present):
-- DE Justin Tuck, Ryan Roberts
-- DE/DT Trevor Laws, Greg Pauley
-- NT/DT Derek Landri, Cedric Hilliard, Greg Pauley, Jarron Jones
-- NG Louis Nix, Lance Legree
-- DE/DT Kapron Lewis-Moore, (DT) Darrell Campbell
Top Former Non-Redshirt DL (2000-Present):
-- DE Anthony Weaver, Victor Abiamiri, Ethan Johnson
-- DT/DE Sheldon Day
-- NT Ian Williams, Kona Schwenke
-- DE Stephon Tuitt, Isaac Rochell, Aaron Lynch