To Sit or Not to Sit? The Need for Speed

Part 4 of our review of Brian Kelly's decisions regarding freshmen redshirts during his five seasons at the helm in South Bend.

Part 3 of our "To Sit or Not To Sit?" series (linked at the bottom of the page) included comments made by Irish head coach Brian Kelly upon his hire in December 2009 regarding a general need for strength and weight gain for freshmen to complete along the lines of scrimmage.

Though he's annually employed freshmen defensive linemen both because of need and/or talent that could not be ignored, Kelly's sparse use of rookies along the offensive front shows a consistent, prudent plan for the career arc of each.

But to those longstanding beliefs regarding players up front, Kelly added this addendum: "I'd rather play true freshmen. I've always had better success with a young man that plays, relative to time management, than if he redshirts. It's just worked for me philosophically."

Fast forward to February 4, 2015, with Kelly entering his sixth season in charge of the program.

"We're going to let you compete, and the watch word around here is you have to compete and embrace competition," said Kelly of his new freshmen group. "Look, I'm going to know right away, when we go out there and you're a freshman and you act like a freshman, then you're going to get what a freshman gets. That's no playing time. You get to watch.

"If you go out there, and you don't act like a freshman, and you want to go out there and compete, and you want to go out there and play, then go play. So it's really up to them. They will decide. If they are physically able, and they mentally want to compete, let's go compete.

"I mean, I'm not getting any younger," he added."

And as Kelly's five-year review of freshmen below illustrates, if you can run, you can probably help him in Year One.

COVERAGE SKILLS COVETED
Among Kelly's *10 cornerback signees, six found first-year playing time: Lo Wood (2010), Josh Atkinson (2011), Keivarae Russell (2012), both Cole Luke and Devin Butler (2013) and Nick Watkins last season. Wood, Atkinson, and Watkins were primarily special teams contributors while Russell was a 12-game starter and both Luke and Butler forged ample playing time in the 2013 Dime package.

(*Among the remaining quartet of cornerbacks pledges Spencer Boyd, 2010, and Tee Shepard, 2012, transferred -- Shepard would have played from the outset. 2013 pledge Rashad Kinlaw redshirted and was later dismissed, while 2011 signee Jalen Brown redshirted, then failed to see significant action through his upcoming graduation this May.)

Not including the neophyte Watkins, the results have been mixed, with Atkinson and Wood both failing to make a future impact while Russell and Luke have starred. Butler has at least earned his stripes to date.

Aiding Kelly's overall cornerback crop was 2010 wide receiver recruit Bennett Jackson, who flipped scrimmage following his rookie season, one in which he starred on special teams.

Verdict on Redshirting Corners: If they can run and hit, get them on special teams. If they can run, hit, and cover, get them in the mix. If they can only run, get them in the weight room with a redshirt season attached. (If they can only run and cover, but not hit, it's likely they'll struggle a la true freshman Darrin Walls as the 2006 season progressed.)

The most compelling argument for sitting a true freshman cornerback concerns Watkins, who earned no competitive game action from scrimmage last season despite the obvious need for aid at the position in November, when healthy bodies were in short supply. Watkins played all 13 games in punt coverage and did not record a tackle. (Notable in that it seems hard to not record one stop.)

Was it a year of eligibility "lost" or was Watkins more engaged in his overall development as a cornerback because he was involved on the team's game day coverage units? We'll likely get our initial answer to that end later this fall.

SAFTEY IN NUMBERS
The 2015 recruiting haul brings two definitive safety prospects to the table: Mykelti Williams and Nicco Fertitta. Previously, and including WR/S pledge Austin Collinsworth, the first five seasons of Kelly's recruiting efforts was comprised of *10 safety pledges, with just three from the group -- 2012's Elijah Shumate and Nicky Baratti, plus 2014's Drue Tranquill -- serving as major players in their rookie campaigns.

Shumate was the '12 squad's starting nickel while Baratti was the first safety off the bench. Tranquill moved from linebacker to safety during 2014 and started twice at the latter prior to injury.

Collinsworth saw immediate rookie action as a top-notch special teams player, thereafter becoming a captain and starting safety, in part due to an injury redshirt for 2012. *Matthias Farley (the asterisk included as he was more of a slot/CB recruit) moved to safety for his sophomore and juniors seasons after a freshman season spent as a scout team slot receiver, then to nickel last fall. He's a lock for a fifth-year, likely as the secondary's much-needed utility man.

2013 star recruit Max Redfield was a special teams regular as a rookie before starting his first game to conclude his freshman season in the Pinstripe Bowl. He's easily Kelly's top recruit at the position and trails only Harrison Smith as the best overall athlete to grace the back line during the Kelly era.

Redshirts include Chris Badger (2010), Eilar Hardy (2011), and both John Turner and C.J. Prosise (2012). None from that quartet made a major scrimmage impact at the position thereafter with Badger (and technically, Hardy) transferring, and Turner firmly entrenched on special teams.

Prosise successfully flipped scrimmage to slot receiver and also earned the 2014 squad's Special Teams Player of the Year award.

Verdict on Redshirting Safeties: The ability to translate film room to field and to communicate under intense duress seems the position's greatest challenge -- neither of those skills are generally commensurate with 18-year-old freshmen.

Regardless, top tier safety talent is likely to shine through, at least in a reserve or special teams role, but if first-round NFL Draft pick and Über-Athlete Harrison Smith can redshirt, no future Irish safety should be insulted by the practice.

Among the most compelling arguments for redshirting talented safeties is the senior Prosise, who, if he were entering his final season of eligibility this year, would be regarded far less highly in the program's overall plans. Instead with two seasons remaining, the athletic, improved Prosise could play a major part in another 20 to 25 Notre Dame victories through 2016.

Regarding Redfield as a weekly special-teamer, but little-used scrimmage player in 2013 -- As a California transplant, his inclusion with the varsity was likely a prudent call by Kelly, and it would have been a major upset had he stayed in South Bend for five seasons, anyway.

CATCHING ON: THE WIDEOUTS
Prior to the current crop of four receiver recruits, Kelly had signed 13 wide receiver pledges (including the aforementioned Matthias Farley and Bennett Jackson) and curiously, it was perhaps the most talented of that baker's dozen that took a true redshirt season -- four-star pledge, DaVaris Daniels -- who joined the raw Farley on the 2011 sidelines.

Most played from the outset, including T.J. Jones and Jackson (2010), Jones as a starter, Jackson on special teams as the unit's MVP.

-- 2012 included varied contributions from all three true frosh: Davonte Neal (punt returner), Justin Ferguson (kick return unit) and Chris Brown (designated go-route runner). Only Brown, an essential 2015 starter, remains with the program.

-- 2013 received a major impact from the position, with Will Fuller, Corey Robinson, and James Onwualu all earning major playing time (and three starts apiece), while medical redshirt Torii Hunter, Jr., had a good chance to join them if not for a major leg injury (broken femur).

Last year's freshmen combo of Justin Brent and Corey Holmes did not redshirt, though Holmes has plausible deniability on his side, playing just two games at the season's outset. Brent developed into a quality blocker on special teams by November, his highlight a pancake block on Louisville's punter to spring Greg Bryant for a 61-yard return.

The Verdict on Redshirting WRs: Hindsight isn't needed to offer that Holmes likely would have benefitted down the line from a redshirt season as a true freshman. His inclusion in Games 1 and 2, then no action thereafter, was curious at best.

But with the exception of Daniels, top talent usually forges a role, and in hindsight, it's safe to surmise that Daniels remained on the sideline because of a lack of attention to detail rather than being unable to show his athletic gifts.

Prior to Daniels, to find a top tier receiver that redshirted at the program by coach's decision (not injury), you have to go back to 1988 and Gary, Ind., product Tony Smith. Smith went on to lead the 1991 squad with 789 receiving yards as a senior and a remarkable 18.8 ypc. He bypassed his potential fifth-year and was drafted in the fourth round by the Kansas City Chiefs.

In other words, if they're making plays in practice, and not the types prone to crippling mistakes, get 'em in.

BORN TO RUN?
Not including cornerback KeiVarae Russell (definitively a running back pledge), six runners have inked for Kelly's five previous classes, with two taking freshmen redshirts: Cameron Robinson (2010) and Will Mahone (2012).

(2013 freshman Greg Bryant's redshirt was due to a knee procedure. Bryant played in three of the first four contests.)

Roberson suffered a knee injury in spring ball before his sophomore season and never played for the team while Mahone transferred due to an off-field incident after limited game action as a second-year slot receiver.

-- True freshman George Atkinson made an instant impact as a kick returner, working with 2011 classmate Cam McDaniel in mop-up duty from scrimmage. Atkinson "went pro" two seasons later while McDaniel became a 2014 team captain.

-- 2013 freshman Tarean Folston ranks, at least to date, as easily the top RB signee of Kelly's tenure, serving as the 2014 squad's lead runner.

None from the quartet that played (Bryant, Folston, Atkinson, McDaniel) were legitimate redshirt options as Atkinson and Folston were essential to their teams, and both Bryant and McDaniel would have been inconsolable had they not been given a chance to compete.

-- 2015 includes a pair of likely contributors in four-star pledges Dexter Williams and Josh Adams.

Verdict on Redshirting RBs: Since freshmen became eligible in 1972, only one former freshman redshirt has ever gone on to lead the program in rushing yards (Cierre Wood 2010, 2011). Wood bypassed his potential fifth season in South Bend, 2013, thereafter.

Aside from injury, redshirting a talented freshman running back will generally prove fruitless when the mutual discussion of a fifth-season in South Bend follows four years down the line.

With a few notable exceptions, playing skill position talent from the outset appears prudent in the long run.

To review the series to date, click the links below:


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