Another Sophomore Surge

Notre Dame's 2011, 2012, and 2013 recruiting classes share a common trait. It appears 2014 will follow suit next fall.

The 2014 season is likely to represent head coach Brian Kelly's high-water mark for sophomore contributions to the cause in South Bend.

In addition to second-team All-America selection Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame's sophomore class boasted the team leader in rushing yards (Tarean Folston), receiving (Will Fuller), touchdowns scored (Fuller), QB Hurries (Isaac Rochell), passes defended (Cole Luke), interceptions (Luke tied with Matthias Farley), tackles, and tackles-for-loss (Smith).

Of the team's eight players to start all 13 contests, five were sophomores (Steve Elmer, Fuller, Luke, Rochell and Smith).

Not since 1988 when future stars Ricky Watters, Tony Brooks, Chris Zorich, George Williams, Mike Heldt, Tim Ryan, and current defensive backs coach Todd Lyght operated between the lines has an Irish team received such an influx of second-season standouts.

Though the 2014 recruiting class isn't likely to dominate the top of Notre Dame's statistical charts as sophomores as did their predecessors, it's clear impact is again imminent.

"You're going to see a lot of them play," said Kelly of his sophomores-to-be. "Last year we played a lot of freshmen and you'll see some more guys that didn't (emerge) play this year. They'll play more prominent roles. I think cumulatively when we look back at that class we're going to say it was one outstanding class across the board from skill players to linemen both on the offensive and defensive side of the ball."

At first blush, the following 2015 sophomores are in heavy competition for a major rotation role:

-- OL Quenton Nelson and Alex Bars: Will compete to start at left guard with the runner-up serving as either the first guard, or perhaps first tackle, off the bench.

"Only one guy can play (left) guard," said Kelly. "We think later, if we have to do some cross-training with Bars, we could do that, but we want to give him a chance to start.  So our focus will be, in fairness to him, that he gets a fair shot to be a starter at left guard.

"(Offensive line coach) Harry (Hiestand) and I talked about it, we do not want to short change his reps at the left guard position and give Quenton an advantage. Going to have a chance start, then we'll figure it out from there. But those two guys are going to battle it out at the left guard position."

Classmate Jimmy Byrne will fight for a backup role with myriad elders.

-- LB Greer Martini: Expected to pair with incumbent James Onwualu on the strong side with Martini better-suited to take on run-heavy foes and Onwualu operating against spread (open) attacks. Said junior Jaylon Smith of his former understudy Martini's move from the weak side: "It's crazy because in our defense he's played the will, the mike, and now the sam. For him, understanding the defense is huge. He understands the primary principles, so now he just has to apply them to the sam position."

-- CB Nick Watkins: Unlikely to start should KeiVarae Russell return to the program as planned, Watkins will look to move above junior Devin Butler in the position's pecking order. Said junior Cole Luke of the up-and-coming Watkins: "Since Nick came in I knew he was a good player. It's kind of obvious. He has size and length, he's an athlete. He can play on the ball. It's up to him how much he wants to develop his game but I see him working on it already."

-- The Defensive Line Haul: Daniel Cage (NT), Jonathan Bonner (SDE), Jay Hayes (DT), Grant Blankenship (WDE), and Jhonny Williams (DE/Rush End): Each a potential No. 2 defensive linemen at various positions up front. Additionally, rush end Kolin Hill will again compete for the lead pass-rushing role in 3rd-down sub packages.

Redshirt-freshman nose tackle Pete Mokwuah is likely a year away from such contention.

-- Wide Receivers Justin Brent and Corey Holmes: It is assumed 2016 marks the pair's best chance to emerge, but competition on the perimeter will be fierce over the next five months.

-- DE Andrew Trumbetti: At worst starter "1B" to senior Romeo Okwara's 1A.
-- TE Tyler Luatua: Enters camp as the team's top blocker at the position. Can classmate Nic Weishar forge a role as the No. 2 TE in passing sets?
-- S Drue Tranquill: Injured (knee) but in-line for a major role at safety and dime linebacker in the fall.
-- LB Nyles Morgan: Likely to be engaged in competition with 5th-year seniors Jarrett Grace and Joe Schmidt through the 2015 calendar year.
-- C Sam Mustipher: Enters spring ball as the backup to returning captain Nick Martin.
-- P Tyler Newsome: Enters spring as the default starter at the position.

"We all evaluate classes coming in," said Kelly. "Take a different perspective and look at two years or a year later, where are they and I think we'll look at that class and where they are in terms of across the board. influencing this football team I think this year."

Not likely to ascend to a starting role ahead of either Everett Golson or Malik Zaire is sophomore triggerman DeShone Kizer. It's a reality that puts the redshirt-freshman on, not behind, schedule.

"I think it's going to be difficult for him, but I don't think you ever close the door at that position," said Kelly. "I really like what he's doing right now. I love his leadership skills. He has one of our groups in our drill set. Boy, he's got great leadership skills. Leading his group, it's fun to watch him. Really think his future is bright.

"He's going to have to do some really big things (to move up the ranks in 2015) because he's got guys in front of him that are really good players. But I would not count him out because he's really starting to become consistent with his footwork and his mechanics."

"We have a really good sense of where he is.  He's got some good players in there that he's got to beat out."

Examining Kelly's consistent history with sophomore contributors in South Bend:

-- Starters: LB Manti Te'o, LT Zack Martin, RB Cierre Wood, TE Tyler Eifert, LB Carlo Calabrese, S Zeke Motta, Slot Theo Riddick
-- Key Reserves: LG Chris Watt, ST Dan Fox

-- Starters: NG Louis Nix, WR T.J. Jones, LB Prince Shembo, QB Tommy Rees
-- Key Reserves: ST Danny Spond, S/ST Austin Collinsworth, ST Kendall Moore, CB/ST Bennett Jackson, TE Alex Welch, ST Daniel Smith, OL Christian Lombard

-- Starters: DE Stephon Tuitt, QB Everett Golson, WR DaVaris Daniels, S Matthias Farley, K Kyle Brindza
-- Key Reserves: TE Troy Niklas, KR/RB George Atkinson, TE Ben Koyack, ST Jarrett Grace, DE Tony Springmann, DE Ishaq Williams, OT/OG Nick Martin

-- Starters: CB KeiVarae Russell, RT Ronnie Stanley, DE Sheldon Day
-- Key Reserves: S Elijah Shumate, WR Chris Brown, NG Jarron Jones, DL/LB Romeo Okwara, ST John Turner, ST/Slot C.J. Prosise, LS Scott Daly

-- Starters: LB Jaylon Smith, CB Cole Luke, DE Isaac Rochell, S Max Redfield, RB Tarean Folston, WR Will Fuller, SLB James Onwualu, RG Steve Elmer, WR Corey Robinson.
-- Key Reserves: RB Greg Bryant, WR Torii Hunter, Jr., CB/ST Devin Butler, RT Mike McGlinchey, QB Malik Zaire, DL Jacob Matuska. Top Stories