It’s difficult to believe that with the spring-semester start of early-entry freshmen linebacker/end Daelin Hayes, end Khalid Kareem, safeties Devin Studstill and Spencer Perry, and wide receiver Kevin Stepherson, Notre Dame is now in its 11th year of getting the jump with first-year players.
Those five make it 40 freshmen who have enrolled early at Notre Dame, matching the high-water mark of 2010 (Chris Badger, Spencer Boyd, TJ Jones, Tommy Rees, Lo Wood), 2011 (Kyle Brindza, Brad Carrico, Everett Golson, Aaron Lynch, Ishaq Williams) and 2013 (Steve Elmer, Mike Heuerman, James Onwualu, Corey Robinson, Malik Zaire).
Four of the five who began the spring semester with the rest of the student body on Tuesday, Jan. 12, are defensive prospects, which is just what the doctor prescribed for Notre Dame’s inconsistent unit of 2014-15.
The two front seven prospects – Hayes and Kareem – played their high school football in Michigan while safeties Studstill and Perry arrived from Florida, as did Stepherson at the wide receiver position. Perry could move up a rung from the back end of the defense if he proves to be a better fit at outside linebacker.
All five early-entry freshmen would seem to have a chance to benefit greatly with the loss of Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara up front on defense, the chronic safety issue -- exacerbated by the departure of veteran Elijah Shumate -- and the loss of the top two receivers from Team 127 (Will Fuller and Chris Brown).
All five will begin learning the ropes at areas of priority in the spring of ’16.
DE/OLB-DAELIN HAYES (6-3 ½, 249; Ann Arbor, Mich.)©M. Samek / SCOUT
A bit of a raw talent because of games missed as a sophomore and senior due to shoulder issues, but a country strong edge player who once looked like a prototypical outside linebacker but now appears to be growing into a menacing defensive end.
Has a load-of-bricks physicality to him where his impact on an offensive player has the look of a wrecking ball slamming into the side of a building. Shows a nice lowering of the pads and explodes into offensive players before contact. Has a physically-imposing presence on the football field.
A candidate to be an off-the-edge, two-point-stance outside linebacker, particularly early in his career, but likely headed to a spot with a hand on the ground. Powerful hips, leg drive help him set the edge, but also athletic enough to defend against the pass.
His best days are ahead of him if he can stay healthy. At peak efficiency – pending an extended period of health where he can improve his strength and get plenty of reps – this is a five-star prospect with game-changing ability and the skills to raise Notre Dame’s defensive effectiveness up front.
Because of his background of physical ailments, including November shoulder surgery, the wisest course of action may be a red-shirt year in 2016…if the Irish can afford to do so.
DE/DT-KHALID KAREEM (6-4, 255; Farmington Hills, Mich.)Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com
Classic “big end” prospect in Notre Dame’s four-man front, although also has the characteristics to be a force as a three-technique, particularly with Sheldon Day no longer part of the equation.
Shows good initial quickness off the snap. Plays a bigger and more menacing game than his 255-pound listing. Has some natural off-the-edge pass rush skills, but also shows top-level get-off as an interior lineman. Long, menacing, ground-eating strides to the quarterback. Plays light on his feet for a big man. Sturdy, square, knee-bending run defender. Nice pad level, forward lean, explosive gear when zeroing in. Outstanding body control for a big man.
Would not be surprised if he took three-technique reps from Jerry Tillery, and then moved to big end spot following departure of Isaac Rochell (unless Rochell were to move inside on a permanent basis, which is doubtful). Wherever he aligns – almost undoubtedly the big end position – looks like an impact player for years to come.
S-DEVIN STUDSTILL (6-1, 180; Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.)
Active, aggressive, ball-hawking safety who high points the deep ball extremely well. Exudes energy and aggression on the football field. Flies around with enthusiasm and a love for the game. Outstanding bounce in his step. A very natural, talented athlete to add to the problematic safety equation.
A stereotypical centerfielder at the safety position. Fast-twitch assets also make him a cornerback prospect coming out of high school, but such an active, proactive run supporter that safety likely makes the most sense, although he’s a bit on the shorter side for safety.
Aggressively gets into the body of a ball carrier, wraps, drives through, or twists and turns the offensive player until he is down. Uses hands well to battle off blocks and win the leverage game. Promising two-way (run/pass) safety.
S/OLB-SPENCER PERRY (6-3, 195; Bradenton, Fla.)
Big, athletic safety with good body control/change of direction. An aggressive, physical, decisive in-the-box presence. Has an overdrive gear exploding into contact. Will have to prove he’s a good fit for the safety position, mainly because of his length, strengths as a run defender and impact hitter.
Has the frame/strength to develop into a linebacker. More impactful moving forward/laterally than backward. Would appear to make more sense to utilize his skills on the front seven as opposed to the back four, provided Notre Dame has future answers at safety with its other prospects in the Class of 2016.
A big, strong, long, active player whose frame is well-suited for a spot on the second level of the defense. Has the ideal length and long-term ability to put pounds on that frame and use his leverage along the front seven.
WR-KEVIN STEPHERSON (6-1 ½, 180; Jacksonville, Fla.)
Good push off the snap with gazelle-like pass-catching traits and high-pointing ability. Excellent forward lean as a runner, which puts pressure on the defensive back from the snap.
Is at his most athletic when it’s time to snatch the football away from a defender. More quick than fast. Has the kind of length that would work well at the X position.
When he leaves his feet, it’s for a purpose, usually to extricate himself from a defender. Will occasionally flash outstanding stretch making catches coming off full stride, which prompts one to believe the upside is a bit greater than a majority of his film shows.
Instinctual player with a nose for the end zone. Knows his strengths and uses them appropriately as a north-south runner after the catch. Appropriately listed as three-star prospect, but flashes four-star qualities with the football in the air.