During the Lou Holtz era at Notre Dame (1986-96) – which ended a mere 20 years ago – scholarship offers didn’t go out before the banquet weekend in early-December.
Less than a decade later, Notre Dame began the practice of allowing early-entry freshmen to begin their college educations in what would have been the second semester of their senior years in high school.
The Irish had to adjust to try to keep up with the Joneses.
While the practice hasn’t transformed the Irish into a consistent national power – Notre Dame is 81-47 in the 10 years since early-entry freshmen began to arrive – stars have emerged from the group of 40 (the total in 11 years) with the recent addition of LB/DE-Daelin Hayes, DE-Khalid Kareem, S-Devin Studstill, S/OLB-Spencer Perry and WR-Kevin Stepherson.
The following are our picks for the top 10 performers among the previous 35 with the year of their arrival in parenthesis. Most of the choices are pretty clear-cut. Several others made a significant contribution to the program but did not crack our top 10, including RB-Armando Allen (2007), CB-Gary Gray (2007), NT-Sean Cwynar (2008) and DE-Aaron Lynch (2011).
Current players whose grades are incomplete include QB-Malik Zaire (2013), WR-Corey Robinson (2013), OLB-James Onwualu (2013), DE-Andrew Trumbetti (2014), DT-Jerry Tillery (2015), LB-Te’von Coney (2015), C-Tristen Hoge (2015) and DT-Micah Dew-Treadway (2015).
10. OG-STEVE ELMER (2013)
One of the cornerstones of the offensive line the last three seasons, totaling 30 starts, first at tackle and then guard, including each of the last 27 games. A rare true-freshman starter on the offensive line with four in 2013.
Elmer began the 2014 season at tackle, but shifted to guard after three games, where he arguably was Notre Dame’s most effective run-blocker over the final 10 games. He struggled with consistency in 2015, but is still a worthy member of our early-entry top 10.
9. OG-TREVOR ROBINSON (2008)
One of the more productive early-entry performers for the Irish with 26 starts in his last two years and 40 total from 2008-11, including three starts in ‘08 to become just the fifth freshman to start on the Irish offensive line since 1972.
8. QB-EVERETT GOLSON (2011)
Preserved a year of eligibility in 2011, and then took over as starting quarterback in 2012. Brian Kelly protected Golson as he learned the ropes, leaning heavily on a ground game that averaged better than 200 yards during the regular season as well as one of the best defenses in Irish history. Golson completed 58.8 percent of his passes for 2,405 yards and a 12-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio as a red-shirt freshman.
After missing the 2013 season due to suspension, Golson returned to the starting role in ’14, leading the Irish to a 6-0 start. But 22 turnovers in a nine-game span contributed to five losses and led to Malik Zaire starting the Music City Bowl.
Golson collaborated with Zaire for the 31-28 victory over LSU. His 3,445 yards passing in ’14 are the third most in school history behind Brady Quinn (3,919 in 2005) and Jimmy Clausen (3,722 in 2009). Golson used his fifth year of college eligibility at Florida State.
7. K/P-KYLE BRINDZA (2011)
Multi-record holding kicker who handled kickoffs as a freshman and then converted 57-of-81 field goals over the next three years, including his last one – a 32-yard boot in the Music City Bowl as time expired to give the Irish a 31-28 victory over LSU.
His 57 field goals are the most in Irish history while his 288 points rank him third all-time behind running back Allen Pinkett (320) and kicker Craig Hentrich (294). Also made himself into an accomplished punter in 2013-14.
6. S-ZEKE MOTTA (2009)
Started 29 games for the Irish, emerging as a standout with a scoop-and-score in the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl, followed by finishing second on the squad in tackles in 2012 with 77. Became a surprise captain/leader of that national-title runner-up squad after arriving as a shy, soft-spoken, yet always hard-hitting safety.
5. OG-CHRIS STEWART (2006)
Thirty-five game starter for the Irish at guard after a trial run at nose tackle during spring practice of his sophomore season. Stewart was a stalwart blocking for Jimmy Clausen during the 2009 season and an inspiration to anyone hoping to balance academics and athletics at the highest level with his law school pursuits while still playing for the Irish.
4. QB-TOMMY REES (2010)
Few Irish quarterbacks have faced as much criticism as Rees, who was forced into the lineup as a true freshman in 2010 when Dayne Crist suffered a season-ending injury. A lack of mobility and arm strength contributed to his 32-to-22 touchdown-to-interception ratio during his first two seasons. He then lost the starting job to Everett Golson in ’12, although his relief work played a significant role in the Irish going unscathed during the regular season and playing for the national title vs. Alabama.
Returned to the starting lineup in 2013 with the suspension of Golson and doubled up on touchdowns-to-interceptions (27-to-13) for the first time in his career while throwing for 3,257 yards.
3. WR-TJ JONES (2010)
The most accomplished of the offensive skill-position players who have early-enrolled the last decade. Jones made an immediate contribution as a freshman and eventually emerged as a well-respected captain on the nine-win 2013 team.
The son of the late Irish OLB Andre, Jones is second on the all-time Notre Dame reception list with 181 and is fifth in receiving yards with 2,429. Caught 70 passes for 1,108 yards as a senior in 2013 with nine of his 19 career receiving touchdowns coming in his final season with the Irish.
2. QB-JIMMY CLAUSEN (2007)
Five-star recruit made quite a stir with his flamboyant entrance to Notre Dame. Took over as starting quarterback during his rookie season in 2007, where he struggled, as did the rest of the team in the 3-9 campaign. Threw 25 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions as a sophomore.
Put it all together during his third and final season with the Irish in 2009 when he tossed 28 touchdown passes and just four interceptions while completing 68.0 percent of his passes for 3,722 yards. His junior year was as fine a season as any quarterback has had in Notre Dame history.
1. DL-SHELDON DAY (2012)
The most productive among the early-entry defensive players and the only two-time captain. Began his Irish career as a key off-the-bench contributor in 2012 before moving into the starting lineup as a sophomore in 2013. Emerged as a leader of the defensive line and one of four captains on the ’14 squad.
Finished his career with 141 tackles, 32 tackles for loss – nearly half of which (15 ½) came during his senior season -- and 7 ½ sacks. The leader of the Notre Dame defense and a respected teammate for his relentless energy and work ethic. Could be the first defensive tackle taken in the April NFL draft.