And then there were…two?
Notre Dame’s 2012 freshmen class numbered 17 on National Signing Day, then dwindled to a dozen entering their collective senior seasons last fall.
Now it appears head coach Brian Kelly’s smallest class will, fittingly, and due in part to being victims of their own successes, finish with a mere two fifth-year participants next fall.
Nose tackle Jarron Jones is a lock to return while three-year starting long-snapper Scott Daly appears likely (and logical). A remaining quartet are either unlikely or unnecessary, though each is in good standing within the program’s walls and thus could return if an 85th scholarship remains open entering (or becomes available during) August camp.
- TE Chase Hounshell: A fifth-year senior in 2015, Hounshell is a legitimate sixth-year candidate after a pair of seasons lost (2012-13) to multiple shoulder surgeries. The former defensive end would appear to have the inside track among this quartet after contributing as a blocker last fall.
- OL Mark Harrell: Without him Notre Dame cannot field a three-deep offensive line – suboptimal over the course of 15 spring practices, 25-28 more in August camp, and three months of football. While that might seem unnecessary to fans and media, it’s not to any coaching staff.
- S/ST Nicky Baratti: Could return in a special teams capacity but an influx of young safety talent likely negates any final season contribution on the back end.
- S/ST John Turner: In the same situation as his classmate Baratti. Turner struggled through a rough senior season off the field with the passing of his mother in October.
Potential fifth-year seniors C.J. Prosise and Ronnie Stanley elected to enter the NFL Draft – the group above would look markedly different accompanied by their names, not to mention that of senior KeiVarae Russell whose career path is not unlike that of 2010 fifth-year player Darrin Walls, illustrated below.
(Of note, the 2012 freshmen class lost a quintet to transfer/suspension: Tee Shepard, Justin Ferguson, Davonte Neal, Gunner Kiel, and Will Mahone.)
While Jones has a realistic chance to rank among the five, perhaps four best fifth-year seniors of the Kelly era, it appears the next “Graduate Class” will have minimal impact on the upcoming campaign.
TOP OF THE FOOD CHAIN
Not since the 2010 season, Kelly’s first in South Bend, has a dearth of fifth-year senior talent presented as a potential issue to his 85-man roster.
2010 (4): Darrin Walls, Chris Stewart, Barry Gallup and Dan Wenger – Though technically not yet a graduate but rather a senior five years removed from high school, Walls’ return proved invaluable as did that of Stewart, who worked through his graduate season as a law student and starting offensive guard.
Walls teamed with senior Gary Gray (who showed well in 2010 before struggling in ’11) and Robert Blanton for what proved to be the best 1-2-3 punch at cornerback of the six-season Kelly era to date. Gallup served in a reserve role, appearing mostly on special teams while Wenger lost his final season in South Bend to concussions, first in pre-season camp, then during a Week 3 practice.
2011 (6): Harrison Smith, Gary Gray, Mike Ragone, Taylor Dever, David Ruffer and Andrew Nuss – Smith starred as a grad student and became a first round draft pick thereafter though he was more productive and explosive as a senior in 2010. (Smith played his final season with a sports hernia.)
Gray scuffled, notably in a shocking comeback loss at Michigan, with one such moment forever memorialized on a press box wall inside The Big House. After an outstanding senior season that included and 18 of 19 performance on field goals, Ruffer sullied what was a near-perfect career – he was a remarkable 23 of 24 on field goals entering his graduate season – with ill-timed misses and a 10-for-16 effort overall.
Dever started 13 games at right tackle while Nuss – who appeared on special teams in all 13 games – remained a backup on the interior. Ragone, the team’s best in-line blocker in 2010 as both an H-Back and tight end, was lost for the season at Michigan to a knee injury.
2012 (6): Kapron Lewis-Moore, Jamoris Slaughter, Braxston Cave, Mike Golic, Jr., John Goodman, and Danny McCarthy – McCarthy played sparingly and Slaughter was lost for the season to a torn Achilles Tendon midway through Game 3 but the remaining quartet proved invaluable with Cave earning third-team All-America honors, Golic starting 13 games at right guard, and John Goodman providing crucial plays in contested wins over Purdue, Michigan State, and Boston College.
The standout among the group was Lewis-Moore, whose outstanding final act culminated in a play-off clinching win at archrival USC where the former freshman redshirt produced four stuffs including 2.5 sacks with a forced fumble to ensure a championship game berth.
2013 (6): Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Dan Fox, Carlo Calabrese, Tyler Stockton and Nick Tausch – Fox earned the team’s defensive MVP award while Calabrese, for all of his well-publicized struggles vs. the pass, starred against the run, producing the best season of his collegiate career,
After providing no on field impact since arriving on campus in 2009, Stockton made his presence felt as a backup defensive lineman, playing key minutes against both Pittsburgh and Brigham Young. Both teammates and Kelly repeatedly lauded Stockton for his locker room contributions.
Later drafted in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft, Watt enjoyed his best season as well and at present ranks as the best guard at the program of the new millennium. Martin famously developed into a first round draft pick (and an All Pro as a rookie) – he is inarguably one of the best offensive linemen in Notre Dame history.
2014 (4): Austin Collinsworth, Christian Lombard, and Justin Utupo, and Kendall Moore – Among the quartet only the unheralded Utupo finished the season. After starting the season’s first 11 games, Lombard’s career ended prior to the season opener due to a lingering back injury while his classmate Collinsworth had his season interrupted by a knee sprain (early) and finally a debilitating shoulder sprain, late.
Moore never played, instead suspended as a graduate student for his part in the well-publicized “academic dishonesty” scandal. After four nondescript season, Utupo proved invaluable, finishing with a sack, two tackles for loss, an interception, three passes defended, and two quarterback hurries – ALL career firsts.
2015 (6): Joe Schmidt, Nick Martin, Matthias Farley, Jarrett Grace, Amir Carlisle and Chase Hounshell – Captain, Captain, Captain, inspirational leader and two part-time starter (Carlisle 9, Hounshell 3).
Within the program’s walls, and considering their on and off-field leadership, Notre Dame’s most recent sextet of fifth-year seniors ranks among the program’s most influential. Martin was the best of the bunch between the lines but Notre Dame could not have achieved its Fiesta Bowl bid without the contributions of Schmidt, Farley, or Grace.
-- One Man’s Top 10: The best fifth-year performers during Kelly’s six seasons at the helm:
- Zack Martin 2013
- Harrison Smith 2011
- Kapron Lewis-Moore 2012
- Chris Watt 2013
- Nick Martin 2015
- Braxston Cave 2012
- Darrin Walls 2010
- Dan Fox 2013
- Carlo Calabrese 2013
- Joe Schmidt 2015
-- Biggest Surprise (by his presence): Tyler Stockton
-- Biggest Surprise (by his performance): Justin Utupo
-- Timely Contributor Award: John Goodman
-- Fell Off after Strong Senior Years: Gary Gray, David Ruffer, and, relatively speaking, Joe Schmidt and Matthias Farley
-- Just Kept Getting Better: Kapron Lewis-Moore, Zack Martin, Chris Watt
-- Redemption after struggling as seniors: Nick Martin, Braxston Cave, John Goodman
-- Contributed after previous injuries: Jarrett Grace, Chase Hounshell
-- Unfortunate Injury Impact: Jamoris Slaughter, Austin Collinsworth, Mike Ragone and Christian Lombard
-- Came Back for a Better Record: Only the 2012 and 2015 crews