There aren’t many instances during the Brian Kelly era in which his first season at the helm in South Bend, 2010, ranks as the gold standard, but that’s the case concerning the performance of his squad’s redshirt-freshmen and their impact on a football team.
Zack Martin, Tyler Eifert, Cierre Wood, Carlo Calabrese, and Chris Watt – a collection of redshirted rookies whose efforts, collectively and individually, is unlikely to be surpassed over duration of Kelly’s remaining tenure or any coach that follows.
Martin, Eifert and Watt are NFL starters. Wood is the only redshirted freshman running back in program history to eventually lead a Notre Dame team in rushing yards (he did so twice), and Calabrese’s rookie season, truncated at Game 9, was likely the player’s individual best until his graduate season swan song of 2013.
Save for Watt, the offensive line’s sixth man in 2010, each among the quintet put an indelible stamp on Kelly’s first season in South Bend. Since, redshirt-freshmen have continued to shine in their debuts under the Dome:
-- 2015: Starting guard Quenton Nelson and part-time starting guard Alex Bars. Nelson was the best rookie starter up front since Martin in ’10 and the best redshirt rookie along the interior since center Jeff Faine (2000). Nelson’s classmate Bars would have started for 95 percent of the nation’s offensive fronts and earned two mid-season nods when Nelson was lost to injury.
-- 2014: The late Greg Bryant, Torii Hunter, Jr., Mike McGlinchey, Durham Smythe and Malik Zaire – McGlinchey and Zaire started at the end of the season rather than the beginning while Bryant emerged as the team’s best punt returner while Hunter and Smythe logged consistent minutes as reserves. Among the quintet, only Bryant was an injury redshirt from the previous season.
-- 2013: Slot receiver C.J. Prosise and late-season starting nose tackle Jarron Jones. A smallish 2012 recruiting class – one impacted by four transfers prior to the season – limited the number of redshirts that debuted in 2013, but both Prosise and Jones earned starting assignments, the former following his first of two position changes.
-- 2012: Starting quarterback Everett Golson, starting safety Matthias Farley, and starting W receiver DaVaris Daniels, backup DE Tony Springmann, sixth-man OL Nick Martin and special teams leading tackler Jarrett Grace. In terms of overall impact, the six-pack ranks second behind the 2010 quintet though Golson’s roll in a 12-0 season buoys this group’s argument.
-- 2011: Starting nose tackle Louis Nix. The big man stood alone as an impact redshirt-frosh in Kelly’s second season though Christian Lombard emerged as a quality sixth man.
On tap for Kelly 2016 crew? Projections range from the obvious to outside-the-box.
2016 BREAKOUT CANDIDATES
Eleven true freshmen played for Kelly & Co. in 2016 with five playing crucial roles: Josh Adams, Justin Yoon, Jerry Tillery, Alizé Jones, and C.J. Sanders.
Four others earned weekly special teams action, Nick Coleman, Te’Von Coney, Nicco Fertitta, and Equanimeous St. Brown, while Dexter Williams got his feet wet as the team’s No. 3 running back as did Brandon Wimbush behind center.
A season of seasoning was afforded to a dozen others: linebackers Josh Barajas and Asmar Bilal, wide receiver Miles Boykin, cornerbacks Shaun Crawford and Ashton White, defensive linemen Micah Dew-Treadway, Elijah Taylor and Brandon Tiassum, plus offensive linemen Tristen Hoge and Trevor Ruhland.
(Eventual transfers and disciplinary cases Jalen Guyton and Mykelti Williams were redshirted as well.)
Who among the 10 redshirt-freshmen for 2016 will shine? The current crop can be reasonably broken down into four categories:
1. Shaun Crawford – Will start as the team’s Nickel and could start at left cornerback ahead of Nick Watkins, the latter of which saw his spring session truncated by a broken humerus. (It’s the collective opinion of Irish Illustrated that Crawford will win the starting LCB in training camp.)
2. Opportunity Knocks – Boykin, Bilal, Hoge and Taylor. While Bilal is technically a second-string player with a chance to start entering camp, the Irish defense has sneaky depth at the Will ‘backer position. Special teams duties appear to await the youngster but the unfortunate must be stated: re-injury looms for one or both of the Martini/Coney Will combo, as off-season shoulder surgery often portends future problems.
Taylor is expected to spell Jerry Tillery at defensive tackle while Hoge is one injury (center Sam Mustipher) away from a starting assignment – and he could be the first guard off the bench as well.
The most intriguing among the collection is Boykin. Will he start at W? Will he emerge as a reliable, big-bodied third-down threat over the middle? Could he augment the rushing attack as a perimeter blocker a la Duval Kamara?
3. Outside the Box – Barajas, Dew-Treadway, and White. None among the trio is likely to start a game but both Barajas and White should be special teams staples – White was lauded for his efforts to that end by the staff this spring – while Dew-Treadway (or “Micah-Dew” as he’s often referred to by teammates and his coaches) is improving at a position of weakness for the program at present: defensive tackle/three technique.
Dew-Treadway arguably has the fewest impediments to scrimmage time this fall though both Barajas and White were greatly improved since last season’s viewings.
4. Calamity Struck – That’s likely the only way Trevor Ruhland and Brandon Tiassum play meaningful minutes in 2016. The former needs another season of scout team practice to forge a second unit role along the offensive front while Tiassum needs the same to move into consideration for playing time on the nose. He’s currently behind Jarron Jones, Daniel Cage, and, it appears, Pete Mokwuah.
A good sign for both would be that both make their collegiate debuts in some capacity in 2016.