They stand as the best class of the six-season Brian Kelly Era and join the 2003 and 2009 Irish football recruiting classes (led by Brady Quinn/Jeff Samardzija and Manti Te’o/Tyler Eifert/Zack Martin, respectively) as top guns since the turn of the century in South Bend.
But Notre Dame’s current seniors – the freshmen of 2013, 17 among them part of the annual Scout.com 300, and the group that pledged Irish just one month after watching the program play for college football’s national championship – is no longer close to whole.
The best player from both sides of scrimmage are no longer in the mix, nor are seven additional classmates – two of them starters since their rookie seasons.
Just 14 of the original 23 remain, with two lost to transfer, four to medical situations, two to the NFL, and one to excellence in the classroom and his subsequent desire to move on.
LOST TO GREATNESS (2)
It’s the reality of modern college football – great players go pro before graduation. The duo below parlayed three great seasons in South Bend into million dollar contracts and lifelong dreams fulfilled.
-- Jaylon Smith: One of the three best defensive players of the new millennium in South Bend. The “Human Eraser” is likely to be conspicuous in his absence in 2016.
-- Will Fuller: One of the three best wide receivers of the new millennium in South Bend. A lethal downfield weapon – the best at the aerial quick strike in program history. He cannot be replaced by one target a reality of which Kelly & Co. are well-aware and equipped to combat.
LOST TO FOOTBALL REALITY (3)
Injuries are part of the game and inevitably, promising prep stars lose their collegiate careers as a result. This trio below will put the “Four for 40” promise during recruitment to good use.
-- Michael Deeb: Injuries – and better players at his position, including unforeseen walk-on turned team MVP Joe Schmidt – stunted Deeb’s growth.
-- Mike Heuerman: Scout.com’s 9th-ranked tight end in the ’13 cycle was never able to shake the injury bug – irreplaceable time lost in the weight room and on the practice field followed suit.
-- Doug Randolph: Shoulder and back injuries were his ultimate downfall, but Randolph was a man without a position after defensive coordinator Bob Diaco left for Connecticut and took his 3-4 scheme (and the Cat linebacker role) with him.
UNEXPECTED EARLY EXITS (2)
This is a category unique to Notre Dame. In fact, it’s unique to Notre Dame 2016.
It’s a positive message that the program recruits student-athletes talented enough to start for multiple seasons and graduate in less than four, but the category that Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson represent – “Three for 40” – while great for their future communities and endeavors is nonetheless bad for the 2016 football team.
-- Steve Elmer: Would have finished his career as a 40-plus game starter though he had not reached his projected potential by the end of his junior season. The void he leaves at right guard represents the lone question mark up front for the 2016 Irish offensive line.
-- Corey Robinson: Ditto Elmer’s body of work, only with 30-plus starts. Robinson peaked at Tallahassee in mid-October 2014 and never again regained that budding superstar form. He retired during the off-season due to multiple concussions suffered along the way and previously considering stepping away from the game to pursue post-graduate scholarships and philanthropic endeavors.
It happens every spring and summer – bad fits, homesickness, off-field mistakes, or simply the reality of being buried behind one too many talented teammates elicits a transfer from the program.
-- Rashad Kinlaw: Broke team rules, repeatedly, and was dismissed from the squad following his freshman season without playing a down.
-- Greg Bryant: Poor grades and a violation of team rules ended his stay in South Bend. Bryant transferred just nine months prior to his tragic death in early May.
THOSE THAT REMAIN (14)
Only 60 percent of the initial recruiting haul remains to fight for the Irish in 2016. Among them, *nine have eligibility through 2017.
Last Legs (*John Montelus, *Jacob Matuska, Devin Butler): A former four-star guard prospect, Montelus has played sparingly – and only in blowouts – and will now ply his trade along the interior defensive front.
Matuska, like Montelus, was a member of the Scout.com Top 300. He’s potentially found new life as a blocking tight end after being buried behind younger prospects at defensive tackle.
Butler’s likely headed for senior season backup duties at cornerback but that’s in addition to starting roles on kickoff and punt coverage and return. His 2016 off-season was beset by ankle/foot surgery/injury, negating his chance to compete for a starting role on the left side.
Their Time Is Now? (*Hunter Bivin, *Colin McGovern):
Either Bivin or McGovern is likely to start the season opener at right guard with Bivin holding the edge post-spring. (McGovern could also back up Alex Bars at right tackle.) Both are likely to return to the squad in 2017 – but both could be in backup roles at the time.
Their Time (has to be) Now (*Durham Smythe and Max Redfield): Smythe was to have his coming out party last year but September knee and shoulder surgeries truncated his season. His dual role as an inline blocker and reliable weapon in the passing game is the undervalued key to Notre Dame’s offensive balance this fall.
A two-season starter and three-year contributor, Redfield remains an enigma. He can run, jump, hit, flip his hips in coverage, possesses ample experience, and is a top-notch student – but to date is an inconsistent free safety.
Projected Standouts/Stars (7): Isaac Rochell, *Mike McGlinchey, *Torii Hunter, Jr., *Tarean Folston, Cole Luke, *Malik Zaire, James Onwualu.
Rochell, McGlinchey, Hunter and Luke enter 2016 as four of the squad’s Top 10 players – and Folston joins them in that regard assuming he’s fully recovered from September 2015 ACL surgery.
A former Scout.com Top 300 wide receiver prospect, Onwualu was solid last season after joining the starting lineup as a sophomore Sam linebacker in 2013. More is needed and expected from the potential team captain in 2016.
Rochell and McGlinchey have All-American potential while Hunter could emerge as the Team MVP by season’s end.
-- The nine seniors noted immediately above are talked about less often than up-and-coming stars such as Shaun Crawford, Alizé Jones, Josh Adams, Quenton Nelson, and DeShone Kizer, but it’s the seniors that remain that will likely determine the season’s path and ultimate destination – College Football’s Playoffs, a Major Six Bowl big…or a spot among the myriad also-rans.