Matt Cashore / Irishillustrated.com

Which freshmen fit right now?

With training camp’s first week complete, here’s how the freshman class seems to be shaking out in terms of green lights and red shirts.

It was a common question with an updated angle.

Brian Kelly wasn’t asked which freshmen had jumped out during training camp’s first week, he was asked what traits must jump out for a freshman to play at all.

“That they possess the want to,” Kelly said. “In other words, they want to play. They're not afraid to play. There can't be a hesitancy. You know when you look at him in a sense that, ‘Hey I'm here to play, I want to play, I'm excited about playing.’”

Of course, there also has to be opportunity, need or both for freshman playing time to come. In six years under Brian Kelly nearly half of the true freshmen have played, some because they were better than anybody else, some because of devastating injuries, some because the staff saw special teams help. How Kelly has used freshmen the past six years makes guessing which ones see the field this fall a bit easier.

Here’s how Notre Dame’s next wave of freshmen fit into that historical context.

Quarterback: Ian Book
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Just two freshman quarterbacks have played under Kelly and one of those was an emergency backup who should red-shirt as a sophomore if all goes to plan. Six quarterbacks took red-shirts as freshmen, which represents 75 percent of the total. It’s hard to imagine Ian Book not adding to that red-shirt total barring some freak mix of injuries where DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire both suffer minor setbacks that don’t keep them out long-term. As much as Kelly wants to red-shirt Brandon Wimbush, one serious injury to Kizer or Zaire will nix that. Book has received almost no work in Notre Dame’s two open practices. Montgomery VanGorder might actually get in ahead of the freshman depending on circumstance.

Running Back: Tony Jones Jr.
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Look for Tony Jones Jr. to play. In fact, it’s almost a lock based on the past six years. Seventy-percent of running backs signed by Kelly have played as freshmen with the two red-shirts (Will Mahone and Cam Roberson) never getting the practice pub Jones got in his first week. Both ultimately departed the program early. Tarean Folston and Josh Adams actually started as freshmen. While that’s not happening for Jones barring an injury catastrophe, he could be in line for a freshman season like Dexter Williams, getting duty in blowout wins and perhaps on special teams.

Wide Receiver: Javon McKinley, Kevin Stepherson, Deon McIntosh, Chase Claypool
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It’s hard to know what’s in store beyond Stepherson playing for sure. Under Kelly, 73.7 percent of freshman receivers have played. Those that didn’t usually had some extenuating circumstances that stopped them (medical, academic or disciplinary). Five freshman receivers have even started a game under Kelly, with Stepherson a good bet to be the sixth. So what about McKinley and Claypool? Both are big targets. Kelly said both expect to play. Seems like a good bet both will. If McIntosh takes a red-shirt after moving to wide out, it would fit perfectly with past percentages of red-shirts. Three play. One sits. That’s another 75 percent play rate.

Tight End: None

For the record, 42.9 percent of freshman tight ends have played under Kelly. Alizé Jones was the only one to start a game, however.

Offensive Line: Tommy Kraemer, Liam Eichenberg, Parker Boudreaux
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Let’s get this out of the way at the top: Eichenberg and Boudreaux are taking red-shirts. Just 11.1 percent of freshman offensive linemen have played under Kelly and that included Ronnie Stanley getting a few reps in 2012 before taking a medical. The last freshman offensive lineman to get on the field was Steve Elmer, who started four times and played in 10 games. Could Kraemer go against the odds here? He’s in competition for the right guard spot, but look for the national prospect to ultimately red-shirt barring a massive practice move during the next three weeks. If Quenton Nelson, Nick Martin and Mike McGlinchey can take red-shirts, no shame in Kraemer doing the same.

Defensive Line: Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Ade Ogundeji, Julian Okwara
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Considering 51.9 percent of freshman defensive linemen have played under Kelly, there’s an easy line to be drawn between the two early enrollees (Hayes, Kareem) and the summer enrollees (Okwara, Ogundeji). One group will play. The other group will sit. It won’t be a surprise if Hayes starts at least once considering five different freshman defensive linemen have started in the Kelly era, which ties receiver for the most by any position. Notre Dame has made some curious activations during the past six years, which doesn’t need to happen for Okwara or Ogundeji. One of those activations was Romeo Okwara, who would look good in an Irish uniform right now as a fifth-year senior. Instead, he got mop-up duty as a freshman.

Linebacker: Jonathan Jones, Jamir Jones

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Just 42.9 percent of freshman linebackers have played under Kelly. It doesn’t look like Jonathan Jones or Jamir Jones will be part of that group considering the depth on campus. Assuming Josh Barajas and Asmar Bilal (both took red-shirts) are ready to play, there’s no reason to burn years on guys backing them up, likely as third-team players. Three linebackers have actually started as true freshmen during the past six years. Injuries factored into all three of those moves, although it’s hard to believe Jaylon Smith wouldn’t have moved into the first-team eventually. With Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, both emergency starters in November of ’14, it was a different story.

Defensive Back: Troy Pride Jr., Donte Vaughn, Jalen Elliott, Julian Love, Spencer Perry, D.J. Morgan, Devin Studstill
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This is where it gets complicated. Notre Dame has been very aggressive in playing freshman defensive backs, including some who struggled in Josh Atkinson, Nicco Fertitta, Lo Wood and Nicky Baratti. The guys who actually took red-shirts were usually busts. C.J. Prosise counts in that group, but obviously he switched positions and thrived. Shaun Crawford might fall in the exception group too due to injury. Under Kelly, 57.1 percent of freshman defensive backs play. Looking at the current group, it’s hard to imagine Studstill, Vaughn, Love or Pride sitting. Elliott might be the toughest call. If he’d enrolled early, we’d put him in the “play” group. Perry and Morgan look like they have the longest way to go, but can they help now on special teams? The Irish would probably be better off sitting both considering depth and the fact one (or both) could move to linebacker down the road.


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