Midway through the college football season, nine members of what is now ranked as the nation's number one recruiting class have seen action for Notre Dame. The nine have made impacts of varying degrees, but all have proven to be ready for the big stage.
Wide receiver Michael Floyd, tight end Kyle Rudolph and guard Trevor Robinson have all appeared on offense with defensive end Ethan Johnson, linebacker Darius Fleming and cornerback Robert Blanton seeing time on defense and Steve Filer, Jonas Gray and Braxston Cave showing up on special teams.
Floyd has obviously had the biggest impact with 27 catches, one behind team leader Golden Tate, for 426 yards and four touchdowns, which tie him with Tate for the most on the squad. The 6-foot-3, 215-pounder from Minnesota made the transition from high school to college seem easy.
"When I first got in the first game I wasn't really as nervous as I thought I would be. I did pretty good the first game and I was happy," he said. "Confidence just came, knowing that it was something that I could take advantage of."
Rudolph has come on in the last few games as both a blocker and a receiver, stepping his play up since the loss of Will Yeatman after the Michigan State game. While improving his ability in the run game, the freshman from Cincinnati has caught 11 passes in the last three games after catching three balls in his first three.
Robinson has worked his way onto the field at right guard and has seemed to give the offensive line a spark while also forcing starting right guard Chris Stewart to step up his game with a talented freshman right behind him. Robinson has also helped out at tight end in short yardage situations since the loss of Yeatman.
The trio of defensive freshmen have made various impacts with Fleming and Johnson playing consistently better each time out while Blanton has already recorded one of the season's highlights with a 47-yard interception for a touchdown against Purdue.
Johnson has been in on six tackles and has broken up a pair of passes. Johnson was too worried about doing his job to be overwhelmed by the crowd or the magnitude of playing in his first college game.
"I wasn't quite as nervous as I thought I was going to be because I was just so focused on what I had to," he said. "The speed of the game is just so much faster so you don't even really have enough time to look around in the stands."
Fleming has 12 tackles, including a sack against Stanford, and gives all the credit to his coaches for preparing to be able to contribute right away.
"It's fun, everything I expected it to be," Fleming said. "It's a lot faster and the guys are bigger but it's nothing different if you're taught the things and use the things that you're taught in practice. Everything on the field in the game is just what you've been taught."
Blanton has 13 tackles and a pass breakup to go with his pick-six and as one of the most energetic members of the class was pumped to see his first action.
"It was great, I was really excited. Coach (Corwin) Brown was teasing me saying my knees were shaking a little bit," said Blanton, who denied his defensive backs coach's accusation.
Charlie Weis said that he expected any freshmen that saw time on special teams to be able to help out on either offense or defense, but that has not happened yet for Cave, Filer or Gray. Cave started the first game as the short snapper, but after struggling against San Diego State has not appeared since. Filer and Gray worked their way onto special teams units as the season has progressed and coaches continue to hint that both could be close to seeing time on defense and offense, respectively.
While Gray still has to compete with Armando Allen, Robert Hughes and James Aldridge to get carries, Filer has already reached the depth chart behind Harrison Smith and Scott Smith at the Sam linebacker. The freshman from Chicago knows what he needs to do to get on the field defensively.
"Prove to the coaches that I'm very comfortable in the scheme that we have," said Filer. "I feel that if I prove to them that I'm very comfortable than they'll be comfortable putting me out there."
Ironically, the freshman who has made one of the biggest contributions to the 2008 Notre Dame football team has yet to see the field and probably will not get out there this year. It was freshman cornerback Jamoris Slaughter and his Tucker High School teammates who came up with a cheer before their games in high school. Now, ‘Crank Me Up' is almost like an Irish battle cry.
"He brings a lot of style to the team. He's a funny guy," Fleming said of Slaughter. "We all look up to him in a way because he's just a funny kid and just brings funny things to the team. It's just fun being around him."
Just midway through its first season, with less than half of its members seeing any action and it is already difficult to see this class busting. In fact, if the guys that are already playing continue to progress and players like Dayne Crist, Deion Walker, John Goodman, Joseph Fauria, Dan McCarthy, Anthony McDonald, Sean Cwynar and Kapron Lewis-Moore even approach their high school billings, this class could even surpass expectations.
"We came in here together, we're going to do it together," Blanton said. "They're very talented. They're getting better every day, a lot of them are getting better every day, doing some great things. You guys don't get to see it in practice, but everybody is making an impact somewhere."