Which incoming freshman might join this select group? Below is an early look at the freshman class and each player's likely contribution to the '09 Irish.
Welcome to College Football
Jordan Cowart (Long Snapper): There's no relevant analysis available in June, but with Kevin Brooks (the squad's long-snapper in 2008) lost to graduation, and the team's lone blossoming LS prospect busy cross-training at SLB and DE (Darius Fleming), you can expect Jordan Cowart to be among the first freshman on the football field this fall.
Cowart's main competition would appear to be sophomores Mike Golic, Jr., and Braxston Cave, though one wonders how much competition either will offer as both were on the Irish practice field last season four months prior to Cowart's scholarship offer.
In an ideal world, Cowart will win the LS job in early August; retain the position after a quiet afternoon on September 5; and we'll never mention his name again until early December 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012 during each season's awards week for our publication.
Such is life for a player only noticed after a mistake.
Manti Te'o (Linebacker): By all accounts, "If" does not appear to be a question worth examining; rather, "When" will the freshman phenom first take the field in an Irish uniform?
My initial guess is during Notre Dame's first kick-off or punt, though I wouldn't be surprised if Te'o's first audible cheer occurs late in the first half subbing into the defense's 3rd and medium-yardage nickel package. There's no such animal as a sure thing at the college level (a list of colossal busts is pointless and cruel) but it's certainly more enjoyable to imagine (plausible) stardom rather than project redshirt seasons in June.
Te'o will receive his shot to compete in August and the freshman's ability and dedication will likely earn an early September debut under a blue South Bend sky when the bullets are live.
Spot Duty or Sudden Star – They'll Contribute this Fall
Shaquelle Evans (Wide Receiver): An explosive player once the ball is in his hands, Evans will challenge for one of the six (game day) receiver spots in fall camp. To secure a spot in the rotation Evans will have to unseat either up-and-coming sophomores John Goodman and Deion Walker or senior Robby Parris. Obviously a strong first impression will be key for Evans, as he won't match any of the veterans' knowledge of the offense and passing game. But Evans brings a different dynamic than do any of the (backups) at the position: he's a playmaker with the football. (Evans and the team's set of backup receivers were covered in greater detail here.)
Evan's ascension to the role of fourth or fifth receiver would not be a mild surprise this fall. His presence as a consistent third would either signify great news (Evans' is as advertised and a quick study) or extremely disheartening (Duval Kamara does not improve from 2008).
Cierre Wood (Running Back): Question: How many games did an Irish 'back produce a run in excess of 19 yards last season?
Answer: One. Armando Allen's three 21-yard bursts vs. Purdue in late September.
Conclusion: There's room for a player with Cierre Wood's vision, balance, and leg strength in the 2009 Irish offense. While all signs are pointing up for a now fully-recovered Armando Allen; and all signs prior to 2008 pointed way up for combo-back Robert Hughes, the junior tandem has nonetheless struggled to maintain any consistency behind an equally inconsistent offensive line. Allen and Hughes might take the reigns of the position this September (they won't be unseated in August) and never look back; yielding only spot-relief carries to their competitors (sophomore Jonas Gray and freshmen Wood and Theo Riddick).
But competition is needed at the tailback position (and in the return game) again this season. Wood should receive the opportunity to add punch to the ground attack in '09.
"Special Teams, Special Teams, Special Teams"
Zeke Motta (Linebacker/Athlete): Enrolled in January, Motta has already shown he can run and hit (everything in his wake). He has special teams demon written all over him and his early work with the Irish football team in Spring Ball gives him an advantage over promising freshman contributor Carlos Calabrese at the outset of camp.
We'll see Zeke Motta on the field this season both covering kicks and I would assume occasionally lining up at outside linebacker. But I'm of the opinion the Irish linebacker corps will be a sound, competitive, deep unit this fall – a unit that finds a niche if not a full-time role for up to eight contributors (plus SS Sergio Brown) – and a unit that Motta will clearly break into during his second spring season.
A Futile Attempt to Predict Success Among Kickers
Nicholas Tausch (Kicker): As a senior, Tausch drilled field goals from both 51 and 53 yards and planted 22 of his 41 kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks. While every position is theoretically up for grabs in fall camp, every football fan understands that only a herculean effort would unseat a team's proven commodities. Not so with kickers and certainly not on this Notre Dame team.
To his credit, junior place-kicker Brandon Walker turned his season around last year. He's battle-tested; toughened both by a terrible stretch in September and by two unfortunate late-season misses (one of which was a desperation 54-yarder in frigid conditions vs. Syracuse). And more importantly, Walker believes he's corrected the flaw at the root of his early season slump. He'll certainly receive the benefit of the doubt over Tausch if the two are equal in fall camp.
The goal for Tausch is simply to win the position outright over the talented but inconsistent incumbent. Additionally, Irish kickers produced exactly one touchback last season...no job should be free of weekly competition.
Ben Turk (Punter): Junior punter Eric Maust had an up-and-down 2008, his 54 punts netted a solid 41.1-yard average with 17 of his boots landing inside the opponents' 20-yard line. Like Walker, Maust will likely win the job over a freshman. Unlike Walker, a tie or slight advantage in his competition's favor could yield a September upset for the '09 punting duties. At worst, Turk will provide insurance and healthy competition for Maust each week.
Note: Due to the unwieldy nature of an 18-man report, this column has been separated into two parts. The players listed in the ensuing "Possible" and "Likely Redshirt" categories were initially slated for inclusion in this column.