An already youth-filled Irish roster appears poised to produce another handful-plus of precocious contributors for the 2014 season, head coach Brian Kelly indicated today.
"We had a chance to evaluate our freshmen," said Kelly of the new NCAA rule allowing eight hours of on field coaching instruction each June. "And we got a chance to see (defensive linemen) Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah, and really believe, with those two guys, and (junior) Jarron Jones, that we have some pretty good depth at that position.
"We have some size. You have three guys there are over 300 pounds, and in my conversations with (strength and conditioning) Coach (Paul) Longo, in particular with Cage and Mokwuah, their volume is ahead of any of the freshmen that we have had in that position since we have come here."
Among true defensive tackles/nose guards in the Kelly era, none played as freshmen. Stephon Tuitt, Sheldon Day, and Aaron Lynch all starred as defensive ends upon arrival while ends Kona Schwenke (2010), Chase Hounshell (2011), and Isaac Rochell (2013) played as well. Nose guards/interior players Louis Nix (2010), Tony Springmann (2011), the aforementioned Jones (2012), and Jacob Matuska (2013) redshirted.
"Their ability to go in and take reps immediately because they are so strong…both of them physically are able to compete right away. We'll have to see what their football ability brings," Kelly offered of the freshmen pair. "But from a work volume standpoint and from a strength standpoint, and obviously their size, we feel pretty good at that position right now."
Also lauded for their summer efforts were Jonathan Bonner and tight end Tyler Luatua. Technically listed as a linebacker on the team's initial roster, Bonner's immediate future appears to be at defensive end.
"He's 270 pounds so I think we can find of figure out that he's going to put his hand down...but we'll see what happens.
"35-inch vertical at his size," Kelly offered of Bonner. "I mean, some of the physical traits really jump out. Now…they have to put the pads on and they have to pick up the system. But there's a lot of guys in this freshmen class, especially on the defensive side of the ball that have the physical traits necessary to come in and compete with the right numbers. You know, a vertical jump, strength, squat, bench and size, and we'll just have to see how that plays out."
Kelly likewise offered tidbits of other rookie prospects:
-- "(Cornerback) Nick Watkins was very impressive. He's a six-foot, almost six-one, long, smooth athlete that's going to get a chance to compete."
-- "(Linebacker) Nyles Morgan is a young man that continues to impress. (Defensive end) Jhonny Williams, his athletic ability really stood out to us."
-- "(Tight end) Tyler Luatua is up to about 268 pounds, and he's strong, and we think he's going to help us, as well…(Luatua) had a great summer for us. Really excited about how he's settled in here. Again, coming from the West Coast, you're always worried about that transition and we really feel good about what he's been able to do in a very short (time)."
-- Kelly added freshman offensive lineman Quenton Nelson -- all six-foot-four and one-half, 325 pounds of him -- is "physically, a very gifted player."
A Notre Dame Man, However Briefly18- and 19-year-old prospects aren't the only newcomers the Irish roster. Former Florida Gators starting cornerback and safety Cody Riggs will play his fifth season of college ball in South Bend. The 26-game SEC starter is expected to challenge immediately for starting roles, both in the base and sub packages.
"First of all, he fits in very well here. He's a Notre Dame man, handles himself with great maturity. Handles his business very well," said Kelly. "He's in a very competitive academic (graduate) program here at Notre Dame. On time; respected by his teammates, and he's going to bring a lot of veteran experience; he's played a lot of football in the SEC. He's a great add to our football team.
"He was probably a little bit out of shape when he got here," Kelly offered. "We have rounded him into very good shape and he's appreciated that. It's been a little bit different for him. It's a bit of a change, you know, from what he's been used to, working in more of a team atmosphere here; not that they were not a team where he was from, but we do a lot more with the team weight training. So that's been very good because it's really gotten him a chance to know the team in its entirety, so he fits in very well."
Riggs appears an ideal fit for the secondary's most challenging position, the nickel role, won in the spring session by senior Matthias Farley, another former safety. Riggs will likewise compete with sophomore Cole Luke to start opposite junior Keivarae Russell at cornerback.
"He's got the ability to play corner. He can play in the nickel position. I don't know that we have really sat down and said, hey, here is safety," Kelly said of Riggs. "He did play safety at Florida, so obviously he's got some experience at that position. But I think we are starting at the corner position, nickel position. That's where we'd like to start."
Riggs is listed at 5'9" 185 pounds on the team's 2014 roster. He'll wear No. 2 for the Irish in this, his final season of eligibility.