Incoming Impact?

Neal has more than one way to find the field

Irisheyes.com kicks off a four-day summer weekend with the first of five columns examining the team's recruiting classes. This afternoon's edition, the incoming freshmen and the likelihood of each to see the field in 2012.

There are two certainties regarding modern college freshmen football players at Notre Dame:

  1. Some will make a first-year impact for the Irish
  2. Someone most fans think should, or "definitely will," won't…
  3. No. 2 is rarely altogether bad.

Among Notre Dame's current 82-man roster are at least 10 and as many as 18 starters who were withheld from action as true freshmen.

Instant impact makes for good copy (I hope) but a year on the Scout Team has helped far more than it hindered, historically.

With that in mind, and with the caveat that all declarations assume relative good health for the players, we present the first installment of the class of 2012 and the likelihood of each earning playing time as true freshman this fall. (A follow-up column will appear in late August.)

Too Many Opportunities Knock

No one is a sure thing, but these versatile football players have more than one avenue to first-season playing time for head coach Brian Kelly:

DE Sheldon Day: Aaron Lynch's April transfer necessitates that Day be ready for action from the jump. The early enrollee put himself in position to endure such a test with a solid spring and assimilation to the program. Day enters August camp as one of the top six defensive linemen.

S Elijah Shumate and S Nick Baratti: Two-deep safety; backup Dog; backup Star (nickel); punt and kickoff coverage; punt return as a gunner or interior blocker; kick return as a second-level blocker…there are too many options for the pair not to find a niche over the season's first 6-7 games and Kelly has consistently debuted freshman at or later than mid-season. Look for both to impress early in August camp.

Slot/PR Davonte' Neal: Outside of All America tight end Tyler Eifert, senior slot receiver Robby Toma might have the best hands on the team. After Eifert, Toma might be the best at finding holes in zone coverages as well. Neither of the pair can generate yards after the catch like the lightning-quick Neal. Notre Dame's offense needs him to confident and studious from the outset as his skill set might not otherwise exist. Oh yeah, the team needs a punt returner to run forward, too.

S/PR C.J. Prosise: He's a shoe-in if either starter Jamoris Slaughter or Zeke Motta goes down, because Prosise appears to be the best deep safety option among the non-senior competitors. Prosise, like Neal, could inject speed into his side of scrimmage and the specialty units.

In Position Because of His Position

That's not the only reason, as talent obviously plays a role but both players enter what amounts to head-to-head competition to earn roles on the 2012 Irish:

WR Chris Brown: The Brian Kelly era has yet to feature its desired six-player game day rotation at receiver. At present the unit shows John Goodman, T.J. Jones, Robby Toma, DaVaris Daniels, and …? It's likely a bad sign (for the offense, not Brown's future) if the lanky athlete can't find the field as part of a game day wide receiver rotation that includes no one that has made plays on a consistent basis.

LS Scott Daly: It's the incoming freshman long-snapper on scholarship vs. incumbent and the program's pioneer among scholarship long-snappers, Jordan Cowart. Cowart will likely earn the role in August, but a bounced snap or two thereafter opens the door for the nation's best incoming recruit at his position…and then Daly could find out what Cowart already knows: its much harder on Saturdays.

Do Well to Preserve

Talent isn't the issue. Game-ready bodies and/or able bodies in place at their incoming positions should allow each a season of Scout Team growth:

QB Gunner Kiel: Spring game indications point to a red-shirt season. It would be good for the health of the position, tiering class status with one season of eligibility separation for Tommy Rees (senior), Andrew Hendrix (red-shirt junior), Everett Golson (red-shirt sophomore) and Kiel (red-shirt freshman) entering 2013. Then again, he's a 5-star, early enrollee QB on a team without a proven quarterback, so who knows?

WR Justin Ferguson: Notre Dame has three wide receivers who've caught a collegiate pass and just five non-freshmen targets on the active roster (not including RB Theo Riddick). Ferguson would likely benefit from a season of sideline seasoning, but Notre Dame might need him, especially if an injury occurs.

Slot/RB Keivarae Russell: Backup kick returner; lead punt returner; backup slot receiver; third-string running back should Theo Riddick or Amir Carlisle fall to injury. All are options…so is a 5th-year in 2016.

RB Will Mahone: Notre Dame probably needs a bruiser to earn his keep between the tackles in 2012. I'd prefer that role not fall to a 205-pound true freshman. 2014, possibly 2013, awaits…

OLB Romeo Okwara: The Irish appear set with a tandem at Cat (Prince Shembo and Ishaq Williams). The Dog position is wide open, but also a poor fit for a true freshman used to bearing down on quarterbacks, not backing up and shuffling to guard tight ends, slots, and runners.

S John Turner: Special Teams work is certainly possible, if not, Turner should use 2012 to grow into his future role, be it safety or Dog (or Star/nickel) linebacker.

DE Jarron Jones: A season of pounding on the Scout Team for Jones rather than Saturday afternoons and evenings would be a good indication that Notre Dame's defensive front is as advertised. If Jones is forced to play in 2012 the Irish could be in trouble vs. a slate that offers few breaks. (Ask Kapron Lewis-Moore or Louis Nix how important a red-shirt freshman season can be…)

Set in Stone

99 percent of incoming offensive linemen should red-shirt at any program worth its salt. Notre Dame boasts has 12 non-freshmen ready to compete this fall. (11 if rumors regarding G Brad Carrico's foot surgery are accurate.)

C Mark Harrell: Begins the conversion from tight end and offensive tackle to center of the distant future...

Ronnie Stanley: A future three-year starter at tackle need not join the second unit in 2012...

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