In 2010 there was a quintet. In 2011, a lone big -- literally and figuratively -- starter joined the fray. And last season, the best at the school in nearly two decades, a redshirt-freshmen foursome ascended to unexpected heights in their first season of competition.
The term "redshirt" is frowned upon at Notre Dame, since every student-athlete in search of a 5th-season of eligibility must be accepted to a graduate school program at the University. But in reality, a coach withholding select true freshmen from competition in preparation for a prospective fifth season down the line has been a consistent, successful practice employed for more than a quarter century.
Last year, "redshirt-freshmen" (I can say it, even if Kelly can't) Everett Golson, DaVaris Daniels, Matthias Farley, and Tony Springmann joined teammates and former redshirts Zack Martin, Cierre Wood, Tyler Eifert, Carlo Calabrese, Chris Watt, and Louis Nix (and to some degree, Andrew Hendrix) as major contributors on Saturday's after previously toiling on the Scout Team.
Below is a look at Notre Dame's redshirt-freshmen entering Spring Practice 2013:
Quarterback Gunner Kiel: Prediction #1: Gunner Kiel will be named Everett Golson's chief competitor for a starting role exiting the spring and entering August camp. Prediction #2: he'd better be.
Kiel followed the path of position mates Golson and Andrew Hendrix with a redshirt-freshman season. He'll likely earn less playing time in Year 2 than did 11-game starter (and 12-game competitor) Golson in 2012, but more than spot-player Hendrix, a change-of-pace player and occasional late-season backup in 2011. Kiel has most of the tools necessary to become an outstanding college quarterback.
Given the history of Brian Kelly's triggermen, its unlikely Golson will make it through a season unscathed -- Kiel's play immediately thereafter will dictate his future and the overall depth and recruitment of quarterbacks to Notre Dame over the next three seasons.
Golson was among the team's 10 best players by the end of his redshirt-freshman season. Kiel has the same ceiling, though Golson might not give him the opportunity to show it.
Defensive Lineman Jarron Jones: At 6'5" 299 (his August 2012 listing) Jones could serve as a backup defensive end, in which case he'd battle juniors Chase Hounshell and Tony Springmann, or begin an evaluation/evolution to nose guard this spring. The Irish are set at the latter position for 2013, but both starter Louis Nix and backup Kona Schwenke are seniors this fall. The future nose guard is likely on the roster with Jones, Springmann, or incoming freshman Eddie Vanderdoes lead candidates -- all three might be better suited for defensive end.
Like classmate Ronnie Stanley previewed earlier today, Jones is a player whose best football will likely be played from 2014-16 -- but like Stanley, Jones could surprise in a two-deep role next fall as well. A spot in the rotation is available up front.
Safety C.J. Prosise: Likely Notre Dame's fastest safety at 6'2" 210 (last August), Prosise was purportedly knocking on the door for playing time as late as Game Six last season, but was wisely withheld from action. Nicky Baratti and Elijah Shumate are the odds-on favorites to emerge alongside Matthias Farley in the spring, but the ultra athletic Prosise should not be counted out. If trades were part of college football, Notre Dame could swap any two young safeties for prime talent at other positions -- its a group of potential great strength in the coming years.
Center Mark Harrell: Will battle redshirt-sophomore Nick Martin and Matt Hegarty for the starting center role vacated by Braxston Cave. None of the trio was a center in high school, and only Hegarty and Harrell worked exclusively at the position last season. Martin has a decisive edge over the pair in terms of playing time as he was the team's first lineman off the bench in 2012, though at tackle and guard. If Harrell wins the job in the spring or August camp, he'd be the second redshirt-freshman starting center to open a season this decade (Jeff Faine 2000; John Sullivan 2004).
Running Back Will Mahone: One of six competitors for what amounts to two "starting" running back spots though the Irish will likely use three, if not four 'backs with regularity next fall. Mahone has a golden opportunity to cement his status this spring when just four 'backs will share reps -- the promising freshmen pair of Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston his campus in the summer.
Said Mahone of his season on the scout team: "I think I've learned more of the game and how to play it at this level. Understanding different defenses, different ways to run the ball.
"Ultimately the goal is to start. That's every running back's goal. We're a pretty close-knit group and we're just going to compete with each other and make each other better."
Safety John Turner: With ample talent in, above, and below Turner's sophomore class, patience will need to be the 6'2" 207 pounder's greatest virtue over the next calendar year. Spring ball will be crucial in his development, not necessarily as a competitor for a starting role at safety next fall, but to cement a spot on multiple Irish run teams -- the kickoff and punt coverage and return units in desperate need of an upgrade.
Turner should set a reasonable spring, summer, and camp goal that -- save for returning senior safety and special teams king Austin Collinsworth -- none of his fellow defensive back to beat him out for a run team spot, as a handful of them appear to have a leg up at present from scrimmage.
Long-Snapper Scott Daly: Easily the most likely redshirt-freshman to start in 2013, and also the most likely player on the roster to start over the next four seasons, Daly is the program's second-ever scholarship long-snapper. His predecessor Jordan Cowart graduates in May -- Daly's goal is simple: no poor snaps that lead to a blocked punt, missed field goal or PAT, or crucial shank.
It's a tall order for a player in such a specialized role.
Safety Chris Badger: Technically a 2010 early enrollee, Badger's eligibility clock began ticking last season; his scholarship intact through 2015. Following a two-year religious mission to Ecuador, Badger used the 2012 season to add strength back to his frame. The 2013 season won't likely afford a two-deep role from scrimmage, but as noted with Turner, the Irish special teams ranked 40th (punt coverage), 77th (kickoff coverage), 93rd (kick return), and 116th (punt return).
Badger can run and hit and is willing to do anything to get on the field. Its fairly obvious that aiding the improvement of the program's long-standing weakness is the quickest path to playing time. As with every player in this grouping, Badger hopes to make his game day debut next fall.
Click here for Part I and a look at the returning senior starters, and here for a preview of senior non-starters from 2012 and those returning from injury.
A breakdown of returning junior starters can be found here, with returning junior reserves profiled here.
Nine true sophomores, all of which played from scrimmage last season, are profiled as well.