Each of head coach Brian Kelly's first three seasons have included invaluable contributions from rookie players.
In 2010, left tackle Zack Martin, running back Cierre Wood, tight end Tyler Eifert, wide receiver T.J. Jones, quarterback Tommy Rees, pass-rusher Prince Shembo, linebacker Carlo Calabrese, and special teams demon Bennett Jackson each could stake a claim to the team's unofficial Rookie of the Year award.
2011 included fewer candidates but prime contributions nonetheless, with nose guard Louis Nix, defensive ends Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt, and kick returner George Atkinson heading the charge.
The unmitigated success that was 2012 was due partly to a developed group of battle-scarred senior leaders, but also to an infusion of new blood in the form of cornerback Keivarae Russell, safety Matthias Farley, defensive ends Sheldon Day and Tony Springmann, wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, and of course, quarterback Everett Golson.
Who are Notre Dame's prime Rookie of the Year candidates for 2013? I have a few thoughts:
The question isn't if Smith will make an impact, but where…and when…and how? Instead of "Dog" or "Cat" or "Nickel" it might be best to list the uber-athlete's position as "Puzzle Piece" -- his versatility, quickness, and acumen for defending will prove crucial to defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's third-down packages if not the base throughout 2013…Nickel defender has been my projection for Smith since midway through 2012 and I'm sticking to it, but unlike last year's disparate tandem of DB Elijah Shumate (about five snaps per game, usually employed in man coverage) and 6'5" 255-pound 'backer Ishaq Williams (zone or bracket coverage in the role), Smith will provide the best of both worlds -- he can cover anyone and hold up better than did Shumate vs. a quick toss running play…
Smith's biggest transition will be dealing with the power of collegiate tackles on the edge (I doubt the staff wants to see him battle Michigan's future NFL first-rounder Taylor Lewan when starting dog 'backer Danny Spond is available for duty), but one Northern Indiana football coach told me Smith will be among Notre Dame's five best cover men this year, and that includes all cornerbacks and safeties on the squad -- Let's hope he's right…
Smith is a certain special teams contributor and an essential cog vs. any spread attack…Can he be up to snuff in Ann Arbor in Week Two? He needs to be by the time the Irish face a killer trio of offenses in Oklahoma, Arizona State, and USC, a three-game stretch broken up by a bye before the Trojans…Should Spond or any other two-deep linebacker go down, they may become the Irish versions of Wally Pipp...
The star of the spring must continue his ascent through summer 7-on-7s and August camp to solidify a major role in the rotation…Prosise will play, as Notre Dame has just four receivers with any experience -- and that includes little-used Chris Brown -- ahead of him, but with ample tight ends and running backs at Kelly's disposal, Prosise will have not only have to be better than younger, incoming receiver, but prove he brings more to the table than the likes of Ben Koyack, Alex Welch, Cam McDaniel, and Amir Carlisle (below)…Notre Dame's slot position remains undefined, and a running back or tight end could easily step in as the lead dog…That said, I love Prosise's potential as a "Most Improved" player from opening kick to the season's final gun…
At 6'2" and nearly 220 pounds, Prosise need not be a wilting flower as a blocker in space…Should be a playmaker with the ball in his hands -- can he get open within the concepts of the offense? A meaningful 30-catch, 4-TD season from Prosise would provide a huge boost to a passing attack with two proven pass-catchers: T.J. Jones and DaVaris Daniels…Can he win the punt return role? Does it matter considering the futility of the unit to date?
Don't fret if Prosise doesn't make a major impact in Games 1-2-or-3 -- he's still more "football player" than "receiver" -- improvement will come.
Like Cierre Wood the rookie in 2010, I see Bryant as a potential lead runner for the Irish after the winds turn cold, that is, he won't win the job (either starter or first off the bench) early, but it might be hard to keep him out of the mix midway through and late…Brings a nice blend of size, speed, and most important, balance through traffic that will allow him to play as a true freshman (Wood's mid-season breakout noted above was as a redshirt-frosh)…Bryant can catch and is purportedly adept as a pass-blocker, but he'll have to drop the nasty habit of jumping to catch simple screen passes by the time the final August practice whistle sounds…Also uses a few too many gather steps in traffic, then again, its better than constantly falling just before breaking into the open as did another former Floridian, Armando Allen...
Said offensive coordinator Chuck Martin of Bryant (and fellow incoming runner Tarean Folston): "You're always hoping they're as good as you think they are. We think physically they're going to be more ready with the speed of the college game. Their strength level is ahead of a lot of kids coming out of high school. Then you have the whole mental aspect of college football. We don't know what jobs they'll be good at and what they won't be good at. We'll start to give them some of the easier jobs and if they can show some aptitude and master those, we'll probably keep expanding the package."
Look for Bryant's package to expand by the time USC hits town in mid-October...
Two other prime choices, junior (transfer) running back Amir Carlisle and a wild-card, freshman safety Max Redfield
, were previewed in previous Stream of Consciousness columns linked below. Both write-ups have been reprinted for this article:
Running Back/Slot Amir Carlisle
Is there a more important rookie than this oft-injured transfer? Immediate comparisons are to graduated senior star Theo Riddick
, but Carlisle is much faster, at least as quick in short space (quicker past 10 yards), and likely not as strong -- but just as determined…A broken ankle, a broken collarbone: taken alone they're unrelated and don't suggest a patter (especially since the former was off the field), but should Carlisle miss significant time to injury in 2013, the injury-prone label will thereafter be affixed…It took Michael Floyd
until his senior season to play an entire slate, and Carlisle has three seasons of eligibility remaining -- he's going to get dinged up, but what matters is how well he plays through common aches and pains and at what level of effectiveness…
One of three Irish players (WR DaVaris Daniels and LT Zack Martin the others) that possesses unique athleticism for his position on the 2013 offense…Upside appears to be No. 1 or No. 2 rusher and No. 3 receiver for 2013: sign me up…
If Carlisle is in relative good health for 11 of the team's 12 regular season games, Notre Dame will qualify for a BCS bowl.
Safety Max Redfield
Is safety his certain landing spot? With four players of "starter' quality in Matthias Farley, Elijah Shumate, Austin Collinsworth
, and Nicky Baratti
, could the athletic Redfield see his first evaluation on the offensive side of scrimmage? I think that ship sailed when C.J. Prosise shined in the spring -- if Prosise is your fifth (T.J. Jones, DaVaris Daniels, Daniel Smith
, Chris Brown), Redfield need not become a sixth…Whether Redfield eventually earns a two-deep spot or not next fall, expect to see him play a prominent role in the nickel and dime packages by the time the team breaks in October…Like five-star linebacker Jaylon Smith, Redfield appears to have immediate impact potential on special teams…I think we'll see Redfield start if Farley is lost to injury. If its Shumate or Baratti that goes down, the other will step in, while Collinsworth is more of a "fit" player than 12-game starter, at least from what I've seen to date.
For Stream of Consciousness thoughts on 57 previously previewed Irish players entering 2013, click the links below:
10 in the Trenches: Both sides of scrimmage
Sunday Sampler (Hodgepodge of Players)
Six on the Spot
The Returnees (Injured Irish from 2012)
Three Key Juniors
The Quarterbacks: Three to Make One?
Through the Ranks: one per class
Early Impressions? Four in need of a strong summer/August camp.
Three Sophomores Ready for Impact
Relative Rookies: Redshirt-Freshmen Debuts