In 2010 it was Bennett Jackson and Austin Collinsworth, the former winning the program's inaugural Special Teams Player of the Year award (with the latter taking home the honor as a sophomore one year later). 2011 featured rookies Troy Niklas and George Atkinson, the pair of future starters combining for 23 special teams tackles as freshmen on the coverage units.
And last fall, during Notre Dame's march to the national championship, true freshmen Nicky Baratti, Elijah Shumate, and Romeo Okwara graced the run teams, with Baratti recording eight stops, good for second on the squad.
Notre Dame's 2013 coverage groups, both punt, and more relevant each week, kickoff coverage, are again replete with freshmen, with early enrollee James Onwualu and summer arrivals Max Redfield and Devin Butler aiding the charge of veterans such as Carlo Calabrese and Joe Schmidt.
Butler has come on of late, both from scrimmage and as a member of the Irish "run teams."
"Devin has done a really nice job, this week he was our special teams player of the week for his physical play on special teams," said Kelly of Butler following the Oklahoma game. "We see a young man there that's growing quickly.
"I think you'll see a little bit more of him this weekend (Arizona State), and I think both of those freshmen corners have shown not only the physical ability but the mental capacity to be able to go in there and compete, and I think you'll see that from both of them."
Kelly was speaking of freshman Cole Luke in addition to Butler, the former a regular in the team's nickel and dime packages this season. Both now rotate regularly, Luke at the field behind Keivarae Russell, Butler at the boundary behind team captain Bennett Jackson.
"I've been trying to prove to the coaches that they can trust me. I worked at field (cornerback) up until last week, now I'm at boundary," said Butler. "I really want to help the team anyway they see fit. I'll play Dog linebacker if they want me to."
Butler's move to the boundary speaks to the staff's aforementioned trust in the coverage neophyte.
"Most teams attack the boundary with balanced attacks," Butler noted of a position co-defensive coordinator Kerry Cooks has past offered as the more difficult to play at the collegiate level. "I just want to take advantage of any opportunity the coaches give me. I tried to prove myself during camp with every rep I could get and soak things up from Bennett and KeiVarae and *Lo (Wood)."
(*Wood has missed time with an ankle injury and subsequent family emergency.)
Notre Dame's regular cornerback rotation includes two snaps for a position's backup approximately every six plays. The system has placed Butler on the field defending the Irish goal line, indicating the staff believes the true freshman can hold up in a starter's stead. In other words, they're not just "stealing snaps" in an effort to rest the regulars.
"Confidence comes from within and from the coaches expressing that they feel comfortable with you," Butler noted of how he's handled his added role. "Talking to your teammates, getting their support, it all adds to the confidence you get. Growing as a person and as a player."
Reminiscent in both size and gait of a young Robert Blanton, the 181-pound Butler has room to add 10-15 pounds of good weight to his 6'1" frame. But before college weight and strength is added, collegiate seasoning is necessary for Butler to survive as a regular in the cornerback rotation.
"A lot of it is getting adjusted and how focused you have to be," said Butler of a practice week as a true freshman at Notre Dame. "Going against the great receivers we have has helped me get better at my craft."
With up-and-coming USC sophomore Nelson Agholor on tap (and potentially the nation's best receiver Marqise Lee potentially returning for Saturday's contest after a two-game absence) Butler and his position mates will have a chance to showcase that improvement and maybe snap a decade-long home losing streak in the process.