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Projecting the freshmen

Aug 15, 2012, 9:34 PM EDT

Gunner Kiel

A funny thing happens each winter. As the focus of hard core fans turns from football to recruiting, the attention of that group tends to shift from the players already on board to the inevitable recruits that tend to get away.

Rare is the recruiting class that doesn’t suffer defections. And after a disappointing 8-5 season, Brian Kelly’s recruiting class certainly suffered its share of disappointments. But as the 2012 season approaches, that sting is replaced by the realization that Notre Dame added some really intriguing football players.

Here’s a quick look at the freshman class along with a glance into my crystal ball as we project how this group will contribute this season.

Chris Badger, S: Badger has finally returned to Notre Dame after spending spring practice with the Irish two years ago. Retaining his rookie eligibility after his Mormon mission took him away from football, Badger’s added maturity, not to mention 15 practices with the defensive staff in 2010, should give him a bit of a leg up.
Projection: He may not work his way into the two-deep, but expect Badger, a physical player with a good feel for the game, to be everywhere on special teams.

Nicky Baratti, S: The former Texas all-purpose weapon is making the transition to playing defense after spending his high school days as an offensive star. But early returns on Baratti have been positive, and the 6-foot-1, 206-pounder has good size and looks the part. Whether he plays will likely depend on how quickly Baratti grasps the defense.
Projection: The freshman safety depth chart has thinned itself with CJ Prosise and Elijah Shumate switching positions. But in an ideal world, Baratti spends the season learning, saving a year of eligibility, a la Harrison Smith.

Chris Brown, WR: Most people assumed Brian Kelly’s gushing review of Brown on Signing Day was a way to help Irish fans cope with the loss of Deontay Greenberry. But after a week of practice, it’s clear that Brown is living up to the hype. At 6-foot-2, 172-pounds, he’s not fully developed, but Brown has the ability to blow the top off a defense and looks surprisingly smooth running intermediate routes as well.
Projection: It’s tough to judge Brown’s ability on his glowing practice report videos, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that the freshman will lead the Irish in yards-per-catch.

Scott Daly, LS: It’s clear that the Irish coaching staff haven’t been all that satisfied with their long snapping game since they came to South Bend. After almost signing competition for Jordan Cowart two years ago, the Irish offered Daly and accepted his commitment. He’s not 6-foot-4 as advertised during recruiting (he’s 6-2), but at 245-pounds he’s big enough to hold up and handle both short and long snaps.
Projection: It wouldn’t surprise me to see Daly start to take snaps away from Cowart by season’s end. At the very least in the place-kicking game.

Sheldon Day, DE: Getting Day on campus during the spring was a huge help, letting the 6-foot-2, 286-pound Indianapolis native learn the ropes of college while also accelerating his timeline, now a necessity without Aaron Lynch. Day might not have the height you’d associate with a Brian Kelly 3-4 defensive end, but he’s a physical presence that should contribute.
Projection: Expect to see plenty of Day from the outset. He’ll team with Chase Hounshell, Tony Springmann, and Justin Utupo as guys that’ll fill in behind Stephon Tuitt and Kapron Lewis-Moore.

Justin Ferguson, WR: Rarely does a recruit actually gain an inch in height when he gets to campus. But Ferguson surprised many when he measured in at 6-foot-2 and a well-put-together 196 pounds. The Florida native is a tricky prospect. Not quite a burner, not quite a size mismatch. That said, he had some elite offers that give you a sense that he might just be an impact player.
Projection: Probably the third-most ready to go freshman wideout, there’s some logic behind giving him the Davaris Daniels treatment. Then again, Ferguson might be too good to keep off the field.

Mark Harrell, OL: At this stage in Notre Dame’s program development, you don’t expect to see a freshman offensive lineman on the field. While early returns on Harrell have been promising, with the depth the Irish have on the interior of their line, a lot would have to go wrong to see the 6-foot-4, 287-pounder on the field. With veterans Chris Watt and Jake Golic likely manning the guard positions and Nick Martin and Connor Hanratty likely the next men in, Harrell will spend a lot of time with strength coach Paul Longo this season.
Projection: A season on the scout team and a saved year of eligibility for the promising newcomer.

Jarron Jones, DE: He may not be the Tuitt-sized monster his recruiting profile purported, but Jones has opened some eyes during fall training camp, and at 6-foot-5, 299-pounds, he’s bigger than just about any pre-Kelly era defensive recruit in recent memory. Jones’ profile roller-coastered a bit during the postseason All-Star game circuit, but he’s looking every bit the part of a key defensive cog in the years to come.
Projection: With depth at end not exactly flush, Jones could work his way into the rotation by midseason. But saving a year of eligibility would give the Irish some flexibility in case Stephon Tuitt finds himself playing on Sundays sooner than expected.

Gunner Kiel, QB: When the Irish flipped Kiel in dramatic fashion, Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin pulled a five-star rabbit out of its hat. (A rabbit that might have been LSU’s starting quarterback come September.) Kiel is everything you’d want in an elite prospect: Big, strong, and capable of running Kelly’s spread attack. While things might have been moving quickly this spring, early word is that Kiel is impressing the staff with his ability to grasp the offense, making Kelly’s comments about feeling comfortable with Kiel running the offense this year if needed less than lip service.
Projection: In a perfect world, Kiel makes his impact this season in the classroom. It’ll save a year of eligibility, and preserve another four years of interesting quarterbacking debates.

Will Mahone, RB: Mahone was billed as more thunder to KeiVarae Russell’s lighning at tailback, filling a big need on the roster after last season’s depth was shattered after Jonas Gray went down with a season-ending knee injury. Yet Mahone has looked quick in our brief glimpses during practice reports, with the 211-pound runner far from the bulldozer many thought the Irish were getting. With a crowded depth chart in front of him, Mahone’s first chance of showing fans his running style will likely wait until 2013.
Projection: Another redshirt year of eligibility preserved for the freshman class. (Don’t get down, Will. It worked out okay for Cierre Wood and Tyler Eifert.)

Davonte Neal, WR: Maybe it’s better that Neal isn’t wearing No. 3. At 5-foot-9, 171-pounds, the comparisons to Michael Floyd just aren’t there, with Neal giving up half a foot and over 50 pounds to the former Irish great. But while their methodology might be different, there’s reason to believe that the Irish have another game-breaking wide receiver in the diminutive freshman, with blazing speed and a great feel for the game likely putting Neal on the fast track.
Projection: Neal makes an immediate impact on the Irish offense, leading the wide receivers in catches during his rookie season. He also ends up the Irish punt returner.

Romeo Okwara, OLB: Just about everyone expected Okwara to walk onto campus as a typical work-in-progress. Given the “raw athlete” tag, the marvel of the 17-yr-old outside linebacker was that he was just growing into the player he’d become. Fast-forward to the first days in camp, and it’s clear that Okwara is much more than a diamond in the rough. At 6-foot-4, 239-pounds, the youngster just might be too good to stay off the field.
Projection: It all depends on Danny Spond’s health. If the junior linebacker is healthy, Okwara can spend this season growing bigger and stronger. If not, expect to see him getting reps at the Dog linebacker position.

CJ Prosise, OLB/S: Not too often does one of your starting kick returners also moonlight as an outside linebacker. But that’s where the Irish find themselves with Prosise, who has slid down into the box after Spond’s injury. At 6-foot-2, 208-pounds, Prosise is well-developed for a freshman, and while he doesn’t profile as a Dog linebacker, he could easily fill the role of the ‘Star,’ a position Jamoris Slaughter frequented last year.
Projection: More than a few things would have to go wrong to see Prosise taking snaps with the defense this early in his career. Still, expect the freshman to make a splash on special teams, possibly even in the return game next to George Atkinson.

KeiVarae Russell, CB: With depth at cornerback not ideal, Brian Kelly moved Russell to cornerback for his first season in South Bend. While the Seattle talent was known mostly for his smooth dual-threat abilities out of the offensive backfield, Russell has been a quick study on the edges of Bob Diaco’s defense, working with Kerry Cooks to shore up any deficiencies in the secondary. Again, it’s hard to take clips from videos too seriously, but it’s clear that Russell is a great athlete with good football instincts.
Projection: It’d be great to save a year of eligibility for Russell this season, giving him a chance to stick at corner or shift back to offense when the numbers even out. But the 5-foot-11, 182-pound athlete might force his way onto the field.

Elijah Shumate: CB/S: With Danny McCarthy buckling up the third safety job, the move of Shumate to cornerback might have been to help get the talented freshman onto the field. As physically impressive as any freshman, putting Shumate at corner might simplify things enough for him to understand the mental game while putting his impressive skillset to work.
Projection: Might be the sleeper of this defensive class. I could see Shumate finding his way into some defensive packages, working close to the line of scrimmage or in the slot.

Ronnie Stanley, OT: The timeline on Stanley’s development moved up considerably with the departure of Jordan Prestwood. Now running as the second-string left tackle, the 6-foot-6, 304-pound freshman could move even closer to live action if rumors about an injury to Tate Nichols prove true. While the staff is high on Stanley’s future, it’s too much to ask any freshman to step in and protect the quarterback’s blind side.
Projection: A lot of travel squad appearances, but none on the field this season for Stanley.

John Turner, S: We haven’t heard much from Turner this fall, with the Indianapolis native working at a crowded position group as he transitions to college football. At 6-foot-2, 207-pounds, Turner certainly looks the part of an intimidating safety, but we’ll have to see how quickly he develops before making any judgments.
Projection: Lacking the elite offers of many of his classmates, Turner earned his scholarship offer after running a 4.5 forty at camp. Kelly has uncovered plenty of overlooked gems, and Turner might be another. At his size, Turner has the potential to be another great special teams contributor.


  1. nudeman - Aug 15, 2012 at 10:22 PM

    KeiVarae Russell = Infectious enthusiasm

    • bernhtp - Aug 16, 2012 at 12:16 AM

      He did give the best interview of the bunch. It motivated me to learn to properly spell his first name.

      • nudeman - Aug 16, 2012 at 11:34 AM

        I just did a cut & paste

  2. nudeman - Aug 15, 2012 at 10:36 PM

    I know this is slightly off topic, but as long as this article is about Frosh scholarship athletes, I thought I’d add this article about the ND walk ons
    What a classy group

    • bernhtp - Aug 16, 2012 at 12:20 AM

      I went to school with a bunch of great athletes that weren’t quite good enough to play at Notre Dame but had scholarship offers elsewhere. You see the impressive resumes on the subset that decided to walk on.

    • papadec - Aug 16, 2012 at 4:38 AM

      Hey nude – thanks for posting this item. I enjoyed it very much. Also, you can take the hot weather back to AZ – I miss the Seattle rain. With all the hot, sunny days – we’ll be getting another bunch of Californians moving up here.

      • nudeman - Aug 16, 2012 at 11:41 AM

        I moved here from NorCal. Nothing wrong with displaced Californians

  3. ndgoldandblue - Aug 16, 2012 at 10:31 AM

    It seems like Coach Kelly prefers to go with experience and a knowledge-base of his system over raw talent, but I think he should go against his instincts and play one of the freshmen wide receivers if John Goodman puts up another “blend in to the background”-type of efforts against Navy. In my opinion, Goodman hasn’t earned any extra slack on his leash. If he doesn’t produce in the very first game, put his butt on the bench and get Daniels, Smith or one of the freshmen in there. Frankly, I don’t think they could do less than Goodman has already done. And if Goody is out there producing at the same level as in past years, then he is just taking up a space on the field.

    • ndgoldandblue - Aug 16, 2012 at 10:33 AM

      Oh, and by the way, I’ve just lost any respect I ever had for Rick Reilly.

      • gtizzo - Aug 16, 2012 at 1:28 PM

        Speaking of Rick Reilly I would recommend going to ESPN’s website and watching Mike Golic’s rant. He says somethings that are interesting, but the amount of spitting he does during the rant makes it funny.

    • jimbasil - Aug 16, 2012 at 12:08 PM

      Other than fair-catching his way into oblivion, where is it he didn’t make himself known? Maybe in practice, but that hardly shows him not having opportunities on the field. MF was there and as Kelly has noted without hesitation – even faulting himself – “we were always looking to get the ball into the hands of Floyd…”.

      I would agree, Goodman needs to show up now that opportunity is there for him (the same as all other players), but lets wait to see what happens on the field first.

      Here are his stats.

      • nudeman - Aug 16, 2012 at 12:18 PM

        I hold out little hope for Goodman.
        We have as of late been hearing that he’s the fastest guy on the team

        If that’s true, then he’s REALLY been underachieving.

        I predict 14 catches for 125 yards and 1 TD.

        • jimbasil - Aug 16, 2012 at 12:23 PM

          Where does that label come from. He’s never been on the field long enough as a go to guy or an integral part of the offense.

          On his speed, it’s odd how no one noticed his speed in his one TD via a pass from Crist. He literally runs a 4.0 forty on an angle for the TD.

      • ndgoldandblue - Aug 16, 2012 at 4:24 PM

        Hey, I’m more than happy to eat crow if Goody goes out there has a great season. Great for me would mean solid catch numbers and double-digit touchdowns by the end of the year. If that happens, I will be the first to admit that I was wrong about the guy. But I just don’t see that happening. Frankly, I see Goody having a year closer to what nude predicts.

  4. ndgoldandblue - Aug 16, 2012 at 10:57 AM

    Last thing I’m going to say about the Reilly article. Check out John Walters on Twitter: “You wanna prove ND doesn’t matter? Go write 2,000 words on Clemson. You didn’t, did you?”

    • nudeman - Aug 16, 2012 at 11:45 AM

      Right, a great read
      Although he’s a friend of Reilly (or now, maybe ex-friend) he absolutely destroys him

      I used to like RR, and his book Missing Links is outstanding. Hilarious and very creative.
      Now he strikes me as a whiney internet whore journalist
      And a total geek on TV

    • gtizzo - Aug 16, 2012 at 1:31 PM

      The better question would be: if ND doesn’t matter then why during all the playoff talk was the most quoted person Jack Swarbrick?

      • nudeman - Aug 16, 2012 at 3:16 PM

        If, as suggested, he wrote an article about Clemson football, would anyone have read it?
        If you had “no” in the office pool, you win.

  5. mattnef - Aug 16, 2012 at 2:37 PM

    Looks like the prediction for Stanley might be wrong. Although I agree it would be ideal to sit him a year, sounds like BK listed him as one of the 4 or 5 freshman most likely to make an impact this year.

  6. nudeman - Aug 16, 2012 at 3:36 PM

    Kelly aupposedly quoted as saying that Golson has thrown 127 passes in camp (I assume that’s 11 on 11 stuff) with 1 INT
    Impressive when you consider AH was picked 4 times in one day

    Tommy is 0-0 for 0 yards


    • gtizzo - Aug 16, 2012 at 7:00 PM

      If we assume that your right Nude and we also assume that AH and Golson are going up against the reserve defense. Then Golson throwing only one int in that many passes may win him the job. Hopefully some of the freshman can make it into the Navy game. No sense playing the starters when the score is heavily in ND’s favor.

      • nudeman - Aug 16, 2012 at 11:36 PM

        It was in the Chi Trib today

  7. bearcatirishfan - Aug 16, 2012 at 3:37 PM

    Nude are you insinuating that he picked notre dame squarely because he knew people would actually red the article. Ha you’re right. I’m pretty sure this is why mark may always bashes the Irish he knows he will get a bump in his tweets.

  8. sullyp18 - Aug 16, 2012 at 4:33 PM

    Riley does make some good points here, but the bottom line is that there is not a single brand in college football like ND. Sure in the south Bama is huge, but go up to the Northwest and see who cares about them. This is why ND has all the leverage in the world when it comes to the BCS. RR is a clown and should be slapped

  9. bearcatirishfan - Aug 16, 2012 at 4:48 PM

    ND is not relevant in terms of wins losses, and sure maybe the hype and attention that they get. That being said why, if NBC wants to give an exclusive tv, should anyone turn that down. Most of his points we based on the fact that ND shouldn’t get the attention that thy do, complete different then are they relevant. Let’s be honest he picked ND because he knew he would get’s bump in the number of readers. He wanted, anticipate, and planned for this reaction just to give him a boost. Sad part is we took the bait.

  10. sullyp18 - Aug 16, 2012 at 5:01 PM

    Did you guys see the new uniforms?,0,4789688.story

    • danirish - Aug 16, 2012 at 5:50 PM

      I don’t mind changing up the uniforms, I didn’t mind the one time Michigan night game. The Maryland game uniforms were bad but these new uniforms are downright ugly and embarrassing. I fyou are going to gimmick a uniform for a game, at least make it so it is nice.

  11. sullyp18 - Aug 16, 2012 at 5:02 PM

    here is a better shot of the helmet, kind of crazy. Talk about moving away from the traditional

    • bernhtp - Aug 16, 2012 at 6:41 PM

      Unbelievably horrid, especially the half-blue helmet. Someone is certainly going to hell for this.

  12. yllibnosredna - Aug 16, 2012 at 6:30 PM

    Here’s another nice scathing riposte to Reilly’s argument: Perhaps bias, Moorehead nevertheless seems to skewer RR quite badly. In his own article, Reilly comes off much the same as Colin Captain Blowhard Cowherd did when Lynch transferred:–vehemently and loudly proclaiming ND’s continual downfall. [Cowherd even ignorantly claimed that ND did not redshirt players and used that as ammunition against their recruiting aspirations]

    Look, not every CFB analyst has to blindly express optimism (even allegiance) to ND football (a la Holtz or B.Cook) amidst some difficult years or on the other hand, viciously lambaste their latest performance on the gridiron (Cowherd, Reilly, or M. May [although May’s lightened up on ND as of late]). If you look at guys like Travis Forde or most notably K. Herbstreit (of whom I’m not a huge fan myself), they’ve pretty much (perhaps not always but MOSTLY) remained objective in balancing their criticism and praise of ND football. Herbsteit has questioned the overall speed on D (legitimate point), He’s questioned (NOT DENIED) but questioned the relevance of ND football as of late (Again, hard words to hear but fairly apt). But even he seems to maintain that the jury is still very much out on Brian Kelly and his stamp on ND football.

    And this is where we all are: sometimes patiently but mostly anxiously waiting for a BK-led squad to really show us something on the field to get excited about: a win at Norman, a dismantling of Michigan in front of TD Jesus as D. Robinson commits 6 TO’s, or dare I say it, a massive upset on Turkey Day weekend at the Coliseum. 2012 offers ample opportunities for a palpable sign of hope for ND’s football future. I just got my ticket in the mail today–ND vs Navy (Emerald Isle Classic)! Aviva Stadium is a 10 minute taxi ride from my door step here in Dublin! 15 days and counting!

  13. fnc111 - Aug 17, 2012 at 4:56 PM

    No offense to Goodman but if he is starting at WR with Toma and TJ and Kelly is stubborn again throughout the whole year it could get ugly. When Floyd went out against FSU the offense was putrid. If this offense is going to go forward and put up big numbers, Neal and Daniels have to play.

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