Tag: Redshirt

Dayne Crist and Louis Nix

Irish redshirts ready themselves for competition


More than a few people were surprised when Brian Kelly announced early during his first spring practices that freshman Zack Martin was working with the first-team offensive line at left tackle. At the time, Martin was a little known commodity, so far off the radar that even the official roster had his name spelled wrong — swapping in a ‘h’ for the ‘k’ at the end of his first name.

But that’s what happens with freshman that stay off the field during their first season on campus. They’re largely forgotten, relegated to a season on the practice squad and a year physically and mentally preparing for life in college athletics.

After spending their freshman seasons watching, nine Irish football players will prepare to take their first meaningful snaps as they reinsert themselves into the depth chart. Quarterbacks Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa will fight to be among the four signal-callers getting reps during spring ball. Running back Cameron Roberson will walk into a depth-chart shy Robert Hughes and Armando Allen and look to build on an impressive freshman season where his work on the scout team earned him postseason honors as offensive scout team player of the year. Alex Welch, seeing another Elder High School graduate, Kyle Rudolph, leave for the NFL after three seasons, now finds himself square in the middle of a positional battle that’s headlined by Tyler Eifert and fifth-year player Mike Ragone. Christian Lombard, one of Notre Dame’s first commitments to the 2010 recruiting class, will head into battle for an open guard position vacated by Chris Stewart.

On the defensive side of the ball, Bruce Heggie, who spent last season adding considerable bulk to his already impressive frame enters the depth chart at defensive end. Justin Utupo, who started the trend of the Irish nabbing the Los Angeles Times’ lineman of the year, likely enters an outside linebacker competition that’s lost Brian Smith and Kerry Neal from the fold. Kendall Moore, who drew rave reviews for his play at inside linebacker on the scout team, now enters the battle to play opposite Manti Te’o. And Louis Nix, after seeing his weight balloon above 350 pounds, now takes his massive physique to the interior of the defensive line, where he’ll try to fill the void left by senior Ian Williams.

Earlier in the week, ESPN’s Bruce Feldman took a look nationally at the most anticipated redshirt freshmen in the land, and ranked Nix No. 7 in the country, quite the compliment for a nose tackle that had many recruitniks salivating last year. Here’s what he had to say about Nix, who committed to the Irish and assistant coach Tony Alford while Notre Dame was without a head coach.

7. Louis Nix, NT, Notre Dame Fighting Irish

We’ve heard all about how much Notre Dame has upgraded the edges of its 3-4 defense with the newcomers it just signed to its 2011 class. But the next question is: How about that middle? The Irish have been desperate for some big, dynamic bodies in the interior of their defensive line for a while now, and Nix may become the kind of big-time tackle they’ve been missing.

With reliable Ian Williams graduated, there is plenty of room for somebody to step in. The question now is whether Nix, who had to get in much better shape after signing last year as a freshman, ready to consistently bring the kind of effort defensive coordinator Bobby Diaco will demand? The buzz surrounding Nix from inside the program has been pretty good, but only time will tell.

While Nix is the only freshman getting national hype, it’ll be very interesting to see where guys like Roberson and Moore end up in the depth chart, as they both impressed the coaching staff all year with their performances on the scout team. The same can be said for a quarterback like Hendrix, who has wowed the coaching staff with his measureables, but just hasn’t played a lot of football in the spread. Early last season, Kelly openly considered taking the redshirt off Alex Welch and getting him into the lineup and while he didn’t do that, Welch will probably leap-frog a guy like Ragone as a pass-catcher, though how often he plays in two tight end sets will depend on how well he’s able to block at the point of attack. After Martin’s ascension into the starting lineup after a redshirt season, it should surprise no one if Lombard makes a run at the guard position that’s open.

With a little over a month to go before spring practice kicks off, a storyline to keep your eye on is which of these nine end up making a leap like Martin did into the headlines. If it turns out anywhere near as successful as it did for Zack, then Kelly and his coaching staff will be very happy.


How we got here: Redshirts



It’s an ugly word amongst Irish fans, as Notre Dame doesn’t officially redshirt anyone, but merely allows seniors to apply for a fifth year of eligibility and enroll in a graduate program.

But for the life blood of a competitive college football program, Notre Dame’s inability to utilize a fifth-year of eligibility among its offensive line and defensive front seven may be the number one reason why the Irish have struggled in recent history, and a major factor as to why the 2010 Irish football team has gone 4-5 in the first nine games of the Brian Kelly era.

If there’s one defining characteristic of the post-Lou Holtz era Notre Dame teams, it’s been a puzzling lack of physicality. While recruiting rankings always kept the Irish in the upper-echelon of college football (except for a few Davie and Willingham squads), Notre Dame never seems to develop the impact players on their roster that many Top 25 programs rode to major bowl games. Under Charlie Weis specifically, the Irish enjoyed some high-level recruits, but never produced top-flight offensive or defensive linemen.

To crystallize this point, let’s take a look at some of the best offensive line and front seven recruits that Notre Dame has brought to campus in the last seven years, who also turned into some of Notre Dame’s highest draft picks. Victor Abiamiri, Trevor Laws, and Ryan Harris were three of the most highly touted recruits in the celebrated 2003 class. Both Abiamiri and Harris played immediately for the Irish, with Laws only staying off the field because he missed the year with an injury. Harris became only the third true freshman in Notre Dame history to start along the offensive line, playing as an extremely undersized left tackle, getting by on his athleticism, quickness, and smarts. Abiamiri flashed talent, but played wasted much of his first year, contributing only 16 tackles and one sack during his freshman year. All three left Notre Dame after four seasons, with only Laws retaining the option of returning for a fifth year.

Under Charlie Weis, the trend was even worse. Starting with the heralded class of 2006, Weis played just about every freshman with a chance to get on the field. Offensive linemen like Sam Young saw the field immediately, potentially stunting his development by being thrown immediately into the fire. Guys like Eric Olsen and Matt Carufel saw the field in only mop-up time, wasting a season of eligibility for Olsen with just 20 minutes of playing time and more egregiously, Carufel spent a year of eligibility in just three minutes. Dan Wenger and Bartley Webb didn’t play, but mostly because they were hampered with injuries, while Chris Stewart was in the midst of a body transformation, having arrived on campus at nearly 400 pounds of poorly proportioned weight.

Weis’ disregard for redshirts was hardly lost on just offensive linemen. Undersized and overwhelmed defensive end John Ryan saw the field as a true freshman, as did highly touted pass-rushing prospect Morrice Richardson, logging only eleven minutes of playing time, mostly on special teams. Tight ends Will Yeatman and Konrad Reuland both played reserve roles, spending a year of eligibility while combining for zero catches as they backed up John Carlson and Marcus Freeman. In the secondary, Weis played cornerbacks Raeshon McNeil and Darrin Walls immediately, as well as safeties Sergio Brown and Jashaad Gaines, with Brown and Gaines logging solely special teams play. On a veteran 2006 team that had national title aspirations, Weis wasted the eligibility of nearly a dozen freshman that could be contributing on the roster in 2010.

How important are fourth and fifth year seniors to a team’s success? Let’s take a look at the BCS Top 25 and see how well they utilize veterans along the offensive line and in the front-seven of the defense.

Of the 12 “power positions,” look at how thin Notre Dame is compared to the rest of the top programs in college football. Only four players are fourth or fifth year players in the key positions along the line and in the front seven.

Digging even deeper, Notre Dame’s best seasons since 2002 have come when the Irish had age-appropriate depth in their power positions.

2002 (10-3): Nine of Twelve players in power positions were fourth of fifth year seniors.
2005 (9-3): Seven of Twelve players in power positions. Junior quarterback starting.
2006 (10-3): Ten of Twelve players in power positions. True senior quarterback.

While the easy answer to Notre Dame’s struggles is the early departure of Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate, when you look deeper, the 2010 Irish are struggling not just because they lost two of their best offensive weapons, but because the Irish have failed systemically to build veteran depth over much of the last decade.

For the Irish to get back into the upper-echelon of college football, Brian Kelly will need to do something his predecessors showed no aptitude for: building a roster properly. The good news? Kelly already seems to understand that the best thing for young, talented players at non-skill positions — guys like Louis Nix, Christian Lombard, Kendall Moore and Justin Utupo — is the least logical thing for them to do.

Sit them on the bench and let them watch.

(Special thanks to the legendary FunkDoctorSpock and Brian Fremeau for their help in this column.)