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.