Handicapping playing time for the freshman

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Armed with a full 85-man roster and a depth chart that’s finally representative of a top 25 college football program, Brian Kelly and the Irish have the luxury of not needing to force freshmen into the lineup this season.

That certainly wasn’t the case for the Irish last year, where Kelly opened the season with freshman Austin Collinsworth, Bennett Jackson, Prince Shembo, Danny Spond and Lo Wood all playing from the opening kickoff, with Mike Elston‘s special team’s flooded with youthful contributors.

Stiil, when Brian Kelly inked a recruiting class that was among the strongest in the country defensively, it was easy to assume guys like Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt and Ishaq Williams would find their way onto the field sooner than later.

After two weeks of practice, Brian Kelly let the media in on his expectations for the freshman class, targeting a select group of players who might see the field this season.

“We’re going to play between a minimum of six and as many as ten freshman this year,” Kelly said.

“I think you’ll see us activate DaVaris Daniels. We’re going to activate both backs (George Atkinson and Cam McDaniel). There are a lot of freshmen that are going to play.”

Let’s take a look at the freshman roster, and handicap the odds each freshman has of being on the bus when the season starts Labor Day weekend.

George Atkinson, RB: A lock. As battle with McDaniel continues, George might be a kick returner first.
Josh Atkinson, CB: Not likely. If injuries hit thin CB depth chart, Josh might be called into action.
Kyle Brindza, K/P: A lock. I expect Brindza to put a foot into the ball to open the Irish season kicking off.
Jalen Brown, CB: Another DB that’ll likely spend the year learning before entering wide open race at CB.
Brad Carrico, OL: Redshirt. After enrolling early, Carrico started his transition to the OL. ETA: 2012.
Ben Councell, OLB: Decent shot. Still skinny, Councell might be a great special teams player.
Davaris Daniels, WR: A lock. Still learning, but athleticism has him in the mix immediately.
Matthias Farley, WR: Long shot. After getting early mention, Farley might be better served saving year.
Everett Golson, QB: If he beats Hendrix for change-up role, he’ll play. If he doesn’t, best to save year.
Jarrett Grace, ILB: Long shot. With a crowded linebacking corps, Grace can watch and learn from Te’o.
Conor Hanratty, OG: One of camp’s surprises, it still makes sense for Hanratty to redshirt.
Eilar Hardy, FS: 50/50. Hardy is undersized, but athletic. It’ll depend on Danny McCarthy.
Matthew Hegarty, OT: With depth at tackle strong, Hegarty would benefit from redshirt season.
Chase Hounshell, DE: Working to get into two-deep, but Hounshell should spend 2011 in weight room.
Ben Koyack, TE: Decent shot, as Koyack could be a great match-up problem, even at a deep position.
Aaron Lynch, DE: Lock to play. Regardless of what coaches are saying, Lynch is a big part of the plan.
Nick Martin, OL: Slim chance, those Martin has already impressed with his versatility and skill.
Cam McDaniel, RB: A lock. Might be a perfect third down back for Irish, and a return possibility.
Troy Niklas, OLB: Good chance. One of the best athletes on defense, he might force his way onto the field.
Jordan Prestwood, OT: Can’t play because of transfer rules.
Anthony Rabasa, ILB: A new position and crowded depth chart means Rabasa should save the eligibility.
Tony Springmann, DL: Decent chance, with Springmann pushing at defensive tackle already.
Stephon Tuitt, DE: Even though he’s raw, Tuitt is physically ready to compete at defensive end.
Ishaq Williams, OLB: Spring ball helped get Williams acclimated, expect him on special teams at least.

If I had to guess, here are the freshman I see hitting the field for the Irish this season:

George Atkinson, Kyle Brindza, Davaris Daniels, Everett Golson, Aaron Lynch, Cam McDaniel, Troy Niklas, Stephon Tuitt, Ishaq Williams.

That’s nine, with my tenth just missing the list being Eilar Hardy.

UPDATE — Both IrishIllustrated.com and BlueandGold.com are reporting that Eilar Hardy suffered a knee injury and is likely lost for the season.