Entering with a bang, the time is now for senior class

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In college football, the twists and turns of every class tell an interesting story. Some gel together to form the nucleus of a winning squad. Others become an afterthought, decimated by injuries, attrition or coaching change.

Reading Lou Somogyi‘s terrific piece on the Irish’s recruiting class of 2011 ($) is an important reminder that things don’t always work out as planned.

Entering their senior season, this group was supposed to be the one that returned the Irish to glory. But Somogyi quotes filmmaker Woody Allen when accurately describing this group; “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.”

Here’s a snippet from his excellent article at BlueandGold.com, breaking down the state of the 2011 recruiting class, now rising seniors on the Irish roster:

Three five-star prospects along the defensive front headlined Notre Dame’s 2011 recruiting harvest. Then there were three other complementary players added to the bonanza defensive line haul — and potentially a seventh star power prospect there who could play either offense or defense.

“Just wait until these guys enter their senior seasons at Notre Dame in 2014. Something special will be in the works.”

Well, here we are in the spring of 2014 … and suddenly the Fighting Irish with new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder are in a reconstruction phase, at least on paper, along the defensive line and front seven in general.

Notre Dame signed 23 recruits in 2011. Of that group, only 18 remain. Here are those that are gone:

George Atkinson: Declared for the NFL Draft.
Brad Carrico: Injury ended his career after sophomore season.
Aaron Lynch: Transferred to South Florida. Played one season before declaring for NFL Draft.
Stephon Tuitt: Declared for NFL Draft.
Troy Niklas: Declared for NFL Draft.

A quick time machine back to February 2011 would have Irish fans jumping for joy over their front seven haul. And as we hear similar excitement from Irish fans after signing the 2014 group, a quick reminder from three years ago gives us an idea of how quickly things can go pear-shaped.

Lynch and Tuitt only had ten games to play with each other before Lynch went home. Fellow five-star prospect Ishaq Williams is still waiting to become a full-time starter. Both Chase Hounshell and Tony Springmann, two key depth players, are coming off of serious injuries. So are linebackers Jarrett Grace and Ben Councell.

As we try and figure out what young talent will work their way into the lineup, the best guess might be someone not so young at all. Veteran Anthony Rabasa has an open road to playing time. The staff would love to get something out of Hounshell or Springmann. Joe Schmidt, a member of the 2011 class (but only awarded a scholarship last season), is in line for major playing time at inside linebacker.

Defense is hardly the only spot where opportunities arise. Veterans Conor Hanratty and Matt Hegarty should battle for time on the interior of the offensive line. Amir Carlisle will have his chance at slot receiver. But as we look at roster management, this is a make or break season for many players hoping to return to finish their eligibility.

After struggling to build roster depth, an astounding 15 seniors have a fifth year of eligibility remaining.

Rattling quickly through the positions, it’s easy to say that the Irish staff would welcome back Everett Golson, Carisle, DaVaris Daniels, Nick Martin, Grace and Matthias Farley without much question. Veteran depth on both the offensive and defensive fronts is essential to Kelly as well, so you can expect to see Springmann, Hounshell, Hanratty and Hegarty as well. It’s not crazy to think that 10 seniors will spend a fifth year in South Bend.

You wouldn’t have been called crazy if you predicted both Tuitt and Lynch would be gone after three seasons. You might have been if you predicted Niklas and Atkinson. But even with a large chunk of this group gone, there’s still time to have this class achieve its goals.

But the clock is ticking.