Notre Dame Football Recruiting: 7 Irish Commits Who Will Play Right Away
Projecting the future performance of a college football recruiting class is usually an inexact science, but there are seven recruits in the Notre Dame Class of 2012 who will immediately make an impact.
Notre Dame's success in 2011 was fueled by contributions from freshmen like Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt and George Atkinson.
In 2012, that trend will continue.
Gunner Kiel, QB
So far, Gunner Kiel is the crown jewel of Brian Kelly's 2012 recruiting class.
After considerable flip-flopping, Kiel enrolled early at Notre Dame, presumably to put himself in the best position possible to compete for the starting gig right away.
Kiel has every tool you'd want in a passer and couples that with enough athleticism to run every bit of Kelly's offense. At 6'3" and 215 pounds, he's physically ready to handle the job.
Kelly hasn't been shy about switching up his quarterbacks, and as soon as Kiel grasps the mental side of the offense, he'll force his way on to the field.
Tee Shepard, CB
Heading into 2012, the prospective starters at cornerback for the Fighting Irish are Bennett Jackson, a converted wide receiver who's only played the position for one season, and Lo Wood, an untested rising junior with just six tackles in his Notre Dame career.
That leaves the door wide open for Tee Shepard, the highest rated defensive back prospect Notre Dame has brought in since Gary Gray back in 2007.
Shepard is already enrolled in school and comes in ready to contribute, with enough size to handle taller receivers and fantastic instincts in coverage.
His initial chance may come in nickel packages, but expect Shepard to lock down a starting spot no later than midseason.
Justin Ferguson, WR
Notre Dame has plenty of experienced receivers returning, but none can fill the void that Michael Floyd leaves behind.
In Floyd's absence, the Irish will turn to a committee approach. No receiver currently on the team can match Floyd's skill set, so Brian Kelly will mix and match his players to fit the situation.
The most irreplaceable piece of Floyd's game was his ability to stretch defenses deep. No other Notre Dame pass-catcher has that skill; last season, no Irish receiver averaged better than 13 yards per catch.
That's where Justin Ferguson fits in.
Ferguson has the speed to get deep, as well as the height, strength and hands to bring the ball down. He won't start right away, but he'll have plenty of situational opportunities to get behind the defense.
Elijah Shumate, S
The Irish have two returning contributors at the safety spots, but neither Zeke Motta nor Jamoris Slaughter has a stranglehold on a starting role. In fact, Slaughter was so successful moving up as a linebacker in passing situations that DC Bob Diaco will almost surely look for a third safety to mix into the rotation.
Austin Collinsworth will get a shot to fill that role, but once he gets adjusted to the college game, Elijah Shumate will earn a large share of the playing time. He already has enough size to support the run, but blends it with excellent instincts in zone coverage.
Sheldon Day, DT
For as much young depth as Notre Dame has at defensive end, the Irish remain thin at defensive tackle.
On second thought, "thin" may not be the best word to describe incumbent starter Louis Nix III. He is a mountain in the middle of the Irish front, but at nearly 330 pounds, it's unrealistic to expect him to maintain full effort on every snap of the game.
That gives early enrollee Sheldon Day an opportunity to work himself into the rotation at defensive tackle.
At 280 pounds, Day has enough size to hold his own in the middle and is already a better pass-rusher than Nix. In obvious passing situations, Day can pair with Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt to create a daunting three-man front.
Jarron Jones, DT
Jarron Jones doesn't have a position yet, but whether he settles on the offensive or defensive side of the ball, he's going to get an early opportunity to play.
As a defensive tackle, Jones could immediately slide into the rotation along with Sheldon Day.
For me, his more intriguing opportunity lies on the offensive side.
Jones has the ideal frame for an offensive tackle. He stands 6'6" and weighs 295 pounds, but there's absolutely room to add more bulk. He has long arms and already possesses the strength to overwhelm smaller defensive players.
Jones is still a bit raw, but in the hands of new Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, he'll find his way into the lineup very soon.
KeiVarae Russell, RB
Cierre Wood returns as Notre Dame's lead back, but behind him, the door is wide open.
KeiVarae Russell comes in with the advantage of having a very similar skill set to Wood. He excels at picking his way through open space with a shiftiness that fits perfectly in a shotgun-based offense.
When Wood needs a break, expect Russell to get his chance.