Notre Dame Football: A Closer Look at the New Class of Skill Position Stars
As the age old adage says, "In with the new and out with the old." It's a phrase that applies to college football programs on an annual basis and is particularly relevant to the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame this season.
Against Navy in Dublin, Ireland, last Saturday, Notre Dame played 14 first-year players, a sign of just how young this year's team will be at times.
A select group of skill position players from the Irish's 2012 recruiting class earned playing time against the Midshipmen, and I'll be breaking down each of those rookies.
Chris Brown, WR
In recent years, college football's talking heads declared that Notre Dame would never possess "SEC speed." They'll feel foolish for saying so once Irish freshman wide receiver Chris Brown makes his mark on the college football landscape.
Brown, who hails from Hanahan, SC, earned a first-place finish in the triple jump as well as second place finishes in the 100- and 200-meter dashes at last spring's South Carolina high school track and field state championships. Those accomplishments accurately portray the athleticism that earned Brown a scholarship offer from Brian Kelly and Co.
Athleticism alone won't be enough for Brown to earn immediate playing time, though.
Brown has yet to record his first collegiate reception and will have trouble getting onto the field, as he is buried at third on the receiver depth chart behind T.J. Jones and DaVaris Daniels.
Justin Ferguson, WR
Among the three true freshman receivers on Notre Dame's roster, Justin Ferguson was the first to haul in a reception, snagging a nine-yard reception from Andrew Hendrix in garbage-time action last Saturday against Navy.
The 6'2", 210-pound Pembroke Pines, FL, native is the most physically prepared true freshman receiver on the roster, meaning that Ferguson is likely to contribute more and more in the passing game as the season progresses.
Ferguson is another weapon the Fighting Irish can use to dispel the notion that elite speed doesn't exist at Notre Dame.
William Mahone, RB
In a loaded Irish backfield, true freshman running back William Mahone is considered a last resort, meaning that the Austintown, Ohio, native is a likely redshirt candidate.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly is forbidden from using the word "redshirt" for fear of reprimand from the school's administration, but it's no secret that Kelly intends to preserve a season of Mahone's eligibility.
On the assumption that incumbent starting running back Cierre Wood chooses to enter the NFL draft next spring, Mahone will become part of the rotation at running back, along with George Atkinson III and Cam McDaniel.
Mahone's Rivals.com profile compares him to former Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall, as both players are physically imposing backs at 5'10" and over 200 pounds.
Davonte Neal, WR
Davonte Neal was a fan favorite before he even played a down for the Fighting Irish.
The former 4-Star prospect from Phoenix, AZ, earned starting duties in the punt return game during fall camp and was expected to be the spark that the Irish so desperately needed in the department last season.
Against Navy, Neal returned one punt for 11 yards, which was eight more yards than the Irish punt return unit recorded in 12 regular season games a year ago. Neal also had one reception, but it resulted in a five-yard loss.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said that Neal will get better and better with each game and will continue to settle down with each live rep.
Nicky Baratti, S
Nicky Baratti is making quite a significant transition entering his freshman season at Notre Dame, switching to safety after serving as Klein Oak (TX) High's starting quarterback last season.
The transition seems to have been a smooth one, as Baratti usurped Chis Salvi from his backup spot at strong safety this week.
Baratti had an excellent week on special teams against Navy, serving as a gunner on kick and punt returns. Despite having locked up the backup strong safety spot, Baratti will have a tough time getting on the field, as the young Irish secondary needs Jamoris Slaughter's leadership as often as possible.
KeiVarae Russell, CB
It's still odd to see the "CB" label next to KeiVarae Russell's name. Russell, who was recruited as a running back, was forced to make the switch to cornerback after presumptive starting cornerback Lo Wood was lost for the season due to a torn Achilles tendon.
Russell looked the part of a true freshman last Saturday against Navy, getting burned in coverage on a 25-yard touchdown pass from Navy quarterback Trey Miller to Shawn Lynch.
The promising aspect of Russell's performance is that the Irish defense was keyed in on the option, leaving both cornerbacks in strict man coverage.
Russell faces an even bigger test on Saturday against a high-octane Purdue passing attack but will have the luxury of safety help this week, as the Irish will return to their traditional 3-4 base set.
Elijah Shumate, CB
Elijah Shumate's commitment to Notre Dame continued the success of Irish recruiting efforts on the east coast, with linebacker Ishaq Williams of Brooklyn committing in the previous cycle.
Shumate, a native of East Orange, NJ, arrived at Notre Dame as a safety but was switched to cornerback following the previously mentioned loss of Lo Wood.
The 6'1", 205-pound athlete has yet to play a down for the Fighting Irish and remains a redshirt candidate.
Gunner Kiel, QB
Gunner Kiel was, far and away, the gem of Notre Dame's 2012 recruiting crop.
Kiel is also the first high school quarterback from the state of Indiana to commit to Notre Dame since Rick Mirer in the early 1990s.
The 6'4", 220-pound Kiel continues the tradition of 5-star quarterbacks at Notre Dame, with recent Irish quarterbacks Dayne Crist and Jimmy Clausen being members of that select group.
Kiel's 2012 season will be filled with mental reps from the bench, as Brian Kelly wishes to preserve a season of Kiel's eligibility. He'll enter the race for starting quarterback duties next fall.