If there was one team last season that learned young players are far more than just luggage-carrying, scout-team playing, targets for hazing, it was Notre Dame.
The Irish entered the 2012 season as an unranked afterthought, with most pundits giving the team a ceiling no higher than the Champs Sports Bowl or the Lucky Charms Cereal Bowl or the Who Really Cares? Bowl—and considering some of Notre Dame's lack of experience at some key positions, it was hard to blame them.
But as we quickly found out, youth can also serve as a necessary injection of energy.
Everett Golson, George Atkinson III, KeiVarae Russell, Matthias Farley, Stephon Tuitt, Sheldon Day and others made significant impacts as underclassmen, helping the Irish to a shocking 12-0 regular season and a spot in the national championship.
With one of the best recruiting classes in school history in tow—247 Sports ranks it as the fifth best in America—there are several true freshmen capable of continuing that youth movement in 2013.
Let's take a look at the likely candidates.
Jaylon Smith, LB
With he who shall not be named—we'll just say his name rhymes with Leddie Schmandervoes—off to UCLA, Notre Dame's undoubted crowning jewel of its stacked recruiting class becomes Jaylon Smith.
Ranked as the fifth best recruit in the nation, the Army All-American out of Fort Wayne, Ind. has some speed and athleticism that most in South Bend aren't used to seeing on their own team.
It's a little unclear where he'll fit in right away. Even with former Heisman hopeful Manti Te'o off to the NFL, the Irish still have a very strong linebacking corps featuring potential stars in Danny Spond and Prince Shembo.
Still, Smith's athleticism makes him a versatile commodity.
NBC Sports' Keith Arnold notes that while Smith has the potential to be one of the most dangerous edge players in the game, he can play a "handful of different positions on both sides of the ball" right now. Moreover, while there were worries about his weight, he has looked thicker in early practices, only improving the likelihood of being able to contribute right away.
Expect Kelly to find ways to get Smith on the field as much as possible. He's too talented to stand on the sidelines.
Malik Zaire, QB
Malik Zaire wasn't as highly touted as Smith coming out of high school, but with Golson's departure from Notre Dame opening up the outlook on the quarterback position, the freshman has been one of the most talked-about newcomers this spring.
He may not make an impact right away but, while Kelly has said that Tommy Rees will begin the season as the starter, he has left the door open via the Chicago Tribune's Brian Hamilton:
#NotreDame HC Brian Kelly says frosh QB Malik Zaire stays with regulars, not scout team. "Malik needs to see it, he needs to be with us."— Brian Hamilton (@ChiTribHamilton) August 2, 2013
If Kelly didn't plan on using Zaire, he would have slapped a redshirt on the Dayton, Ohio native. He wouldn't be giving him reps with the first team.
Zaire is a little bit raw and, unless something drastic happens, he probably won't receive any starts this season. But he's a versatile, dual-threat option who gives Kelly a unique chance to add another layer to his offense.
James Onwualu, WR
Notre Dame's deficiency in terms of depth at the wide receiver is quite clear. Just take a look at the team's returning career production at the position:
T.J. Jones is the obvious returning No. 1 and, with Tyler Eifert gone, he should only build on his 50-catch, 649-yard season from 2012. Then you have DaVaris Daniels, who is a nice breakout candidate after serving as the team's top big-play threat (15.8 yards per reception) last season.
After that, there are no guarantees.
C.J. Prosise, Chris Brown and Daniel Smith, the team's other non-freshmen wideouts, have combined for 9 catches and 103 yards in their career. They could very easily evolve into solid role players, but the opportunity for the Irish's group of standout freshmen receivers to make an impact is absolutely wide open.
Who do you think will be Notre Dame's third most productive WR in 2013?
William Fuller could develop into a nice option out of the slot and 6'4" Corey Robinson could be a nice redzone threat, going up for jump balls like his dad—some guy named David—used to go up for rebounds.
But look for James Onwualu to make the biggest freshmen impact of the group.
The 6'1", 215-pounder, who went to the same high school as former Irish star and current fantasy-football breakout pick Michael Floyd, is easily the most complete wide receiver of the Irish youngsters.
With a tantalizing combination of size, strength and speed, there will be plenty of opportunities—both because of the depth chart and his skill set—for him to see the field in 2013.