With Notre Dame's bowl prep underway, Brian Kelly now begins the delicate dance of balancing the present with the future. With the Irish opening up as 17-point favorites over Rutgers (one of the biggest point spreads of the postseason) in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, Kelly and his coaching staff have the opportunity to prepare their football team for the immediate task at hand, while also getting work for young players who'll be key to the team's success next season.
While the Irish return the nucleus of this year's team, key veterans will need to be replaced. Let's take a look at five redshirt freshmen who'll have the opportunity to step in and become contributors.
Michael Deeb, ILB
6'2", 242 pounds
Many expected Deeb to be an early contributor, the product of a college-ready physique and the ability to play on special teams. But the Irish coaching staff decided to save a year of eligibility, rolling with fifth-year seniors Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox in a trio with junior Jarrett Grace.
After Grace went down with a season-ending broken leg against Arizona State, seldom-used veterans Kendall Moore and Joe Schmidt joined the rotation. While Moore's play likely earned him a fifth year, neither look to be long-term answers next to Grace in the starting rotation.
The knock on Deeb coming out of high school was his athleticism, looking more like a run-stuffing bruiser than a guy who can cover running backs in space. But if Deeb can show a nose for the football and grasp the intricacies of Bob Diaco's defense, there's a job opening that's there for the taking.
Torii Hunter Jr., WR
6', 178 pounds
Hunter suffered one of the worst injuries you could imagine—a non-contact injury at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio, where he broke his femur during practice before the exhibition game and just weeks before Signing Day. Of all the Irish freshmen receivers that impressed this year, before the injury, it was Hunter who looked like the one most ready to contribute.
That didn't happen, with a setback in the healing process forcing Hunter to back off his aggressive rehabilitation schedule. Yet as the Irish look to replace TJ Jones as the one constant among the team's talented stable of receivers, Hunter is the type of player who's capable of doing a lot of different things very well.
Hunter made the travel roster against Stanford, likely as a reward for a lot of hard work during a freshman season spent getting healthy. And with a crowded depth chart of young talent, and another impressive group signing this February, Hunter can use these 10 practices before the Pinstripe Bowl and spring drills to work his way into the rotation.
Doug Randolph, LB
6'2", 233 pounds
Randolph's season also ended before it began, with Brian Kelly announcing that the outside linebacker would undergo corrective shoulder surgery in August. It was an injury that he brought with him from high school and wasn't the only reason that Randolph was held out of competition this season.
Randolph came into Notre Dame looking more like an athlete than a football player, starring on the lacrosse team at Woodberry Forest High School and moonlighting as a pass-catcher as well as a pass-rusher. At 6'2", 233 pounds, he lacks the ideal size to play at the Cat linebacker position, so seeing if Randolph can slide inside might be a worthy offseason experiment.
Unlike Deeb, Randolph looks like the type of athlete who's comfortable in space, though he also showed a knack for rushing the passer in high school. The Irish could use a player with both those traits, so after a year of watching and learning, Randolph is a true wild card heading into next season.
Malik Zaire, QB
6', 208 pounds
The redshirt can finally come off. For Irish fans clamoring to see Zaire this season, Kelly came clean late this season, admitting that the intent was to keep Zaire off the field all along, rolling the dice with Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix. Of course, any chance of Zaire playing in 2013 was pushed back when the freshman came down with mononucleosis this fall, keeping him out of practice for the season's first month.
Kelly has doled out hints at what he expects to happen next year, all but naming Zaire and Golson as the two men battling for the starting quarterback job come springtime. That means that if Andrew Hendrix returns, he'll likely be leapfrogged by the redshirt freshman, a sign that perhaps Hendrix's time in South Bend is over.
Whatever Kelly says now, it's foolish to think that anybody but Golson will be the team's starter next season. Besides, what Zaire can actually do remains to be seen. He was a smooth operator in the option as a high schooler but only showed signs of being a capable passer during his senior season.
But for the first time in Kelly's tenure in South Bend, the offense will finally have quarterbacks capable of executing the team's core offense, with Zaire's dual-threat ability a welcome (and long-awaited) addition to the depth chart.
Greg Bryant, RB
5'10", 204 pounds
That Bryant's freshman year didn't go according to plan is hardly a death sentence for a player who's just too talented to stay off the field. At a finely chiseled 204 pounds, Bryant has the physical makeup of an NFL running back and elite skills as both a runner and receiver.
Fighting through a crowded depth chart will be easier with Bryant back at full strength after undergoing the same surgery that Louis Nix had on his knee. With Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson entering their senior seasons, Bryant's injury saved him a year of eligibility, positioning himself perfectly for three seasons as a potential 1-2 punch with Tarean Folston.
Showing patience and not losing faith seem to be among the most important things for Bryant at this point, with the frustrations of under-delivering after considerable recruiting hype likely weighing on the young player. But Bryant's opportunities are coming, even if his arrival is a year later than many expected.