Brian Kelly's program enters its fifth year at Notre Dame. While the sting of underachieving in 2013 still likely hurts the Fighting Irish head coach, replacing two coordinators and returning to calling plays are enough to revitalize anybody.
Even with a top-end talent loss that could see three Irish players go in the NFL draft's first round, Kelly believes that this team is his most talented from top to bottom. But there are still holes to be filled before the Irish line up against Rice on the last day of August.
Heading to campus are 21 freshmen who are aiming to be those reinforcements. Expect these five true freshmen to join early enrollees Justin Brent and Andrew Trumbetti and contribute in supporting roles next season.
The Irish needed to add some bulk to the interior of their defensive line and did that with Mokwuah, who committed to Brian VanGorder and Kelly quickly after fielding an offer from Notre Dame. The one-time Rutgers commitment has the bulk necessary to eventually play nose tackle in a three-down front and will immediately provide depth at a defensive tackle position that has large holes.
Projecting how quickly a defensive lineman can contribute is a difficult exercise. But Mokwuah has the type of sheer size that's tough to ignore and isn't readily available on the current roster. While an ideal world would have him saving a year of eligibility, he's an insurance policy in case injured veterans Chase Hounshell and Tony Springmann can't answer the bell.
Perhaps the most coveted defensive recruit in the Irish class, Morgan has a role at inside linebacker if he can absorb VanGorder's system quickly enough. That's a lot for a freshman linebacker to process, but Morgan and the new defensive coordinator connected almost immediately during Morgan's recruitment, and the Irish head coach also took the lead on closing the Chicago native, which is a sign of how highly the staff views him.
Morgan immediately infuses the type of size, athleticism and speed to the linebacker position that VanGorder covets. After Notre Dame spent four years collecting downhill 3-4 inside linebackers, Morgan fits the mold of a sideline-to-sideline player, reminding more than a few Irish fans of a certain Hawaii linebacker who collected tackles by the bushel.
But even Manti Te'o spent his freshman season running around lost, and Joe Schmidt's grasp on the system makes him a tough guy to bump off the field. But if Jarrett Grace isn't ready for next season, expect to see Morgan on the field early and often.
This is more of a hunch, but Holmes is the type of wild card who could find a certain niche in the Irish offense. A speed merchant who played high school football at one of Florida's premier programs, he could provide another deep threat in Kelly's offense, and Mike Denbrock, the Irish's new offensive coordinator, is also his position coach.
While Justin Brent had the leg up at receiver by spending the spring semester at school and working with the team, he spent most of his senior season at running back, playing in a system far less nuanced than the one Holmes starred in at St. Thomas Aquinas.
Kelly and his offensive staff have done a good job of identifying young wide receivers, with Will Fuller and Corey Robinson looking like premier players even though they were less than heralded recruits. Holmes has both pedigree and profile—two things that have me bullish on the young receiver.
Another prospect who is hoping to break in at a talented position, Watkins is a smooth athlete and a ready-made cornerback. Starring at Dallas' Bishop Dunne High School, he turned down offers from Alabama, Florida State, LSU, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Texas to head to South Bend. Put simply, skill players like him don't redshirt.
As it looks like the Irish will primarily feature just two linebackers, a nickel defense seems more and more likely. And while VanGorder's system puts its cornerbacks on an island, Watkins fits that kind of defense just fine.
The Missouri native came out of nowhere during the last recruiting cycle, earning an offer from Notre Dame after dominating its summer camp as an unblockable pass-rusher. While his commitment came as a surprise to some recruitniks, Bonner left every summer camp with a scholarship offer.
In Bob Diaco's system, Bonner would look like a classic tweener. But instead of being forced inside at linebacker or playing as an undersized 3-4 defensive end, he will have the opportunity to get after the quarterback as a defensive end, something the Irish desperately need.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch's defensive player of the year, Bonner looks like one of the classic under-the-radar recruits that Kelly built his career on.