Notre Dame Football: 5 Former Blue-Chippers Who Will Shine in 2014
As we've seen in Brian Kelly's recent recruiting classes, landing the blue-chip recruits hasn't been a problem. Since taking over at Notre Dame, Kelly and his coaching staff have landed more than their fair share of the nation's top prospects.
According to 247Sports.com's team rankings, all four of Kelly's recruiting classes (we'll keep 2010 out of this both because 247 didn't collect data and Kelly took over Charlie Weis' class) have been Top 20 groups. Both the 2011 and 2013 classes were judged Top 10 efforts, with last year's class falling just outside that standard at No. 11.
Stockpiling talent isn't necessarily a precursor to playing winning football—just ask Mack Brown. But as Kelly enters his fifth season in South Bend, Indiana, the personnel on the Irish roster continues to improve.
That's been proved by Notre Dame's success in the NFL draft. But that success has also come at a price, with roster attrition with early entrants to the NFL creating challenges we haven't seen in recent years for the Irish.
But those departures have created opportunities. And as Kelly has built his program around the motto of "Next Man In," let's take a look at five former blue-chippers who will finally have a chance to shine in 2014.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.
A year after building depth and size on the edge of Notre Dame's defense, the Irish plucked the best defensive player out of Indiana when they signed Sheldon Day. With national offers from programs like Florida, LSU and Oklahoma, Day was the type of defensive lineman that Notre Dame perpetually struggled to sign.
But Day's pledge slid under the radar with Irish fans, perhaps still in a daze after landing the trio of Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt and Ishaq Williams the season before. Yet it didn't take long to realize that the 4-star prospect, and the 80th-ranked player in 247's class, was going to be an early contributor.
Day played a key complementary role on the Irish defensive line as a true freshman in 2012. Even undersized as a 3-4 defensive end, he was productive, though 2013 was a lost season after an early-season ankle injury slowed him down for much of the fall.
"He has incredible ability to rush the passer for an interior defensive lineman," Kelly told Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports. "He's very unique in that sense. Most of those guys are two-down players, where you get 'em off the field on third downs. He could arguably be our best pass rusher as an inside guy. We may have to move him outside on third down. He has a unique skill set."
Irish fans have had to be patient with Greg Bryant. Expecting an immediate impact from the 247 Composite's 45th-best player in the country, a knee injury slowed Bryant down last fall, forcing a medical redshirt in 2013.
But Bryant is intent on making up for lost time. With the departure of George Atkinson and the shift of Amir Carlisle to the slot position, Bryant will join senior Cam McDaniel and fellow sophomore Tarean Folston as the three backs taking carries this season.
Bryant had the Blue-Gold game's biggest play, a 51-yard run that had Irish fans salivating. While Kelly tried his best to tamp down expectations following the spring game, he called Bryant an "electrifying back" when talking to Fox Sports earlier this week.
Expect Bryant to play a role similar to Theo Riddick in 2012, though he'll need to earn the coaching staff's trust before they thrust that much responsibility onto the first-year performer. But Bryant is expected to win the punt-return job, a telling sign that the staff thinks he's ready to dominate.
The departure of Troy Niklas doesn't mean the tight end position will be devoid of skill in 2014. After all, before Irish fans ever saw Niklas on the offensive side of the ball, Koyack looked to be the next in line to continue the Irish's run of top-flight NFL tight ends.
Back on signing day in 2011, Brian Kelly was clear with his expectations for Koyack, who 247 rated as the country's No. 2 tight end.
"We had him on our board as No. 1 tight end in the country," Kelly said. "We loved Ben Koyack from the very beginning. Great size. If you're going to compare him to anybody, Tyler Eifert. He has the ability to split out as a wide receiver, can lock in, or put his hand on the ground."
It's taken a while, but Koyack looks primed to make good on the staff's projections. While he played in 24 games his first two seasons in South Bend, he made only four catches. After a slow start in 2013, Koyack built momentum down the stretch, starting five games on his way to making 10 catches for 171 yards and three touchdowns.
With Niklas gone and the Irish offense evolving into more spread concepts, Koyack is the lone Irish tight end capable of playing every snap. That should turn 2014 into a big season for the senior.
If there's one player on this list who has made Irish fans wait the longest for an impact, it's Ishaq Williams. The former 5-star recruit was one of Brian Kelly's biggest recruiting coups, pulling Williams from Penn State just hours before deciding where to early enroll.
Williams' struggles to see the field have been a product of opportunity and a struggle to develop in Bob Diaco's system. No position on the Irish defense had a stronger base than the one Williams walked into, with NFL draft picks Darius Fleming and Prince Shembo playing in front of Williams. But the Brooklyn native also needed to learn to play football at a higher level, something the staff continues to work on even entering his final fall in South Bend.
A shift to Brian VanGorder's defense should help. While Williams has the ability to drop and cover, a skill certainly unique for a 271-pounder, his job will be simplified as a 4-3 defensive end. From there, his natural athletic abilities should take over.
Entering the spring, Kelly saw a different sense of urgency in offseason workouts displayed by Williams, something that made him optimistic that the much-needed veteran was ready to take on a bigger role.
"I've never seen him compete that way," Kelly said on the eve of spring practice. "He's one athletic, big dude, and we've been waiting and waiting and waiting, like you all have been waiting, and I'm pretty excited right now.
"We'll see. It's early. I'm going to be very cautious, but I'm cautiously optimistic."
If there's one outlier on this list of former blue-chippers, it's Amir Carlisle. He was the one that got away, choosing USC over the Irish in the 2011 signing class, even though the Irish received Carlisle's final recruiting visit.
But after one season in Southern California, the Carlisle family moved to Indiana, where Amir's father Duane took over the strength and conditioning program at Purdue. Looking to be closer to home, Carlisle made the move as well, choosing Notre Dame after they finished runner-up the first time around.
Carlisle's career in South Bend also took another false start when a lingering ankle injury kept him off the field in 2012, even though he received immediate eligibility by the NCAA. After a collarbone injury ending his spring practice early, Carlisle was the team's starting running back against Temple to kick off the season, though he lost carries as the year went on.
Carlisle doesn't have the makeup of a feature back, with the undersized speedster better in doses. And with the running back depth chart looking solidified with the trio of Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant, Carlisle spent the spring at slot receiver, a quick study at a position that looks to be a natural one for the gifted athlete.
With Brian Kelly recommitting to the spread attack, an electric playmaker at the slot receiver is a key component. In his four seasons in South Bend, Kelly still hasn't found that player, a search that's befuddled him.
While Carlisle's modest production in 2013 doesn't have him pegged for a big year, the Irish's depth at the receiver position will give Carlisle a ton of one-on-one opportunities, a critical component to Kelly's offensive attack. Expect that to bring back the big-play potential most saw when the Irish were originally recruiting Carlisle and boost the Irish's production this fall.