Next week, 21 Notre Dame signees will set foot on the northern Indiana campus for the first time as college students. With only two midyear enrollees (wide receiver Justin Brent and defensive end Andrew Trumbetti), the Irish freshman class is slightly behind other 2014 classes across the country that had more players participate in spring practice.
That doesn't mean the Irish aren't counting heavily on their new additions this fall. Some will, barring an overload of injuries, spend the year reshaping their bodies and conserving a year of eligibility. Others will be asked to make an immediate transition to a major college schedule that includes game with four division or conference winners from 2013.
At this point, it's hard to say for certain if any offensive freshmen will see the field. The Irish are loaded both at the skill positions and in the trenches. They may turn to Brent or Corey Holmes as an eighth or ninth wide receiver, but quarterback DeShone Kizer, tight ends Tyler Luatua and Nic Weishar and all four offensive linemen seem destined for redshirts.
A reshaped defense that could be without as many as six starters from the 2013 team will see an infusion of youth in Brian VanGorder's new 4-3 defense. Those losses, plus a consistent need for special teams contributors, present a number of Irish with an opportunity to make an early impact.
Let's look at five true freshmen who should play a significant role on the 2014 Fighting Irish.
LB Nyles Morgan
Morgan was the crown jewel of the Irish class, committing to Notre Dame at January's U.S. Army All-American Bowl. Already a need position with the losses of seniors Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox, Jarrett Grace's slow recovery from a broken leg left the Irish perilously thin at inside linebacker this spring. Grace's availability for the season remains uncertain, but he's expected to at least miss part of the season.
Without Grace, Morgan could find himself as the first man off the bench to spell Jaylon Smith at "Will" or Joe Schmidt at "Mike." Schmidt's knowledge and experience will make it tough to take him off the field, and Smith has All-American potential, but there will be snaps available for Morgan. If he can make the most of the opportunity, this unit could become a strength with or without Grace.
DT Jay Hayes
Hayes was one of the first commits in the 2014 class, pledging to the Irish all the way back in November 2012. He was projected at defensive end in the old 3-4 defense but now likely will be a 3-technique tackle in the 4-3. Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones will be the starters at tackle, but beyond them, there's no proven talent.
How many true freshmen will play for Notre Dame this season?
Hayes will find himself in a battle with senior Justin Utupo and a pair of fourth-year players coming off injuries—Chase Hounshell and Tony Springmann. An extra 10 to 15 pounds would probably be beneficial, but the 260-pound Hayes will arrive in Notre Dame with less required weight-room work than many of his classmates.
DE Andrew Trumbetti
One of the two January enrollees, Trumbetti received a crash course in VanGorder's defense during spring practice, ultimately holding his own and showing some promise. He's not a threat to crack the starting lineup ahead of Ishaq Williams or Romeo Okwara, but he is in line for a backup role along with sophomore Isaac Rochell.
Physically, the New Jersey native has some maturing to do, so anything more than about 15 snaps per game would be surprising. However, the spring showed that he can be counted on as a second-team player as a freshman. While his classmates are swimming in the intricacies of the defense during fall camp, Trumbetti should find himself much more decisive and instinctive after going through spring practice.
CB Nick Watkins
The Irish are solid at cornerback with junior KeiVarae Russell, sophomores Cole Luke and Devin Butler and graduate transfer Cody Riggs, but Watkins may be too talented not to garner early playing time.
He has ideal cornerback size at 6'1" and shows a high level of technique and polish to his game on film. The specific role of safety-turned-cornerback/nickelback Matthias Farley and the amount of sub-packages the Irish use will likely determine how soon and how often Watkins sees the field.
DE Grant Blankenship
One of three native Texans whom area recruiter Kerry Cooks was able to land in the class, Blankenship was the first to commit and could also be the first to play. Is he a tackle or an end? That's a question that probably won't be answered until the fall. Regardless of which position he plays, there's a need for bodies.
If he stays at end, he can't be counted on to provide much of a pass rush. He could kick inside as well, where he would likely be in the group with Springmann, Hounshell, Utupo and Hayes. The 3-4 scheme may have been a better fit, but Blankenship has a wide enough skill set to be productive in any system.