Notre Dame Football: 4 Freshmen Who Will Challenge for Starting Jobs in Camp
While Notre Dame welcomes a group of elite recruits to South Bend this weekend for the Irish Invasion Camp, the incoming freshman class is already on campus, working with the coaching staff and Paul Longo's strength team to prepare for the upcoming season.
Brian Kelly collected 23 signatures in the 2014 recruiting cycle, the No. 10 class in the country according to 247Sports.com. Now he's got to throw away the star rankings and get his team ready to play football.
There are potential impact players in this group. A strong group off offensive linemen will do their best to challenge for playing time. A reloaded front seven will have opportunities to work in Brian VanGorder's new scheme.
Entering his fifth season, Brian Kelly's depth chart is as stable as it's been at Notre Dame since the Holtz era. And while the Irish lost a ton of talent from last year's team—five players in the first three rounds of the NFL draft and eight players overall—walking into the starting lineup is probably harder than it's been since Kelly arrived in South Bend.
Still, there are opportunities. Let's take a look at the freshmen who have the best chance to win a starting job during fall camp.
The Irish have a linebacker in Morgan who many believe walks onto campus as the team's most talented option at middle linebacker. While this spring saw the emergence of Joe Schmidt, he's no match athletically for Morgan, who will see the field as quickly as he can prepare mentally.
Brian Kelly won a heated recruiting battle for Morgan, taking over his recruitment personally after Chuck Martin and Bob Diaco left to take head coaching jobs. Losing your area recruiter, position coach and defensive coordinator is usually too much to overcome—especially in late December. But Kelly and new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder spent the final weeks of the recruiting cycle letting Morgan know that he was still a perfect fit for the Irish defense. It worked.
Being on campus and being able to work with the coaching staff for up to eight hours a week will be a huge help mentally for Morgan. With the lack of depth at linebacker, and the Irish's mediocre special teams, there's room for him to see the field quickly.
Heaping too much on his young shoulders won't be good. Even Manti Te'o played like a lost freshman at first. But if he has a strong summer and fall camp, don't be surprised to see Morgan early and often.
In case anyone was wondering if Nelson was ready for the physical rigors of college football, this video seemed to put that debate to rest. At 6'5", 302 pounds, Nelson has the size and strength to play as either a tackle or a guard for offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.
Recruited as a tackle, Nelson's road to the starting lineup seems blocked by returning starter Ronnie Stanley and projected right tackle Mike McGlinchey. The Irish staff, however, has shown itself willing to move players around to find the team's best five linemen, with Steve Elmer the projected left guard heading into fall camp.
Nelson is likely the first option to kick inside among the freshmen class, even though Sam Mustipher and Jimmy Byrne were recruited to play guard. And that could happen if McGlinchey struggles or Christian Lombard gets hurt again.
If it's McGlinchey, you'll likely see Steve Elmer move outside to right tackle. That'll leave the left guard job open. If injuries continue to plague Lombard, Nelson could brawl his way into the lineup. Versatility is key for Harry Hiestand, and a good summer for Nelson could insert him into the Irish's plans up front.
Brian VanGorder's defense demands cornerbacks who can run and cover. From early whispers coming out of South Bend, Nick Watkins fits that role perfectly.
On paper, putting Watkins among this group doesn't make a ton of sense. Florida transfer Cody Riggs just arrived on campus. KeiVarae Russell is the Irish defense's most experienced player. Matthias Farley switched from safety to cornerback this spring. Cole Luke and Devin Butler had nice freshmen seasons, with Luke likely kicking into the starting lineup and Butler a key reserve.
But after playing nothing but zone coverage these past four seasons, the evaluation process has started from scratch. Don't expect VanGorder or secondary coach Kerry Cooks to stand on ceremony and be loyal to veterans in the Irish's new attacking defense. It's difficult to hide corners who can't play man coverage in this system.
Watkins has still got to learn the Irish system and make the transition to college football. Athletically, though, he's got everything the Irish want in a cornerback, and he'll spend the summer and fall camp pushing for time at one of the roster's most competitive positions.
Tranquill might have been one of Notre Dame's least-heralded recruits. However, the Fort Wayne native could fill a key role for the Irish, not only as a third down linebacker, but also a special teams standout.
It might be cheating to classify a specialty player like Tranquill as a starter. If he's on all four special teams units, that's a key piece for Scott Booker's special teams, a group who struggled mightily with blocking and kick coverage.
Tranquill's a unique athlete. He'll likely be listed in the 220-pound range, and the high school sprinter brings the ability to run with wide receivers and tight ends to a defense that'll likely utilize plenty of sub-packages.
That skillset helped John Turner emerge this spring and pushed converted wide receiver James Onwualu into the discussion for playing time. Expect it to do the same for Tranquill come fall camp.