Notre Dame Football: Incoming Freshmen Most Likely to Start This Season
Twenty-three freshmen from Notre Dame football's 10th-ranked class of 2014 are set to don the blue and gold in the coming months.
We've already gone step-by-step through the entire class of incoming freshmen, so we'll focus this week on projecting which of those players are most likely to start for the Irish in 2014.
In 2013, six different true freshmen—linebacker Jaylon Smith (13 starts), offensive lineman Steve Elmer (four), wide receivers Will Fuller (three) and Corey Robinson (three), running back Tarean Folston (two) and safety Max Redfield (one)—logged a combined 26 starts for the Irish.
On national signing day, Irish head coach Brian Kelly was asked about the prospects of this year's crop of freshmen earning playing time.
"Physically, these guys are coming in so much more prepared," Kelly said. "It's developing them mentally to find out whether they're going to play. It's not physical."
Kelly added it's tough to determine who will be mentally ready without seeing how training camp takes its toll on the rookies, but we'll take a crack at outlining the possibilities.
In determining our choices, we'll consider the freshman's overall skill level, Kelly's scouting report on the player and the competition at the position.
WR Justin Brent
Justin Brent is already a step ahead of the freshman class after he enrolled early and went through spring ball.
The No. 15 wide receiver in the class of 2014, Brent was ranked as the No. 94 overall player in the nation. He's already well-built at 6'1.5", 204 pounds, so physicality shouldn't be an issue for the Indianapolis native.
Irish offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock discussed Brent's transition to the collegiate level toward the end of spring practice.
"It's a big world for him right now," Denbrock said. "You've heard the phrase before 'drinking through a fire hose.' He is literally drowning at times with information and really overload."
Denbrock added that Brent hadn't been backing down from any of the challenges thrown his way in the spring.
So while he's ready physically and already has a semester of experience, Brent will still be jockeying for playing time with the rest of a talented group of wide receivers.
It'd be fairly surprising if Brent landed a starting spot, but he makes our list because of his experience, his physical stature and the wide-open nature of his position.
DL Andrew Trumbetti
Along with Brent, Andrew Trumbetti was Notre Dame's other early enrollee this year. And like Brent, Trumbetti was a top prospect (No. 8 strong-side defensive end, No. 143 player in his class).
The 6'3.5", 250-pounder drew some attention toward the beginning of spring practice when he earned reps with the first-team defense, but Kelly later downplayed the importance of Trumbetti's work with the starting 11.
"He's got a great motor, and he's got pretty good football instincts," Kelly said in March. "And he's got opportunity. If we had a little bit more depth at that position, we probably wouldn't be talking about him.
"I'd probably tap the brakes on the Andrew Trumbetti deal because he's a young kid, and generally what happens is it catches up with them a little bit. He's done really well, but it's a lot for him."
Still, Trumbetti possesses that extra semester of experience, and the Demarest, New Jersey, native finds himself slotted inside an unsettled position group.
We recently ranked Notre Dame's defensive line eighth in our power ranking of the positional units. Junior Sheldon Day is the only defensive lineman with extensive starting experience. Beyond Day, Trumbetti could challenge junior Romeo Okwara and seniors Ishaq Williams, Tony Springmann and Chase Hounshell for snaps at defensive end.
OL Quenton Nelson
Quenton Nelson was ranked as the No. 5 offensive tackle and the No. 62 overall player in the class of 2014, making him the No. 2 incoming recruit for the Irish.
Still, Kelly turned a few heads during spring ball when he mentioned the possibility of a "ready" freshman challenging for the starting job at left guard. At the very least, Kelly planted the idea and established it as somewhat possible.
Brian Kelly says he’ll keep the door open for a freshman to win a starting guard spot if Steve Elmer shifts to right tackle @BigQ56— Irish Illustrated (@NDatRivals) April 9, 2014
With one starting spot apparently up for grabs on the offensive line, it would be surprising for Nelson to vault the likes of redshirt freshman Mike McGlinchey and seniors Conor Hanratty and Matt Hegarty.
But if anyone in Notre Dame's class of 2014 were to do so, it figures to be Nelson. Kelly listed the Red Bank, New Jersey, product at 6'5", 302 pounds on national signing day and lauded his strength. Kelly, however, was more impressed with an intangible trait.
"I think the one thing that stands out about Q is that here's a guy that just is relentless," Kelly said at the time. "He's going to come after you play after play after play. And again, his desire to want to be great is what always stood out about Quenton is that he's always pushing himself. Every time we talk to him, he's coming back from something. He plays basketball. He's working out. He's a guy that's driving himself always to be the best he can be."
LB Nyles Morgan
It just so happens that Notre Dame's top-ranked incoming recruit—Nyles Morgan, the No. 3 inside linebacker and 53rd-best overall player in the country—enters at a position of uncertainty and potential need for the Irish in 2014.
While it seems like a natural fit, it's not time to pencil in Morgan as the starting "Mike" linebacker. Senior Joe Schmidt surged in the spring, and Kelly is planning to be "aggressive" with senior Jarrett Grace's rehab, according to Blue & Gold Illustrated's Dan Murphy.
Nonetheless, Morgan may have the best chance at earning a starting spot. Outside of sophomore Jaylon Smith, every linebacker either has health concerns or is unproven as a starter. On national signing day, Kelly was asked specifically about Morgan's ability to help right away and said, "[We] certainly feel like he has all the tools to do that."
"It's really going to be about how you handle it mentally and then how you adjust to it as a coach," Kelly said. "If he's the very best player, I want the 11 best players on the field, and we've got to do a good job as coaches of getting the 11 best players on the field sometimes."
Kelly's brief scouting report of the Crete, Illinois, native highlighted Morgan's "thirst for knowledge of the game," instincts and downhill style of play, among other qualities.
"That's what a Mike linebacker looks like," Kelly said.
Whether or not Morgan is starting as the Mike linebacker will likely depend on how quickly and completely he can grasp the mental side of the collegiate game and how the seniors ahead of Morgan, especially Schmidt and Grace, fare leading up to and during the season.
Unless otherwise noted, all recruiting stats and information courtesy of 247Sports.com and all quotes obtained firsthand. Star ratings reflect 247Sports composite rankings.
Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.