Notre Dame will move forward in 2014 with a drastically different football team than we've seen in previous years. Gone are coordinators Chuck Martin and Bob Diaco. Also departed is the veteran core of the team, as eight players were selected in the 2014 NFL draft, making a total of 14 over the past two seasons.
Notre Dame's five players selected in the first three rounds (seven over the past two drafts) gives you an idea of the talent drain that's hit Brian Kelly's roster. But it's also far from dire straits in South Bend. With a roster as loaded from top to bottom as we've seen since the Lou Holtz era, the Irish may be inexperienced—they rank 100th in the country in returning starters—but they are talented.
No group represents that more than the sophomore class. After being ranked the sixth-best recruiting class in the 2013 cycle by 247Sports.com, these true sophomores will be counted on to play an important role for Kelly's squad next season.
Let's focus on five rising stars who will carry the fate of the 2014 season on their shoulders.
There's no more vital player on the Irish defense than Smith. After filling the stat sheet and making 67 tackles from the "Dog" linebacker position, Smith's move inside in Brian VanGorder's system is just one reason why people are expecting a monster season from him.
Blessed with elite speed and athleticism, Notre Dame hasn't had a defensive player as physically gifted as Smith in a very long time. He showed that when he stepped in front of USC star Nelson Agholor to make a game-changing interception. He proved it wreaking havoc in the backfield against Arizona State. Given an opportunity to lead, Smith's summer is crucial both on and off the field.
Notre Dame's depth behind Smith at linebacker is filled with inexperience and question marks. But the Irish have an All-American candidate in Smith who has an opportunity to be one of the greats to put on an Irish uniform.
After enrolling early as a freshman, Elmer was thrust into action after Christian Lombard went down with a back injury at right guard. Elmer played in 10 games for the Irish, starting four in Lombard's place. Credit the young offensive lineman for having the mental fortitude to learn a new position and the physical prowess to hold his own in the trenches.
Elmer will learn another in 2014, shifting into Chris Watt's left guard spot. Even though he was a highly recruited left tackle prospect (he won the Anthony Munoz Award for the top lineman at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl), Elmer is once again changing positions to help the Irish get the team's best five linemen on the field.
Not many college guards are 6'5.5", 317 pounds. But Elmer's move to left guard, a key position in the Irish's offensive scheme, shows his versatility and will allow Mike McGlinchey to play his natural right tackle position.
Many wondered if Robinson was even a legitimate Division I wide receiver when Notre Dame offered the below-the-radar San Antonio prospect best known for his NBA Hall of Fame father. But after seeing Robinson dazzle during spring practice and put together a solid freshman season, he looks poised to be one of the breakout performers in Kelly's spread offense.
Robinson played in all 13 games last season, starting three. While his nine catches for 157 yards is a relatively meager total, he gave fans glimpses of the player he's set to become. No game showed that more than against Michigan State. Against one of the nation's stingiest defenses, Robinson brought down three key catches, leading the Irish with 57 yards in a game where the 15-yard pass interference flag was the team's best mode of transportation.
The Irish haven't had a receiving weapon like Robinson since Kelly arrived in South Bend. After Everett Golson showed a reliance on All-American Tyler Eifert in one-on-one matchups, Robinson could be used the same way, with defenses unable to double him with DaVaris Daniels and Will Fuller on the field at the same time.
Kelly kick-started the Redfield era at safety in the Pinstripe Bowl, pushing the little-used freshman into the starting lineup after coaching him hard during the month of bowl preparation. While he only made two tackles against Rutgers, it was a visible signal that Kelly believed that Redfield was the future at the position.
Redfield was a 5-star recruit but struggled to make an immediate impact for the Irish in 2013. That was likely a product of the team's defensive system putting a ton of responsibility on the safety position and Redfield unable to earn the trust needed to be the last line of defense. But after a strong spring practice, those duties are ready to be hoisted onto the sophomore's shoulders, as the Irish desperately need an athlete like Redfield monitoring the back line.
VanGorder's defensive system will feature a lot of man coverage in the secondary. An athlete like Redfield should be able to thrive in that situation, either in coverage or providing an umbrella over the top.
We saw very little of Redfield in the annual Blue-Gold game. That's likely the ultimate compliment from Kelly, not wanting to get Redfield nicked up...or let opponents get a good look at him.
Greg Bryant may have stolen most of the spring headlines, but Folston is poised to be the best running back the Irish have had since Kelly took over in South Bend. The 207-pound sophomore averaged 5.3 yards per carry during his freshman season, leading the team in rushing over the last six games.
Capable of breaking the big play and showing impressive vision for a true freshman, Folston worked through a few minor injuries before hitting his stride with a big game against Navy. With the depth chart whittled down to just Folston, Bryant and senior Cam McDaniel, it means more opportunities for Folston to get in rhythm, something we saw against the Midshipmen and Rutgers.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of Folston's game has only been seen in the spring game, when he caught five passes in the first half of action. That matched his season total from his freshman season and would help break open a much-needed screen pass game.
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