Should we be calling this the January to remember?
In a three day span, Notre Dame received the news that Michael Floyd would be returning for his senior season, followed up by the additions of OLB Ishaq Williams on Friday and DE Aaron Lynch on Saturday to the 2011 recruiting class.
Recruiting along the defensive line has been a major challenge for Notre Dame in the past and the depth at this position became even greater late Monday night with the word that Chase Hounshell has switched his commitment from Florida to Notre Dame.
There is going to be plenty of critique, comment and celebration for the upcoming 2011 class that will be signing their scholarships in a couple weeks, so I will wait until the dust finally settles to get into the new freshman coming to Notre Dame.
As excited as many fans are with this amazing recruiting class and the amount of starters returning to the team, what about the other young players who will be looking to make their mark next season?
Make no mistake about it, returning starters and a highly acclaimed recruiting class are reasons to get excited about 2011, but having over a dozen young players ready to fill any possible voids left from the previous year is a very good sign for a rising program.
And that is exactly what Notre Dame has right now and this is a look at those players.
Some of the players have a little bit of game experience, while others have yet to step on the field. Some have played on offense or defense, while others have contributed strictly on special teams. There’s a nice collection of players here, some that you will know and some that are a little less well known.
I will start with those who should make a smaller impact and work my way towards the young players who should be a critical part of the 2011 season.
Players will be designated by their class in the fall when the football season begins.
Austin Collinsworth (WR, Sophomore)
Collinsworth was an interesting prospect coming out of high school because he played both ways and was a late signing and targeted specifically by Brian Kelly after the new coach was hired in South Bend.
No one was really sure where Collinsworth fit in as a freshman or if he would play at all, but he turned into a maniac on special teams.
He totaled seven tackles on the season as well as causing one fumble and laid a few big hits on special teams in the process.
Late in the season Collinsworth began lining up as a kick returner, but his only touch on the season came in the opening boot against Miami. He took the ball 34 yards near midfield to set up the game’s first touchdown.
2011 Future: Although Collinsworth didn’t play anywhere else but special teams as a freshman, his first year was very impressive. The question now becomes whether he will be able to crack into the receiver rotation and start catching some balls as a sophomore.
I think he’s still a long shot to make the two-deep, but he should start getting some catches late in games. Collinsworth is a versatile athlete and is probably going to make a name for himself in any number of ways, including staying on special teams, or possibly moving to defense in the future if that is what the coaches want.
Dan Fox (LB, Junior RS)
Fox was a very good recruit out of Ohio who sat out his freshman year before seeing the field this past season in a limited capacity. He finished his sophomore year with a very respectable 20 tackles and generally played well when given the opportunity.
He has good size and athleticism which has allowed him to bounce around in position. If I am not mistaken, Fox is listed as an outside linebacker but did see most of his time in the middle playing late in games and more often after the injury to Carlo Calabrese.
2011 Future: The graduations of Brian Smith and Kerry Neal will help Fox’s cause, but it remains to be seen how much playing time he’ll receive next year. With Te’o holding down a starting middle linebacker spot, it may be tough for Fox to beat out Calabrese or McDonald for minutes, but he could slide his way into the two deep.
Any more minutes playing outside seem less likely with Fleming, Filer, and a couple other younger studs trying to force their way on to the field, so I’d look for Fox to have a similar role to this past season but with perhaps a small increase in playing time.
Kendall Moore (LB, Sophomore RS)
Moore was a very strong recruit coming out of North Carolina last year and has been praised numerous times by Brian Kelly for his skill and work ethic.
His sophomore campaign will be an interesting one to watch because he could be a huge surprise for the Irish, but he does have an uphill battle to climb for playing time.
Although he’s one of the shorter linebackers, Moore brings a lot of bulk and toughness to the middle of the field. He might be the type of player that will be deployed more often against the power running teams like Michigan State and USC.
2011 Future: The odds are probably in favor of Moore easing his way into the lineup with some garbage time minutes, but he should be one of the young defenders to keep an eye on. Although the Irish have a superstar in Te’o, the other experienced middle linebackers might not have the overall athleticism that Moore possesses, so this could work in the sophomore’s advantage.
Daniel Smith (WR, Sophomore)
Smith had one of those freshman seasons in which the coaching staff might regret wasting his year of eligibility. He played some on special teams, totaled one tackle and a fumble recovery, but never made it into the huddle as a receiver.
Smith is a really big receiver (6’4”) and should be coming into next year close to or at 220 pounds. The word from the coaching staff is that Smith has good speed for his size and has some of the best set of hands on the team.
2011 Future: As Kelly and the players get more comfortable in this new system, we should see more receivers used throughout games. Smith will likely be stuck behind half a dozen receivers for playing time heading into the spring, and his 2011 minutes may depend on what the staff plans on doing with the two freshmen coming in at his position, but he could turn some heads and establish himself as a quality outside threat.
Danny Spond (LB, Sophomore)
Spond was a last-minute addition to the 2010 recruiting class and found himself getting some playing time as a true freshman this past season. Ditto the argument in regards to Daniel Smith with Spond, about not playing a whole lot as freshman, and never being able to get that year back.
He only tallied one tackle on the year, but the coaching staff has raved about his athleticism, smarts, and most importantly his technique. Certainly with those attributes Spond will be a candidate to have a breakout sophomore season.
2011 Future: The praise coming from the coaching staff is a definite indication that Spond has a bright future, but he is a little undersized as an outside linebacker and will find it hard to take minutes away from other guys. But if he keeps playing hard and showing the instincts that Kelly loves, he could be a solid role player next season.
Tyler Stockton (DT, Junior RS)
Stockton was a big-time recruit out of New Jersey but has yet to see any significant minutes (although he did register one sack this year) on the field through his first two years on campus, including suffering moderately serious injuries in each season.
Most analysts have a certain jumbo-sized Floridian taking over the back-up position at nose tackle or even starting in 2011, but don’t discount Stockton to be heavily in the mix next season.
2011 Future: I’ve been a big believer that Stockton would be a difference maker at Notre Dame, but it hasn’t materialized. Still, he has three full years left to make a mark and I like his chances to get quality minutes in 2011.
Justin Utupo (LB, Sophomore RS)
Utupo was another last minute addition to the 2010 recruiting class and was overlooked by many. He sat out this past year unable to pick up any playing time.
Other than his NCAA clearinghouse issue back in August during fall camp, Utupo has been all but invisible over the past five months.
With his massive size and athleticism, as well as his dominance as a prep senior in California, I don’t expect Utupo to stay quiet much longer.
2011 Future: I think Utupo could be one of those players who sort of comes out of nowhere next year and causes fans to look back at his recruiting profile and say, “Wow this kid was one of the more highly decorated studs in high school and has totally flown under the radar.”
The competition at outside linebacker is going to be fierce and Utupo still has to transition from the defensive line where he played in high school, but you can’t teach size and Utupo is built perfectly for this style of defense. I expect some quality minutes at some point next season.
Andrew Hendrix (QB, Sophomore RS)
Considered by ESPN to be possibly the biggest sleeper of the entire national 2010 class, Hendrix is still a bit of an unknown and undervalued prospect for Notre Dame. Consider it a testament to the strong Irish recruiting at quarterback in recent years that a top 15 prep quarterback could come to South Bend underrated.
Nevertheless, Hendrix fits the mold perfectly (Golson aside) for the Brian Kelly pass-first offense and has benefited from a season on the bench learning the ropes. If we are to believe the scouting reports and praise from the coaching staff (very good size, quick release, strong arm, good accuracy, sneaky good mobility), then Hendrix will most definitely make a strong bid for a lot of playing time next fall.
2011 Future: Hendrix may ultimately be too talented to be kept off the field much longer, but he still has his work cut out for him in competing with Crist and/or Rees. Still, he was dangerously close to joining the Florida Gators last year and Kelly was able to keep him in blue and gold (a good sign that Kelly really thought he could play very soon at Notre Dame).
Unless the coaching staff is blowing a lot of smoke in order to keep him on campus and provide quality depth at this position, I would believe Hendrix has decent odds to be on the two-deep by the 2011 season opener.
Bennett Jackson (WR, Sophomore)
Jackson was a track champion and speedy receiver out of New Jersey last year and just finished up a pretty impressive freshman season for someone who didn’t play on offense.
Although not very big, Jackson is in the mold of former Irish great Rocket Ismail in that he’s got devilish speed and was used in the kick return game as soon as he stepped on campus.
He might not have the Heisman-like talent that Ismail did, but Jackson was a very valuable part of special teams this year, and even showed a great deal of toughness for someone his size. He finished his freshman season with 10 tackles (a few beauties on kick coverage), 645 return yards, and a 20-yard scamper on a fake punt.
2011 Future: Jackson probably isn’t going to start at receiver next year, but he’ll be fighting for a two-deep spot and have the advantage of his speed working in his favor. There were some mentions that he needs work on his hands and catching ability, but he’s probably going to be used occasionally next year to stretch the field vertically.
I would look for a decent amount of playing time for Jackson at wide receiver, in addition to his continuing special team’s duties.
Kona Schwenke (DE, Sophomore)
Schwenke was kind of an after-thought in the recruiting process last year, as in: “Oh, we picked up another Hawaiian player, that’s nice. He should get along with Te’o and Toma.”
But he surprised the coaching staff with his physical maturity and was able to see the field in five games as a freshman and play pretty well while doing so. Schwenke has good size and a high motor with solid instincts, making himself one of Brian Kelly’s first recruiting steals at Notre Dame.
2011 Future: He still has two upperclassmen ahead of him on the line that are starting and Schwenke will be fighting off the uber-talented incoming freshmen as well, but there should be a decent amount of playing time for him next season. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that he bulks up to 270+ and plays in the middle of the line from time to time either, whenever Diaco throws out a four-man front or there is a short-yardage situation.
Alex Welch (TE, Sophomore RS)
After sitting out his freshman season, Welch now has the opportunity to step onto the field as a sophomore and make an impact.
He’s the shortest tight end on the roster, but he should be yet another great pass-catching tight end for the Irish. Like most young players on the line, his amount of playing time will likely depend on how well he blocks.
2011 Future: As already mentioned, his minutes will depend on his blocking but also upon whether Mike Ragone is asked back for a fifth year. It is looking less and less likely that Ragone will return, which means Welch could be the second-string tight end and play quite a lot in 2011.
Louis Nix (DT, Sophomore RS)
Here is the big Floridian who has been dubbed the future at the nose tackle position for the Fighting Irish. Nix came to camp last year overweight at 350 pounds but has been working hard to get down to the preferred 300-310 playing weight per DC Bob Diaco.
Nix is still somewhat of a mystery as a prospect, but he was one of the elite defensive tackle recruits in the country last year and by the end of 2010 was receiving praise for his hard work and penchant for not allowing offensive linemen to block him.
Nix appears to have that Warren Sapp gene in that he’s so large, yet so freakishly athletic at the same time. Needless to say, the Irish fan base is excited to see what this kid can do.
2011 Future: I think asking Nix to start from day one is a tall task, but if he can stay in shape and continue to improve he should see the field quite often next fall. A lot of his minutes may depend on how Cwynar plays in the middle, but Nix has the size and pedigree to possibly take over as the No. 1 guy sometime next season.
Cameron Roberson (RB, Sophomore)
With so many running backs on the roster at this point last year, Roberson really didn’t get a lot of publicity and it was believed that he’d be more of a power running back in the mold of a fullback or H-back in college.
That was until Brian Kelly offered up enormous praise for Roberson on signing day.
Some think he’ll be similar to Robert Hughes, but Roberson looks to be very similar to Jonas Gray with a nice blend of speed and power. The coaching staff has praised Roberson’s quickness and agility, which is a very positive sign seeing as how he is already a 220 pound thick and well-built runner.
2011 Future: Due to the graduations of Armando Allen and Robert Hughes, there is an immediate opportunity for playing time. Roberson is likely to head into the season as the third string back, but he could push Jonas Gray for playing time and should see the field quite a bit with the heavy rotation system Brian Kelly likes to use.
Prince Shembo (LB, Sophomore)
Shembo was one of those recruits who many thought could see a little bit of playing time as a freshman, but no one could have expected the impact he would have in 2010.
He goes down as playing in every game, but Shembo didn’t play as many minutes as most of the other regulars at linebacker. Still, he put up 15 total tackles, and an astonishing 4.5 sacks, to go along with a forced fumble in what amounts to very minimal playing time as a freshman.
Change those numbers to a fulltime starting spot at linebacker and Shembo would have racked up over 20 sacks as a freshman, which is simply ridiculous. Although he’s listed as a middle linebacker, Shembo was often used on the outside as an edge rusher and was obviously very effective.
2011 Future: Shembo might be a tad too short for outside linebacker, but he seems to have the body, athleticism and edge-rushing ability to play there. He’ll likely be used in a lot of passing situations next year, but he also has a chance to start, depending on where the coaches decide to keep him. He may be Darius Fleming’s apprentice at the Dog linebacker position.
Lo Wood (CB, Sophomore)
Wood only tallied three tackles as a freshman, didn’t play a whole lot and probably should have stayed on the sidelines if it was possible, but depth chart concerns forced him into playing time.
Now, Wood will have to step up perhaps like no other player on this list and be right on the cusp of starting and getting a lot of minutes behind veteran corners Gary Gray and Robert Blanton. He’s a little undersized, but showed good toughness in his limited time on the field as a freshman.
2011 Future: It’s all but guaranteed that Wood will be playing a lot next season, and if there is an injury ahead of him he will likely start. Unless one of the incoming freshmen blows the coaching staff away, Wood will be the third option at cornerback and have a big impact in 2011.
Who do you see stepping up big next year from the young players?
From the FanTake blog: One Foot Down
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