Notre Dame's 2011 freshman class was forced into early duty this season. As the calendar turns to 2012, five standouts from that class will develop into leaders for the Irish.
Brian Kelly brought in a top recruiting class heading into this season. On paper, the Irish were lauded for a deep class stocked with the type of athletes that hadn't been heading to South Bend in recent years.
Fortunately for Notre Dame, the story on the field played out just as the paper predicted. The Irish freshmen stepped in and stepped up, filling important roles and gaining valuable experience. As those youngsters mature, Notre Dame fans can expect more of the same.
Aaron Lynch is already a superstar.
Much like Manti Te’o did in his first year at Notre Dame, Lynch is showing off a bevy of skills that can’t be taught. The way that he explodes off of the line of scrimmage, contorting his gigantic frame around and through blockers is an innate skill. It’s already elite. When the more refined parts of his game catch up (and they will), look out.
Todd McShay did a great piece on ESPN.com earlier this week ranking the top freshmen in college football. Here’s a link to the blurb on Lynch, the whole piece is available with an Insider account. McShay ranked Aaron Lynch as the third-best freshman in the country, right behind fellow superfreak defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. It's well-deserved praise for a player who registered six tackles for loss and 13 quarterback hurries, even while battling injuries in his debut season.
Lynch’s statistical profile is impressive, but even beyond that, he can boast an accomplishment few freshmen can match.
Aaron Lynch single-handedly dominated a football game against a Top 15 opponent.
Lynch burst on to the scene against Michigan State, recording six quarterback hurries and a sack against an offensive line that allowed only 16 sacks all season. Lynch harassed Kirk Cousins all day, getting pressure in key situations and forcing a fumble that swung momentum in favor of the Irish. That, combined with the efforts of another player on this list, led Notre Dame to its most impressive victory of the 2011 season.
As a freshman, Lynch was occasionally unblockable. As his technique and maturity improves, he’ll find himself in the backfield even more often.
Notre Dame has become "Tight End U" in recent years, and after a strong freshman campaign, Ben Koyak looks ready to join the likes of John Carlson, Anthony Fasano and Kyle Rudolph as elite Irish TEs.
Statistically, Koyak has had an uneventful season. He's appeared in 11 games and has done a nice job as a blocker, but he's recorded just one catch for five yards. It's slightly a disappointing stat line, but it's tough to knock a true freshman for not being able to push himself ahead of All-American starter Tyler Eifert.
Eifert was in a similar position last season, stuck behind star tight end Kyle Rudolph. Though he's now become a ubiquitous cog in the Irish passing game, Eifert had only one catch through the first six games of the 2010 season. It was only when Rudolph went down with an injury that Eifert stepped in and became a top target for Tommy Rees.
While I don't anticipate an upcoming injury for Eifert, I do think that Koyack can follow a similar career path. After spending his freshman year getting comfortable in the offense, Koyack will be ready to contribute to the passing game in 2012.
With Michael Floyd gone and Eifert drawing the attention of opposing defenses, Notre Dame's quarterback (whomever it may be) will be happy to have Koyack's reliable hands out in the pattern.
Stephon Tuitt entered Notre Dame as a celebrated prospect. He was hailed as a great athlete, but undeveloped as a football player.
Notre Dame fans expected some ups and downs when Tuitt was pressed into regular duty after a rash of injuries along the Irish defensive line. Instead, the freshman was a steadying forced on a unit that was led by young players after injuries ravaged Notre Dame's veteran linemen.
Tuitt's greatest asset is his versatility. His size and strength gives him the ability to play a number of roles along the defensive line. For the most part, Tuitt lines up at end in Bob Diaco's 3-4 scheme, responsible for locking down against the run and freeing up space for the linebackers behind him.
However, Tuitt isn't just a space eater, he has the ability to push upfield and rush the quarterback off the edge on passing plays. On obvious throwing downs, Tuitt has the bulk to move inside to tackle and push the pocket from the inside.
It's not often that a freshman defensive lineman has the mental and physical maturity to play that many different roles along the line. As Tuitt continues to learn his trade, he'll be better equipped to unleash his physical skills, regardless of the position he plays.
With Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood locked in to the vast majority of the carries, George Atkinson III couldn't have anticipated that he'd have much of a role in the Notre Dame offense. He only received 10 touches on offense during the regular season, but Atkinson was able to make an impact in other ways.
Atkinson was a firecracker on kick returns, returning 30 kick-offs for an average of over 27 yards per return. He took a kick-off the distance in each of Notre Dame's two most important home games, against Michigan State and USC.
That's a great season for any player. For a freshman, it's outstanding. Atkinson finished third in per-return average among kick returners with at least 30 attempts, and his two touchdowns tied him for second in the nation.
Moving into 2012, Atkinson will have an opportunity to translate his special teams skill to the offensive backfield. Gray's graduation leaves a gaping hole behind Cierre Wood, and Atkinson is well-positioned to fill it.
I expect that even in a new role, George Atkinson III will find himself in a familiar position: looking over his shoulder at a horde of defenders trying frantically to catch him.
Troy Niklas came in as a slightly less-heralded prospect than some of the other freshman in the Irish front seven, but that didn't stop him from contributing right away. Niklas has played in all 12 games this season and has chipped in at least one tackle in 10 of those contests.
Physically, Niklas is a perfect fit as an outside linebacker in Bob Diaco's 3-4 scheme. Diaco requires his linebackers to compete one-on-one with tackles in the run game, in addition to covering backs and tight ends out in the pattern. At 6'6" and 250 pounds, Niklas has the requisite size to hold up against offensive lineman, as well as the speed and agility to hold his own in coverage.
Niklas entered Notre Dame as a player without a position. As such, he spent much of his freshman year getting by on athletic ability alone. As he learns more and more of the intricacies of his role in the Irish defense, Troy Niklas will grow into a consistent stopper on the edge.