Notre Dame's 2013 success hinges on class of 2011

Notre Dame's 2013 success hinges on class of 2011

April 21, 2013, 2:30 pm
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The time is nearing when Charlie Weis' impact on Notre Dame will be gone.

Six players on Notre Dame's 2013 squad worked with Weis' staff in their freshman years of 2009: Linebackers Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese, offensive linemen Zack Martin and Chris Watt, defensive tackle Tyler Stockton and placekicker Nick Tausch. Those fifth-year seniors will play their final seasons in South Bend this fall, barring an unexpected medical redshirt.

Plenty members of Notre Dame's recruiting class of 2010 committed under the previous regime -- players such as wide receiver T.J. Jones, offensive lineman Christian Lombard, cornerbacks Bennett Jackson and Lo Wood, linebacker Prince Shembo and quarterback Tommy Rees. Brian Kelly's staff landed the likes of linebacker Danny Spond and defensive tackle Kona Schwenke in an abbreviated recruiting season after they took over in December of 2009.

So the class of 2011 was Kelly and his staff's first full recruiting class, and Notre Dame's 2013 season will hinge on improvements from many of its members. A look at the key players from that class for the upcoming season (ratings via Rivals.com):

DE Stephon Tuitt (5 stars/Monroe, Ga.)

There's not actually a ton of room for improvement from Tuitt, who's arguably the best defensive end in college football not named Jadeveon Clowney. Tuitt's 11 sacks in 2012 ranked 15th nationally and nearly broke Justin Tuck's single-season sack record at Notre Dame. The next step for him, most likely, is proving to NFL scouts he's the best option after Clowney in next year's draft.

[More: Golson, Clowney have a history together]

WR DaVaris Daniels (4 stars/Vernon Hills, Ill.)

We saw glimpses of Daniels' ceiling before and after he broke his collarbone on Nov. 10 against Boston College, but the wide receiver was inconsistent. He caught 31 passes for 490 yards last year and didn't reel in a touchdown, although he made a key catch to keep Notre Dame's hopes alive on Nov. 3 against Pittsburgh. Tyler Eifert is gone, and the passes targeted his way in 2012 will have to go to someone -- and Daniels could be that guy if he makes the leap from his sophomore to junior year.

[More: Notre Dame puts Prosise on a steep learning curve]

RB George Atkinson III (4 stars/Livermore, Calif.)

Whether Atkinson can be a feature back is still up for debate, with Carlo Calabrese's hit on the running back in Saturday's Blue-Gold game serving as a reminder of that question. Atkinson is an explosive player, the kind of guy who can break off a 55-yard run any time he touches the ball. But he's not a north-south runner and doesn't have the versatility Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood brought to the table. Luckily for Chuck Martin and Tony Alford, they'll have a loaded stable of running backs to choose from in the fall when Amir Carlisle gets healthy and Greg Bryant gets to campus. At the worst, Atkinson can expand on the role he filled last year as a home run hitter out of Notre Dame's backfield.

[More: Cierre Wood hasn't lost his swagger]

TE Troy Niklas (4 stars/Anaheim, Calif.)

Niklas came to campus as an offensive lineman, switched to linebacker and then to tight end, where he learned on the job behind Eifert in 2012. The 6-foot-7, 259-pound guy who's been nicknamed "Hercules" will take on an increased role in 2013, and while nobody's expecting him to be the next Eifert, he's a solid blocking tight end who could, at the least, create more than a few red zone mismatches for the Irish offense. For a team that struggled to score touchdowns from the red zone even with Eifert as its disposal in 2012, having Niklas be a threat inside the 20 will be key.

S Matthias Farley (3 stars/Charlotte, N.C.)

In the course of 12 months, Farley went from learning what it takes to play safety to standing as the most experienced player at his position heading into 2013. He was solid after stepping in for the injured Jamoris Slaughter last year, but without Zeke Motta at his side in 2013, it'll be up to Farley to be a traffic conductor of sorts for Notre Dame's defense.

[More: For Notre Dame's Farley, one year makes a big difference]

C Nick Martin (3 stars/Indianapolis, Ind.)

The brother of returning captain and left tackle Zack Martin looks like he'll get the first crack at playing center this fall. He's earned high marks from coaches this spring and didn't look overmatched squaring off against defensive tackle Louis Nix in Notre Dame's Blue-Gold game. He's the new anchor of Notre Dame's offensive line, although he has the luxury of playing alongside three returning starters, including both the guys to his left.

RG Conor Hanratty (3 stars/New Canaan, Conn.)

Right guard was the weak link on Notre Dame's offensive line last year, and Hanratty will get the first crack at replacing Mike Golic Jr. at that position. Like Martin, he's earned positive reviews from coaches as a player who stepped his game up in spring football.

LB Jarrett Grace (3 stars/Cincinnati, Ohio)

Grace and Calabrese will work in tandem to replace Manti Te'o at mike linebacker, with Calabrese also sliding over to will if Dan Fox needs a breather. Grace has already been cast as one of the leaders of the 2013 defense, and he showed some promise in the glimpse. He has all the tools to be a solid inside linebacker, but has yet to start a game with Notre Dame, so still has some unknown to him.

[More: Moving on from Manti Te'o, Notre Dame turns to Jarrett Grace]

QB Everett Golson (3 stars/Myrtle Beach, S.C.)

Golson saw incremental improvements in starting 11 games for Notre Dame last year, but if Notre Dame is going to challenge again for a BCS Championship berth, he'll have to make a pretty big leap in Year 2 as a starter. Notre Dame's coaches are confident he has the tools to make that leap -- but if he doesn't, there's not a better option behind him.

[More: Golson, Notre Dame offense search for the next step]

P/K Kyle Brindza (2 stars/Canton, Mich.)

With Tausch returning for a fifth year, Brindza will into a punting role next fall. He struggled on seven punts in Saturday's Blue-Gold game, averaging 30 yards per attempt. The weather wasn't favorable for April 20, but come October and November, the conditions may not be any better. Notre Dame was middle of the pack in average yards per punt last year (40.77 YPP) with Ben Turk handling those duties. Brindza has four months to improve, or else the Irish could face some serious field position problems in 2013.

These are the members of the 2011 class who are slated to start in four months, but there are plenty of others who will fill out the depth chart and are in line for increased roles if there's an injury or regression in performance. That means LB Ishaq Williams, LB Ben Councell, S Eilar Hardy, C Matt Hegarty, CB Josh Atkinson, CB Jalen Brown, RB Cam McDaniel and DE Tony Springmann could get their names called more often in 2013.

And for the immediate future, Kelly's first full recruiting class may wind up being the most important group for keeping the Irish in the conversation for a BCS Championship next fall.

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