SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brian Kelly hasn't shied away from playing freshmen over the last few years, and the early indication is that trend will continue this fall.
While Kelly has only seen two of his freshmen in pads — wide receiver Justin Brent and defensive end Andrew Trumbetti, both of whom enrolled early — he rattled off a number of newcomers who impressed him and his coaching staff during summer workouts.
To run down the list: Defensive tackles Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah, cornerback Nick Watkins, defensive end/linebacker Jonathan Bonner, linebackers Nyles Morgan and Jhonny Williams, tight end Tyler Luatua and offensive lineman Quenton Nelson.
It's worth noting most of those players are on the defensive side of the ball, largely due to the depth issues there.
With Tony Springmann's career over due to a back issue, Kelly said Cage and Mokwuah will have to step up behind Jarron Jones at nose guard. The good news, Kelly said, is Cage and Mokwuah already have the size for the position: both players already weigh in at 325 pounds.
"(They have the) ability to go in and take reps immediately because they are so strong as well," Kelly said. "Both of them physically are able to compete right away. We'll have to see what their football ability brings, but from a work volume standpoint and from a strength standpoint, and obviously their size, we feel pretty good at that position right now."
Kelly pointed to the 6-foot-1 Watkins' length as giving him a chance to compete for playing time at cornerback.
Morgan "continues to impress," Kelly said, and it's been almost a foregone conclusion since signing day that the inside linebacker will work his way on to the field at some point this fall. Williams was a more under-the-radar recruit but his athleticism jumped out over the summer.
Bonner was another under-the radar guy who could wind up playing defensive end or linebacker. Kelly said the St. Louis area native's athleticism is off the charts — he weighs 269 pounds and has a 35-inch vertical.
"It's going to be fun to watch him, though, because his numbers, his physical prowess really stood out in our testing and he's had a really good summer," Kelly said. "Big kid, athletic, strong. We are going to find out in the first week where that kind of shakes out."
On offense, Luatua likely slots in as Notre Dame's No. 3 tight end behind Ben Koyack and Durham Smythe with Mike Heuermann out for about a month following hernia surgery. Notre Dame generally doesn't play freshmen tight ends, but the 6-foot-2, 260-pound Luatua already has the size to contribute to the Irish offense.
"He's strong, and we think he's going to help us as well," Kelly said.
Nelson is another freshmen who enters Notre Dame with the size (6-foot-4, 325 pounds) to compete at his position. Just as Steve Elmer played as a true freshman, Nelson could be called upon to fill in if there's a need this fall.
Expect most of the freshmen impact to come on defense, though, as opposed to a year ago when Tarean Folston, Corey Robinson, Will Fuller and Elmer all played important roles for the Irish offense.
"There's a lot of guys in this freshman class, especially on the defensive side of the ball that have the physical traits necessary to come in and compete with the right numbers — a vertical jump, strength, squat, bench and size," Kelly said. "And we'll just have to see how that plays out."