Five Notre Dame freshmen who could make an impact in 2014

Five Notre Dame freshmen who could make an impact in 2014
June 24, 2014, 1:00 pm
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A year ago, Jaylon Smith was third on Notre Dame's dog outside linebacker depth chart, with incumbent starter Danny Spond and junior Ben Councell ahead of him. But Spond had to end his playing career soon after fall camp started, and Smith surpassed Councell to earn a starting spot he held for all 13 of Notre Dame's games.

Running back Tarean Folston, wide receivers Will Fuller, Corey Robinson and James Onwualu, offensive lineman Steve Elmer, defensive end Isaac Rochell, cornerbacks Cole Luke and Devin Butler and safety Max Redfield all played roles of various importance as true freshmen in 2013 as well.

It was a mixed group of offensive and defensive players, though with Notre Dame not having many holes on offense heading into 2014 the freshmen who make an impact in 2014 may be mostly on defense.

1. MLB Nyles Morgan: With Jarrett Grace's recovery status still up in the air, Morgan may have an opening to assert himself rather quickly into his career at Notre Dame. Irish coaches love senior Joe Schmidt's intelligence and ability to quarterback the defense, but if Morgan's sheer talent and upside shine through he could very well take away snaps from Schmidt and even a healthy Grace. Either way, with Notre Dame playing more 4-3 and occasionally sliding Jaylon Smith inside in sub packages, Notre Dame will have plenty of depth at middle linebacker this coming fall.

[MORE: Notre Dame hopes 'OTAs' will get freshmen on the fast track]

2. CB Nick Watkins: KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke appear destined for starting gigs this fall, with Matthias Farley and graduate transfer Cody Riggs sub package guys and Devin Butler a backup as well. But Watkins, a talented recruit from Texas, would probably compete the most directly with Butler for playing time but should be high on the defense's pecking order should an injury or two occur. The good news for Notre Dame is its cornerback depth is far better than it was two years ago, when running back Cam McDaniel had to cross-train on defense to back up Russell and Bennett Jackson.

3. DTs Jay Hayes/Pete Mokwuah/Daniel Cage: Cheating a bit here, but all three of these guys have excellent opportunities to crack Notre Dame's 4-3 depth chart. Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones are entrenched as starters, but there are question marks behind them. Senior Chase Hounshell appears healthy but hasn't played a snap since 2011 due to a string of injuries, and graduate student Justin Utupo has played sparingly in his college career. Hayes is the highest-rated of Notre Dame's true freshmen defensive tackles, but Cage was coveted by Michigan State and Mokwuah comes in at 6-foot-4, 315 pounds. There's no such thing as too much defensive line depth, and don't be surprised if these three guys wind up seeing significant snaps as the season wears on.

[MORE: Notre Dame wants 'sizzle' in changing recruiting landscape]

4. DE Andrew Trumbetti: Notre Dame coaches are high on Trumbetti's athleticism -- coach Brian Kelly was quick to point out he returned kicks in high school -- and he has a head start on cracking the depth chart as an early enrollee who participated in spring practice. Behind Romeo Okwara, Ishaq Williams and Isaac Rochell are some question marks, and while Notre Dame could always swing Day or Hounshell to defensive end in a pinch Trumbetti should compete with Anthony Rabasa for reserve playing time this fall.

5. WR Justin Brent: Like Trumbetti, Brent got a head start as an early enrolling freshman this spring. He's a physical specimen who could make some noise on a fluid, inexperienced depth chart provided he learns the offense. But Notre Dame wasn't shy about playing freshman wide receivers in 2013, and given Brent's athleticism he very well could work his way into getting some snaps this fall.