Notre Dame’s Best Freshman Class Impact Under Brian Kelly
When asked this month how this year’s 17-man freshman class that was ranked No. 22 by Rivals — the lowest in his 11 recruiting cycles at Notre Dame — compared to his other 10, head coach Brian Kelly was understandably non-committal.
Only time, specifically a full football season, can answer such an inquiry.
The question was raised, however, because at least three players on offense at “glamour” positions — running back Chris Tyree, receiver Jordan Johnson and tight end Michael Mayer — are projected to provide some more firepower to the attack. They were the lone three Irish recruits to make Rivals’ top 100 this past year and were focal figures in our overview of the 2020 class.
My initial guess was the 2013 group that included future first-round picks in linebacker Jaylon Smith and wideout Will Fuller.
Smith started all 13 games that season and recorded 67 tackles, the third most ever by a Notre Dame freshman since the NCAA permitted freshman eligibility in 1972.
Fuller caught six passes for 160 yards and a score — but classmate Corey Robinson had a little more impact with nine catches for 157 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by three clutch grabs and drawing several pass interference calls in a 17-13 win versus a Michigan State team that would finish 13-1 and No. 3 in the country.
A third receiver — James Onwualu — also played extensively, mainly as a blocker, before shifting to linebacker the next season.
The offense also included lineman Steve Elmer, who started four games as a freshman guard. He and current senior Robert Hainsey are the only two offensive linemen under Kelly not to redshirt.
Finally, running back Tarean Folston gave a boost to the offense with 470 yards rushing, highlighted by a 140-yard effort and a score in a hard-fought 38-34 victory versus Navy.
With Notre Dame coming off a 12-1 campaign, that No. 3-ranked recruiting class provided punch on a 9-4 unit in 2013.
However, our standard for the most impactful freshman class during Kelly’s tenure would be 2015 when weighing quantity, quality, balance and impact during a strong season (started 10-1 and finished 10-3 and No. 11 in the AP poll).
• Running back Josh Adams rushed for a Notre Dame freshman record 835 yards at 7.1 yards per clip.
• Future first-rounder Jerry Tillery was a co-starter at nose tackle, even recording a sack in his first game.
• Tight end Alize Mack, who started five times as a rookie, snared 13 passes for 190 yards, notably crucial 35- and 45-yard gains during fourth-quarter rallies to victory versus USC and Temple in back-to-back weeks.
• Kicker Justin Yoon began his record-setting career by converting 15 of his 17 field-goal attempts.
• Wideout CJ Sanders had 822 yards in returns, returning both a kickoff and punt for touchdowns.
• Another wideout, Equanimeous St. Brown, although injured later in the year, blocked a punt against USC that was scooped up for a touchdown in a conquest where the Irish had to rally in the fourth quarter.
The 2010 class featuring the passing combination of Tommy Rees to T.J. Jones, and the 2011 unit with the pass rush of Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt had their moments during 8-5 seasons.
Individually, cornerback KeiVarae Russell's 13 games as a freshman starter for the 12-1 unit in 2012 could be argued for as the most impactful freshman year under Kelly, while safety Kyle Hamilton's debut last year also merited Freshman All-America notice.
For this 2020 freshman class to eclipse the 2015 and 2013 groups as the most impactful, though, quality depth and contributions beyond the Tyree-Johnson-Mayer triumvirate will need to emerge.
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