NOTRE DAME, Ind. - It should not take long to figure out which of Notre Dame's freshmen will see playing time this season. Irish fans need only keep an eye on the team's kickoff, kickoff return, punt and punt return units and place kicking squads when the Fighting Irish host Temple this Saturday to get a peek at just which freshmen are most likely to play this fall.
"We like to get our freshmen in on special teams early on and get them acclimated," head coach Brian Kelly said on Tuesday. "Especially those guys that we plan on or have a vision towards playing."
"I think you could probably get an eye towards what our intentions are based upon those guys you see on special teams on Saturday," Kelly continued. "If you see a lot of guys that are freshmen on special teams, you could probably take a pretty good insight into that we have an eye towards playing them."
Kelly has a total of 23 scholarship freshmen on the roster heading into Saturday's season-opener against the Owls. The freshman who has made the biggest early impact is Jaylon Smith. The outside linebacker from Ft. Wayne, IN is listed at number one on the depth chart at drop (Dog) linebacker.
"He had to work for it," Kelly said of the athletic Smith. "It was Danny Spond, it was (Ben) Councell and it was Jaylon Smith; it didn't start the other way around. He was number three on the depth chart when they ran out there even though there wasn't a depth chart posted."
Spond started 11 of 13 games at drop linebacker for the Irish in 2012, but he was forced to give up football earlier this month due to a recurrence of rare migraine headaches that caused stroke-like symptoms. Smith edged the bigger Councell for the top spot on the depth chart for the opener. The two are listed at 230 and 254 pounds, respectively.
Another freshman who has pushed for early playing time is offensive tackle Steve Elmer. The 6-foot-5, 317-pound Midland, Mich native was an early enrollee during the spring semester and has impressed with his advanced physical play and footwork since arriving on campus in January. Ronnie Stanley is at the top of the top of the depth chart at right tackle, but don't rule out seeing Elmer soon.
"We have great confidence that Steve Elmer could go in there and start for us if we needed him to as well," said Kelly. "And it's not out of the question that he could be playing there at some point on Saturday."
Receiver Corey Robinson has had a high "wow factor" during fall training camp. Another spring early enrollee, the son of former NBA great David Robinson has made catch after catch in both spectacular and routine fashion both during last spring's practices and during training camp. The 6-foot-4 receiver gives Tommy Rees a big, sure-handed target to go to and also typifies what Kelly has seen from the freshman class on the whole.
"Every day I see these guys wanting to get better staying out they're out there to watch film," Kelly said. "It's not new to them anymore. They're here (and) they're doing football every day. They still want to get better. They haven't leveled off. They haven't hit the wall in a sense."
The fact that so many freshmen will see early special teams action this season could crimp Kelly's spring plan to have more starters take part on special teams this season. Wide receiver T.J. Jones enters the season as the punt returner and No. 1 running back George Atkinson will continue to return kicks, but breaking in freshman on special teams units has become a near priority this fall.
"I want to get them out there (and) get them acclimated to the game situations, because if they're going to play I think it's a great entry into playing on the field," said Kelly.
"I think it's a balance that myself and (special teams coordinator) Scott Booker, we spend a lot of time talking about personnel and getting the right personnel on that team," he said.
Other freshmen with a good chance to play on Saturday include running back Greg Bryant, cornerback Cole Luke, offensive lineman Hunter Biven, wide receiver James Onwualu, defensive lineman Isaac Rochell, running back Tarean Folston, cornerback Devin Butler and safety Max Redfield.