SOUTH BEND – It's difficult enough for a first-year football player to physically and mentally be able to contribute on the field within any college program. However, the task increases in magnitude exponentially if he is trying to make an impact for a program that played for the national championship less than three months ago.
However, that is precisely what five Notre Dame players are seeking to do through spring practice this month.
Corey Robinson, James Onwualu, Mike Heuerman, Steve Elmer, and Malik Zaire each graduated from high school a semester early and enrolled at Notre Dame in January. That early start to their Fighting Irish career has resulted in their being thrown in against bigger, stronger, faster competition than they've ever experienced. But according to Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, the youngsters are surviving.
“I've just really liked the young guys,” Kelly said. “That young group that came in (in January), all of them have really adapted well.”
Kelly has allowed this practice to be done before, depending on the particular person, as much as the player. Not only is the adjustment challenging physically on the field, but even more so academically and socially for the teenagers.
“It has to be a kid that fits and has the ability to graduate early,” Kelly said. “A lot of those things have to come together. Having said that, as a rule, I would like to continue the mid-year enrollees, because it is our way of getting that more mature player.”
As Kelly alluded, several of the players have performed well this spring, including wide receiver Corey Robinson.
“Corey continues to impress,” Kelly said. “He catches everything in his area code.”
Robinson comes in with an impressive athletic history – in his family – not necessarily his own.
He is the son of former NBA star David Robinson, but is a late-bloomer when it comes to his own feats. Robinson was listed 80th among wide receivers nationally by Rivals.com, but that didn't stop Kelly and his coaches from being impressed with him.
Robinson's father stopped growing at 7-feet-1, and currently Corey is 6-feet-4. However, with just 190 pounds on that long frame, Kelly wants his freshman receiver to spend a lot of time in the weight room between now and August camp.
We've just got to get him stronger,” Kelly explained. “We're going to continue to work with him, but he's been very impressive.”
Not only has Robinson caught Kelly's eye at receiver, but Onwualu has as well.
“James has a chance,” Kelly said. “He's certainly physical enough. He's a smart kid.”
Onwualu is just over 6-feet-1, but already weighs 207 pounds, so he is able to compete with the older, bigger players at this level.
“He's probably a guy that is going to be playing (next fall),” Kelly said. “Whether he's playing a lot on offense, that'll take care of itself as we go through pre-season camp. But he's definitely a kid who is going to be on the field in all of our special teams, because he's got that physical ability.”
Perhaps the days of Jimmy Clausen and Manti Te'o coming onto campus and being thrown into the fire as freshman starters are over, as Kelly has improved the talent level within this program, as well as the depth and strength and conditioning of the roster. But the fourth-year coach can envision a number of first-year players making some level of contribution.
“I can see a few of these guys definitely impacting us this year,” Kelly said. “If we continue to show that these (early enrollees) can do the work, and are going to be successful, I think that we've had a good campaign of that.”