It wasn’t that long ago that Notre Dame didn’t allow football recruits to enroll in January to get a head start on their careers. In fact, until Charlie Weis was named head coach, Notre Dame didn’t accommodate early enrollees.
One of Weis’s first wins at Notre Dame, however, was actually with the admissions office when they opened the doors for early enrollment for Weis’s first full class. Five years after the first group of early enrollment recruits began their Notre Dame careers in January 2006, Notre Dame welcomes a talented group of early enrolles that begin their college careers today.
Past early enrollment recruits have had a mixed bag of success at Notre Dame. Here’s a look at how all five of the past classes of early enrollers have fared to this point in their careers.
In the first year of early enrollment at Notre Dame, the Irish brought in three recruits in January – running back James Aldridge, offensive lineman Chris Stewart, and wide receiver George West. Aldrdige was the headliner of the group – a five star running back with offers from virtually all of the top programs in the country. Unfortunately for Aldridge, he never seemed to fully recover from the ACL injury he suffered in high school. Depth issues pushed Aldridge into action as a freshman, but he was never able to become the feature back in the Irish offense.
West got off to a nice start as a true freshman with a touchdown run on a reverse in the 5th game of the season against Purdue. That touchdown ended up being the only of West’s career and he never became a regular member of the Notre Dame receiving rotation for any extended period of time.
The most successful of the group was easily Stewart. After flipping back and forth between the offensive and defensive line early in his career, Stewart settled in at right guard and started 35 games for the Irish the last three seasons including all 13 games in 2010. In the process, Stewart also attended law school this past season.
The 2007 class of early enrolles had a bit more flair to it. The nation’s #1 quarterback, Jimmy Clausen, headlined the group and was joined by highly touted running back Armando Allen and corner back Gary Gray. A group that had much more success than their predecessors.
Clausen won the starting quarterback position by the second game of the season and only let it go due to injuries later in his freshman season. During 2008 and 2009 Clausen put up some impressive numbers and ended up leaving Notre Dame early for the NFL last year.
Allen saw the field early in his freshman season as well although injuries throughout his career always prevented him from becoming the dynamic, game changing back most predicted he would become. When healthy, Allen was the most talented back on the Irish roster over the last three years, but the problem for Allen was he was often not healthy. It’s a shame Allen wasn’t able to make it through the entire season in 2010 because he was showing signs that he was about to breakout before getting injured.
The last member of the early enrollee class of 2007, Gary Gray, is expected to be back in South Bend for a 5th year in 2011. Gray started 13 games for the Irish at corner in 2010 and proved to be one of the most complete cornerbacks Notre Dame has had in years.
The 2008 early enrollment class was the smallest for Notre Dame since it began accepting early enrollees five years ago with just two members – Sean Cwynar and Trevor Robinson. Robinson moved into the starting lineup by the end of his freshman season and hasn’t left it since then. Over the past three years Robinson has started a total of 27 games and will be the veteran leader of next season’s offensive line.
Cwynar has not had quite the impact as Robinson, but he did fill in admirably for Ian Williams this year after Williams went down to injury against Navy. Despite lacking ideal size for the nose tackle position, Cwynar was solid manning the middle of the Irish defensive front over the final five games of the regular season. Cwynar will challenge for a starting spot at nose tackle next year with Louis Nix.
In 2009, Zeke Motta, Tyler Stockton, and EJ Banks enrolled early at Notre Dame. Of the group, only Motta has seen much playing time, and Banks is no longer enrolled at Notre Dame. Motta started eight games for Notre Dame this past season in place of Jamoris Slaughter and ended the year with 50 tackles. He will battle with Slaughter in the spring for the starting strong safety position.
Stockton played in just 6 games in 2010 and register only a single tackle. Stockton may be a victim of the switch back to the 3-4 defense as his style of play fits the 4-3 defense a little better.
Of the five early enrollees Notre Dame brought in last year, only three will be on the roster for 2011 – Tommy Rees, TJ Jones and Lo Wood. One, Spencery Boyd, transferred before the season started, and another, Chris Badger, decided to take his Mormon mission before his freshman season but is expected back at Notre Dame for 2012.
By enrolling early last year, Tommy Rees was able to get a head start on classmates Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa enabling him to lock down the backup quarterback position. As a result, Rees ended up being thrust into action when Dayne Crist went down to an injury against Tulsa. Rees guided Notre Dame to a 4-0 record in his four starts including the Sun Bowl victory over Miami. Brian Kelly mentioned multiple times that enrolling early was a major reason Rees was able to jump ahead of his fellow freshman quarterbacks.
TJ Jones burst onto the scene with touchdowns in each of his first two games, but he slowed down as the season progressed before missing the final three games of the regular season due to injury. Jones is expected to start at wide receiver again in 2011 along with Michael Floyd and Theo Riddick. He is also expected to take a big step forward next season and appears to have a bright future ahead of him.
Wood played sparingly in 11 games this season, but will be counted on much more heavily in 2011 with just three scholarship corners returning for next season.
What will the future hold for this year’s group of early enrollees? Expectations are already sky high for Lynch, Williams, and Golson and as we’ve seen, the early start has allowed several early enrollees in the past to see the field early and often in their careers.