The 2012 recruiting class is now in the final stages of its senior season. I don't know if it's just me or not but this collection of players' careers absolutely flew by insanely quickly. It feels like just yesterday that the veteran Louis Nix was admonishing the young Sheldon Day for wanting those sticky buns at the grocery store. It feels just like yesterday that Stanley was the future at tackle, that we were amazed how quickly Russell picked up the corner position as a freshman, and that we had no idea what the staff would do with Prosise.
This makes me sad and is probably the only aspect to football where the pro game is preferable. Wouldn't it be nice to have C.J. Prosise for another 6 or 7 years? Or hold on to a suddenly budding star in Romeo Okwara? Selfishly, it's mostly a football decision. Yet, thanks to Fighting Irish Media, NBC, and Showtime we've been spoiled with unbelievable access into the personalities of these players that absolutely leave us wanting to see more of them outside of football.
The relationship between Sheldon Day and his mom is a perfect illustration of this point. Who wouldn't sign-up for another half decade to see their relationship develop at Notre Dame?
There's a very curious aspect to these seniors. There weren't many bodies among their recruiting class and as we shall see many left campus many moons ago. There isn't an overwhelming generational leader among the the bunch. And while there are a few very outstanding athletes there isn't a national superstar who you can point to and say, "This is someone who defined Notre Dame Football and led the Irish to greater pastures."
Let's take a look at the members of the 2012 freshman class, starting with those who left first, and see how everyone developed before some final words on the departing seniors.
247 Sports Composite recruiting rankings in parentheses
Chris Badger (.864)
Originally a member of the 2010 recruiting class, took a 2-year Mormon mission, and returned to Notre Dame as a freshman in 2012. The Irish could have used some safety help but he always seemed behind the 8-ball in his development. Whether it was due to being under-sized, missing so much football training, or what have you, Badger left Notre Dame in August 2013 and transferred to BYU where he was declared immediately eligible. He's been a backup safety for the Cougars and has 23 career tackles.
Justin Ferguson (.891)
The middle ranked receiver among the 3-man haul from 2012, Ferguson caught a pass in the season opener in Ireland against Navy but fell into obscurity for the rest of the season. On March 27th in 2013 he transferred from Notre Dame. Ferguson ended up at Western Michigan where he sat out 2013 and recently switched to safety. He does not appear to play very much, if at all for the Broncos.
Will Mahone (.911)
The lone traditional running back of the class made it the longest on campus before leaving in July 2014 after a pretty ugly arrest in his hometown. Mahone was buried on the depth chart and was looking to move to slot receiver in the spring of 2014 before his legal troubles. He transferred to Youngstown State where he walked-on and sat out the 2014 season. As of today, he's no longer enrolled at YSU.
Davonte Neal (.973)
Played immediately as the punt returner as a freshman and saw brief snaps as a slot receiver. Transferred on the same day as Ferguson under some cloudy circumstances. Sat out 2013 before making 10 starts and catching 27 passes at Arizona last fall. Switched to corner this year as he's made 53 tackles and 1 interception under Rich Rodriguez.
Tee Shepard (.974)
His career at Notre Dame was over before it really began, transferring in mid-March of 2012 after enrolling early. His case was an academic debacle that was embarrassing for everyone involved. Laid low for quite a long time before surfacing at Holmes Community College for the 2013 season. Transferred to Ole Miss for 2014 but was hurt all season. Shepard looked to get some minutes this year but left the team in October after disagreements with the coaching staff regarding trust over his hearing loss and being able to communicate on defense. On pace to graduate in May and still enrolled at Ole Miss.
Gunner Kiel (.986)
The late star quarterback addition to the class never felt comfortable at Notre Dame, transferring on April 11, 2014 not long before an Everett Golson suspension meant Kiel could have ascended to the starting job as a redshirt freshman. He went to Cincinnati where he's had a nice, if a little underwhelming career for his hype, with the Bearcats. Through this past weekend Kiel has thrown for 5,677 yards, 49 touchdowns, and 21 interceptions but Cincinnati has gone from an AAC pre-season favorite to 4 losses already as Kiel has continued to deal with injuries.
Scott Daly (.792)
Among the best long-snappers in the college game. You couldn't ask for more. Likely to return for a 5th-season and add more stability to the program.
John Turner (.862)
Up until last year Turner was the lowest rated recruit of the Kelly era not named Bruce Heggie. He's bounced back and forth between safety and linebacker through a scheme switch but has never made the two-deep at either position. Turner was always a project and it just never worked out. He's made 8 career tackles, mostly on special teams, and has recently been dealing with the death of his mother from cancer.
Nicky Baratti (.874)
Broke into the two-deep among a thin secondary at safety in 2012, famously intercepting a Michigan pass at the goal line, but 3 shoulder surgeries have completely de-railed his career. Has appeared relatively healthy this year as the 4th or 5th safety but has only totaled 13 tackles over his career.
Mark Harrell (.876)
Originally an under-sized guard prospect who some thought might move to center, Harrell has spent his career as a backup and recently switched to tackle where he's been practicing on the right side with the 2nd team all year. He might be a valuable 5th-year candidate for leadership but appears to be stuck on 2nd team as younger talent rises through the offense.
Romeo Okwara (.878)
He arrived in South Bend SO young and has finally developed into a potent edge rusher. Played sparingly as a true freshman frustratingly burning his redshirt in the process. He'll leave Notre Dame as a 2-year starter and with a stock quickly on the rise. So far he's totaled 92 tackles, 16.5 TFL,and 10.5 sacks over his career.
Chris Brown (.878)
Famously caught just one pass as a freshman in 2012 and has emerged as a solid second or third option in the passing game for the bulk of the last 2.5 years. Brown's ceiling always seemed very high--and as a result some fan frustration boiled to the surface over his lack of a real break out into a No. 1 receiver--but he's had a really nice career compared to his recruiting profile. After this weekend he's totaled 90 receptions, 1,237 yards, and 4 touchdowns in his career.
C.J. Prosise (.888)
The quintessential athlete recruit out of the class we've seen Prosise blossom like the brightest flower over the last 12 to 14 months. Originally destined to struggle on defense at safety or linebacker, the staff moved him to offense where he's ignited the Irish ever since. It's hard to believe how productive he's been in roughly 1.5 years of playing time. Right now he's holding 1,101 rushing yards, 879 receiving yards, and 15 total touchdowns in his career. We'll be blessed if he returns for a 5th-year in 2016.
Jarron Jones (.936)
Currently injured and has missed all of his senior season. But will be back for a 5th-year in 2016 and should finish off a really nice career. It took a while to get Jones going as a starter caliber player, however, he's totaled 60 tackles, 8.5 TFL, and 2.5 sacks in just 12 starts. Sneaky good production from a hulking nose guard and someone who will be asked to be among the leaders of next year's defense.
KeiVarae Russell (.937)
Russell is the one senior among the starters who has a bit of a different story than the rest of his teammates. He was an instant impact starter like no one else in the class but he's not necessarily peaking in his career the way some of the others are right now. Still, even with the year-long academic suspension he's a 3-year starter with 161 tackles, 6 TFL, and 5 interceptions over his career. From collegiate perspective he could really cement his legacy as one of the most productive corners in school history if he comes back for 2016. If he leaves there might be a tinge of disappointment but Russell has played more or less to his hype as a recruit.
Ronnie Stanley (.943)
Can you imagine another year of Stanley at left tackle? He's destined to be a 1st round draft pick in the spring, and despite being a quiet leader who didn't make captain, we'll likely be looking back years from now as this being Ronnie Stanley's Class. Pound for pound he's had the best college career and that'll probably translate to the NFL, too. Depending on the post-season he'll be finishing his career with 39 or 40 starts.
Sheldon Day (.948)
Only three players in this class made a big impact as freshmen on the way to the National Championship Game and Day was one of them. He's battled injuries for most of his career but has finally stayed healthy as a senior and is putting together a gem of a season. So far he's totaled 129 tackles, 28 TFL, and 6.5 sacks over his career. Even I was a little surprised to see Day approaching 30 TFL but he's been a very good player for a really long time in an Irish uniform.
Elijah Shumate (.956)
Shumate joins Russell and Day as the big contributors from their freshmen seasons when he played really well at the nickel corner spot. His career seemed to stall out for more than a season once he transitioned to safety, though. Still, he's developed into a dependable and solid safety at a time when the defense really needs it. Shumate's 134 tackles, 7.5 TFL, and 2 interceptions are nothing to scoff at, either.
Statistically, this senior class has been and will be showered with praise--and deservedly so. They've gone 21-3 at home, tying for the most wins in Notre Dame Stadium by any class. Yes, they play more games nowadays, but still. And if all goes to plan they'll be beginning and ending their careers with 10+ win seasons and deep championship runs.
We've been here for the whole ride, dissecting every little bit of information, so it's not entirely shocking to see the program these seniors are leaving in the shape that it is in right now. Still, it's important to remember that these kids committed to Notre Dame before that magical 2012 season.
Sure, there were some positive signs of program growth during and immediately after the 2011 season but from their perspective it wasn't some slam dunk that they'd be a part of this much success after committing to Notre Dame. And while it's probably not entirely correct to say that today's success is built upon the back of this class of seniors alone, they've still had a huge influence in shaping a consistency of expectations that hasn't been seen in South Bend for a long time.
These seniors were young pups during the 2012 season, and then poof, several generational leaders were gone after just one great season. There was a void created as the next two talented teams wandered in the dark and couldn't overcome suspensions, injuries, and quarterback controversy.
Is this 2015 class as good of leaders as the 2012 class? Probably not, but they've encapsulated the Brian Kelly Era better than any other class. More than any other group in recent years we've witnessed a ton of growth and maturity. Especially for Day, Stanley, Okwara, Jones, and Brown we've watched them begin as quiet underclassmen and evolve into excellent players and very good leaders. Manti Te'o-type of captains don't come around very often, but as a group, I believe we should be pleased that the 2015 seniors just about reached their potential as leaders.
Like their coach, they've reached some impressive highs, experienced some frustrating lows, and head into the last 2 games of the regular season as the elder statesmen of a proud football program that's being taken seriously once again.
As time passes this legacy is only bound to grow.