Last year a sea of newcomers found significant roles in their first seasons of playing time - many because their talent pushed them quickly up the depth chart, some due to the injuries that devastated the defense.
Torii Hunter Jr. and Drue Tranquill took home postseason awards for Newcomers of the Year on offense and defense, but they were just a few of the underclassmen that played in critical situations - Nyles Morgan, Greer Martini, Andrew Trumbetti, Kolin Hill, and Tyler Luatua all played fairly early and often, along with every defensive lineman Brian Van Gorder could find.
Few would have pegged that exact group as the freshmen to play early on, but who are the favorites to take home some hardware in December as the Impact Newcomers of the Year?
Quenton Nelson and Alex Bars: After redshirting their first seasons, both Nelson and Bars are immensely talented and multi-year starters. The problem in 2015? They're competing for the same starting role at left guard. The runner-up will still figure prominently in the offensive line rotation, and for the Irish offensive line to raise its level of performance these two will be key.
Aliz'e Jones: The top tight end of the 2015 recruiting class has the talent to play right away, but can he overtake Durham Smythe in a few weeks of practice? Notre Dame already has one giant red zone threat in Corey Robinson, but Jones could also get work close to the goal line. The role of the tight end in Brian Kelly's offense is also something to keep an eye on if the multiple formations with H-backs in the Music City Bowl were any indication of what the Malik Zaire-led offense will look like.
CJ Sanders: It seems like a foregone conclusion that Sanders will at least get a shot at return work on special teams. The competition at slot receiver will be fierce though, with CJ Prosise, Amir Carlisle, and Torii Hunter Jr. all fighting for snaps. Sanders brings elite quickness and speed to the position, so it may depend on how long it takes for him to adjust to a new playbook and the college game.
Brandon Wimbush: Ideally Wimbush wears a red hat all year instead of a gold helmet, but who knows what happens in Malik Zaire goes down? The competition for backup duties with DeShone Kizer will be worth monitoring all season.
Jerry Tillery: If the Jerry Tillery hype is 75% real it will be a joy to watch.The freshman from Louisiana brings great athleticism and an interior pass-rushing presence to the defensive tackle position, and if Jarron Jones' health is an issue I wouldn't be surprised if Tillery started against Texas. Even with increased depth at defensive tackle Tillery is probably the defensive favorite.
Shaun Crawford: My favorite player of the incoming freshman class, Crawford is another likely special teams contributor this fall. The nickel corner position seems like an ideal fit, and athletically Crawford should have no problems adjusting to the speed of the college game.
?: There's not a lot of "newcomers" to qualify on defense after last year saw playing time for lots of true freshman - Trumbetti, Hill, Morgan, Martini, Tranquill, Jay Hayes, Daniel Cage, Grant Blankenshio - that's what all hands on deck looks like.