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Five early enrollees to see first Stadium action

Jack Hefferon | Thursday, April 18, 2013

Under Irish head coach Brian Kelly, no spots are held. You can’t save yourself a place in the starting lineup, or make a reservation for a slot in the depth chart.

The only way to ensure yourself a seat at the table is to show up early.

Five Irish recruits – quarterback Malik Zaire, offensive lineman Steve Elmer, tight end Mike Heuerman and wide receivers James Onwualu and Corey Robinson – chose to do just that in January, forgoing their final semester of high school to enroll early and begin taking classes and practicing with the team.

Doing so gives the athletes a semester’s headstart on their academics over their classmates, as well as the opportunity to compete for a job in spring practice while the other 19 Irish signees are busy dancing at prom.

“The players that are on hand in the spring are the primary focus for developing our depth in 2013,” Kelly said. “Players coming in in the fall come in, and they fill in at the back of the line. … We’re setting our roster based upon the players we have on campus right now.”

The early enrollees also get the chance to bulk up and prepare for the next level under the supervision of director of football strength and conditioning Paul Longo, something Kelly said is key to finding success as a rookie.

“Coming in early helps these guys across the board, because not only do they get the football, they get Longo – they get the weight room,” Kelly said. “They get all that training, which is really the separator for those guys.”

One player who has gotten a leg up from the spring workout regimen is Robinson, son of NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson. At 6-foot-5, Robinson is the tallest receiver on the Irish roster. With that size and a good set of hands, Kelly said Robinson “catches everything in his area code.” Because of that skill set, Kelly said Robinson could see action as a role player in the way sophomore receiver Chris Brown did last season.

However, Robinson came in with less than 200 pounds on his frame and the coaches have been working with him in the weight room with the hope Robinson can build a physique to go with his other skills.

“We call Corey ‘Plastic Man’. He catches everything in his vicinity,” junior quarterback Everett Golson said. “He’s a great athlete – I don’t know whether that trickled down from his dad or not. … He catches well, and he’s a great blocker.”

Kelly has also been impressed by Onwualu, his other freshman receiver. The Minnesota native stands at a stouter 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, which Kelly said gives Onwualu a tough presence over the middle of the field. Kelly also said Onwualu is the type of player who can immediately make an impact on special teams.

“[Onwualu]’s got a chance here,” Kelly said. “He’s certainly physical enough. He’s a smart kid. … He’s definitely a kid that will be on the field and on all our special teams, because he’s got that physical ability.”

Another player who figures to be in the mix for playing time next fall is Elmer. With the graduation of key seniors on the offensive line, Elmer has been getting plenty of reps in the spring, and Kelly said the 317-pounder is already close to being a player who can contribute at the college level. Elmer has also earned the respect of his elder teammates on the line, including senior right tackle Christian Lombard.

“He came in, physically, very impressive and he’s just making strides every day,” Lombard said. “You watch him on film, and he’s getting better and better. He’s very coachable. He’s a great kid. He’s going to be a good player.”

Heuerman may not have the same opportunities for significant playing time this year, as senior Alex Welch and juniors Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack are all looking to step up into regular roles in the offense. However, Heuerman has already shown his commitment both on the field and in the weight room, putting on nearly 15 pounds since his arrival in January to bulk up to 230 pounds. Those immediate results have not been overlooked by his coach.

“I’m really, really impressed with Mike Heuerman,” Kelly said. “He’s got a burst to him. He’s going to be a really good player for us. I like the way he’s trained.”

Unlike in years past, Notre Dame’s early enrollee quarterback may in fact be the one flying most under the radar. With Golson seemingly providing Notre Dame with a stable starter under center for the first time since Jimmy Clausen, it is likely that Zaire will don the signal-caller’s red cap and redshirt this fall. The lefthander has taken advantage of the spring to improve all facets of his game though, as the strong-armed, speedy athlete has shown himself to be an exceptional student of the game as well.

“From the mental side of things, [Zaire] is in the top group of guys that I’ve coached,” Kelly said. “He really understands the nuances of the position. He’s really at a high level there.”

Contact Jack Hefferon at wheffero@nd.edu