Notre Dame Football Recruiting: Irish Continue Program Upswing with Top 10 Class

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistFebruary 6, 2014

Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly talks about recruits during signing day at Notre Dame Feb. 5, 2014 in South Bend, Ind.  (Blue and Gold Photo/Joe Raymond)
Joe Raymond/Associated Press

If you're looking for a word to describe the Brian Kelly era in South Bend, "steady" perhaps stands out as the most fitting.

In Kelly's four seasons, Notre Dame has won eight games twice and nine games once. Sure, there was that whole undefeated regular season and national championship run in 2012, but that run seems so magical and unexplainable in retrospect it oftentimes feels like it didn't happen. It did (duh), there is just no one who would realistically use that season to define the past four years.

The Irish are steady now, not spectacular. They have a consistently stellar defense, had an underrated offense in 2013 and keep employing coordinators who get head coaching jobs. Offensive coordinator Chuck Martin left for Miami (Ohio) and Bob Diaco took the Connecticut head coaching job this offseason. 

But there is still a step that needs to be taken. One that takes Notre Dame from being "pretty good" consistently to being mentioned in the same conversation with Alabama, Florida State, LSU and other elite programs. The step that will make the reality in South Bend match the internal expectations of Golden Domers.

Kelly's 2014 recruiting class could be the next step in making that happen. After mostly doddering their way through the process, the Irish went on a torrid run late in the game to surprisingly come away with a stellar outfit of players.

247Sports ranked Notre Dame the nation's No. 10 recruiting class following Wednesday's national signing day, nestled right ahead of rivals USC and Stanford and just barely out of reach of the top tier on a per-recruit grade level.

Per LaMond Pope of the Post-TribuneKelly had this to say of his latest recruiting class: 

Eighteen of these recruits that are in this class were in the top 15 in their position group. If you really boil it down, it’s about the front seven and the offensive line. Yes, there are some great skill players, but you’re winning up front. And building that depth in the front seven and the offensive line really stands out in this class.

The class is highlighted by early enrollee Justin Brent and inside linebacker Nyles Morgan, the latter of whom will attempt to join the ever-growing list of pro defensive prospects churned out by the Irish. 

Eric Gay/Associated Press

But the real winner here is depth. Incredible depth. The Irish didn't land a 5-star player in this class, but they have 16 players on the next-highest rung, matching Tennessee for the most in the nation. Notre Dame had just seven 3-star recruits, tied for the second-lowest number among Top 50 schools, per 247 Sports (Alabama has just five. Because of course.)

Kelly recruited a ton of very good football players. And while some may be wondering where the greats are, this falls in line with Kelly's overall recruiting pattern since his arrival.

Joe Raymond/Associated Press

Per 247 Sports' archival data, Kelly has landed just five 5-star recruits across five classes: Aaron Lynch (2011), Ishaq Williams (2011), Gunner Kiel (2012), Jaylon Smith (2013) and Max Redfield (2013). Lynch and Kiel are playing for different universities, Williams has been almost entirely anonymous and Smith and Redfield are still too early in their careers to make any long-term assessments.

Where Kelly thrives is finding and building around 4-star depth. Over the last two seasons, 33 players given a 4-star rating by 247Sports have signed with the Irish, which is 11 more than he had his first three classes. You can't criticize Kelly for his mostly nondescript 2010 class because it was a strange mix of Charlie Weis guys and Kelly guys, but it's obvious over the last two years he's found his niche. 

Because of the inherent difficulties that come from recruiting at Notre Dame—most of which are tied to academia—it's not always easy to land a bevy of the nation's highest-ranked players.

It's the common refrain given from those who want to give excuses for the Irish's bad seasons. But it seems Kelly, rather than landing a few great players mixed with flotsam the way Weis did, is going to be emphasizing elite depth henceforth.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

There can only be one Alabama. Nick Saban can reload and reload and reload his 5-star train for the rest of his life if he wanted to. The SEC, as evidenced by having seven teams in the 247Sports Top 10, seems to be landing pretty much all the top talent at this point. Add in a mix of Florida State, Ohio State and USC, and even a school like Notre Dame is predestined in today's culture to come second.

So Kelly, grasping the market after missing out on some high-profile recruits, has been pulling out his shopping cart and Supermarket Sweep-ing in the players still worthy of attention but not quite the jaw-dropping fawning of a Leonard Fournette. And, in theory, those players should be able to create a Seattle Seahawks-level of depth, where Kelly can go down the line and have an instant-impact player ready to step up at any time. 

Whether this ultimately works long-term remains to be seen. Again, Kelly's reign in South Bend is steady. The Irish typically open ranked higher than they should, lose a game early that causes an instant overreaction in the opposite direction and spend the rest of their season oscillating in and out of the back half of the Top 25. 

Considering the recent alternatives, Notre Dame seems comfortable with the results. That happiness won't last all that much longer. But if the last two years of recruiting work out the way Kelly hopes, he won't be worrying about the looming specter of a hot seat anytime soon.


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