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ND Class Review: 5th-Year Seniors

In 2012, it appears there will be a half dozen Notre Dame players from the 2008 recruiting class who will be fifth-year seniors.

Safety/nickel Jamoris Slaughter was one of the team's most improved players in 2011 and expected to be a mainstay in 2012.

The obvious ones since the end of last season were three projected starters: defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore, safety/nickel Jamoris Slaughter and center Braxston Cave, each of whom is staring at a potential NFL career ahead of him.

Receiver John Goodman’s family confirmed in January that he would be returning for a fifth season — pending official approval by the Faculty Board in Control of Athletics. Center/guard Mike Golic Jr., will serve as the interior offensive line insurance policy (if he doesn’t win the starting right guard slot) that Andrew Nuss provided in 2011 in his fifth season. It also appears safety/special teams regular Dan McCarthy can lend continued aid.

The Class So Far
So much more was expected of the 2008 class that most every recruiting service ranked No. 2 back in February, 2008.

Alabama’s class was rated No. 1 and the Crimson Tide group was part of two national titles. Notre Dame was 29-22 from 2008-11 with not even a top-25 finish.

Notre Dame’s 2008 recruiting haul is the highest-rated one by the program since 1996, but its on-field legacy left an unfulfilled void, best embodied by five-star quarterback Dayne Crist. Two years ago he was projected to be Notre Dame’s three-year starter from 2010-12. But injuries and other factors now have him at the University of Kansas in his fifth season. Like other members of his class, he embodied a Notre Dame Man who was well regarded in his community and excelled academically, receiving his undergraduate degree last December. But on the field, it just didn’t work out.

Here’s the breakdown of what in February 2008 appeared to an almost perfectly balanced 23-man class. Seldom do you ever see one haul where almost all 22 positions on offense and defense can be filled out:

Quarterback: Dayne Crist
Running Back: Jonas Gray
Wide Receiver: Michael Floyd, John Goodman, Deion Walker
Tight End: Kyle Rudolph, Joseph Fauria
Offensive Line: Trevor Robinson, Braxston Cave, Lane Clelland, Mike Golic Jr.
Defensive Line: Ethan Johnson, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Sean Cwynar, Hafis Williams, Brandon Newman
Linebacker: Darius Fleming, Steve Filer, Anthony McDonald, David Posluszny
Defensive Back: Robert Blanton, Jamoris Slaughter, Dan McCarthy

The lone transfer from the 23-man class was Fauria (UCLA). The other tight end, Rudolph, turned pro after his junior season.

Center Braxston Cave will anchor the offensive line in 2012.

There was little attrition and a lot of exceptional talent for this level, highlighted by all-time Irish leading receiver and projected first-round selection Floyd. Unfortunately, it never quite meshed in the same year.

For example, Gray, Blanton and Slaughter all emerged with terrific senior seasons after trying to find their way the first three years, but then Cave, Johnson and Lewis-Moore all were injured as seniors after finding a groove earlier in their careers.

Robinson seemed destined to be an All-American lineman after his freshman year, but a younger offensive lineman, Zack Martin, eventually became recognized as the team’s best offensive lineman. Surprisingly, neither Robinson nor Johnson — both of whom temporarily cracked the starting unit as freshmen — were invited to this February’s NFL Combine.

Darius Fleming was a quality mainstay who had to make adjustments at outside linebacker/end.

Nothing helps make a great class more than a standout quarterback. Exhibit A is the 2003 recruiting class that featured Brady Quinn, a unit that propelled back-to-back BCS bids in 2005 and 2006. Crist was deemed as the QB who was in Quinn’s mold, but unlike with Quinn and ex-coach Charlie Weis, the chemistry and development never quite came together between Crist, injured in the ninth game in 2010, and Brian Kelly. That was a setback that stunted the program’s collective growth, particularly by the end of 2011.

There isn’t any way to sugarcoat it. If you are labeled a top-2 recruiting class and don’t even get one BCS appearance — never mind a victory in such a game — in the next four years, then it is going to be deemed a disappointment because expectations were huge.

It’s not like the 2004 and 2005 Irish recruiting hauls that weren’t even ranked in the top 25. When the Irish were 3-9 or 7-6 when those classes were juniors or seniors, a typical reaction on the outside is, “Hey, what did you expect? Their recruiting wasn’t good three or four years ago.”

However, when the program recruits what is considered three straight top-10 harvests from 2006-08, highlighted by this No. 2 class in 2008, yet still continues to muddle along with 7-6, 6-6 and 8-5 records, then the program is going to continue to be ridiculed as underperforming and underachieving, no matter how much effort is exerted to prove the contrary.

It’s too late for the collective 2008 class to make it happen together, but the remaining half-dozen or so can still provide a needed supporting cast in 2012.

2012 Projected Impact
The most fifth-year seniors the Irish ever had were nine apiece in 2003 and 2007. However, that hardly ensures success.

The 2003 team finished 5-7 despite the presence of fifth-year stars such as linebacker Courtney Watson, defensive linemen Cedric Hilliard and Darrell Campbell, offensive tackle Jim Molinaro and even explosive running back Julius Jones, who was academically ineligible a year earlier.

Meanwhile, the 2007 team had top fifth-year seniors such as tight end John Carlson, center John Sullivan, defensive lineman Trevor Laws and safety Tom Zbikowski — all in the NFL — but they were part of a 3-9 train wreck that year with the Irish. It’s about TEAM, not individuals.

Lewis-Moore and Cave both provide sound stability along their respective lines, while Slaughter’s play-making skills headline the back end of the defense, which will be one of the most scrutinized areas of the team.

The “G Men” — Goodman (seven receptions last year as a senior) and Golic (four starts at center in place of an injured Cave to close the year) — were brought back to provide veteran depth, if not emerge as starters, plus leadership.

Summary
The 2012 unit is now more in the hands of 1) a senior class led by the star power of Manti Te’o and Tyler Eifert, 2) the junior “complementary” class spearheaded by 16-game starting QB Tommy Rees and nose guard Louis Nix III, and maybe above all, 3) the first “true” Kelly haul that is the sophomores, led by defensive ends Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt, with quarterback Everett Golson possibly filling the question marks at QB down the line.

This year’s fifth-year seniors were the main entrée of the Irish football buffet table in Kelly’s first two seasons. They are now a side dish that can potentially enhance the overall plate

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