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ND Class Review: Seniors

After three straight seasons from 2006-08 of reeling in top-10 ranked recruiting classes, Notre Dame’s fortunes there ebbed when former head coach Charlie Weis and his staff entered their fifth (and what would prove to be final) season with the Irish in 2009.

Linebacker Manti Te'o remains the centerpiece of Notre Dame's senior class.

Only the euphoric 11th-hour signing of the nation’s No. 1 defensive recruit, Hawaii linebacker Manti Te’o, salvaged a sub-par recruiting campaign (at Notre Dame, that means anything outside the top 10). With the addition of Te’o, the four major recruiting services had Notre Dame’s 18-man class in February 2009 ranked anywhere from No. 14 through 24.

Without Te’o, it likely wouldn’t have been in the top 20, and probably out of the top 25, which the much maligned 2004 and 2005 Irish classes were.

The Class So Far
Entering the 2012 campaign, the greatest news from this class is its two All-American players will have a senior season.

Te’o and tight end Tyler Eifert both had an opportunity to be taken on the first day of the NFL Draft this spring, but after some deliberation they opted to return for their senior year.

Eleven other members of this class could have starting or co-starting roles in 2012, quite a percentage if it comes to fruition.

Here’s how the current senior class breakdown looked by position when the 18-man group signed back in February 2009:

Running Back: Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood
Wide Receiver: Shaquelle Evans, Roby Toma
Tight End: Tyler Eifert, Jake Golic
Offensive Line: Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Alex Bullard
Defensive Line: Tyler Stockton
Linebacker: Manti Te’o, Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox
Defensive Back: Zeke Motta, E.J. Banks
Kicking Game: Nick Tausch (kicker), Ben Turk (punter), Jordan Cowart (long-snapper)

Three transfers cut the number to 15, with all returning to home-state schools: Evans to UCLA, Banks to Pitt and Bullard to Tennessee. Meanwhile, Golic and Stockton have been riddled with injury issues, thereby making their chances of playing time slim.

This class embodies why new boss Brian Kelly had to emphasize building a defense when he arrived in 2010. Weis’ last harvest netted only one tackle (Stockton) and zero ends. The elite college football programs regularly sign four to six premier defensive linemen each season. There also is no corner represented and only one safety (Motta).

Signing Te’o was one of Notre Dame’s great recruiting coups. He has been a cornerstone … but it takes a village of athletes to build a superb defense.

Conversely, the offense has seen quality development for the most part, highlighted by Eifert. Few could have foreseen the former three-star recruit becoming the top tight end in the NCAA, especially after severe back problems sidelined him as a freshman, but he continues the Irish “Tight End U.” tradition from the past 40 years.

Likewise, fellow Indiana recruit Martin didn’t arrive with much fanfare but he also has graded out as perhaps Notre Dame’s top overall lineman the past two years from his left tackle slot. Watt, a USA Today first-team All-American in high school, seized the left guard slot last year and is line to start two more seasons.

Wood’s brash, confident personality has reminded us some of former Irish back Ricky Watters (1987-90). Another USA Today firs-team pick, Wood was smoldering when he didn’t play as a freshman, but he has improved appreciably each season and become a quality major college back. His 1,000-yard rushing campaign last season was the first at the school since 2006 with Darius Walker. The next step will be to demonstrate better production in the marquee matchups.

There is star power in the top one-third of this class, but what can make it much stronger is the progress of three areas:

• Riddick and Toma have provided “flashes,” but Riddick especially needs to bust out as a senior. He will be in a hybrid running back/slot receiver role coached by Tony Alford. Back in 2010 Kelly projected stardom for Riddick, who has totaled more than 70 catches the past two seasons, but he’s hardly reached his ceiling while battling injuries and adjusting to running routes and catching passes (or punts). This year, Riddick should have much more chances to be a runner, his more natural role. The diminutive Toma caught 19 passes last season. Can he be a starter this season?

• The Will linebacker spot opposite Te’o was shared between Fox (48 tackles in 2011) and Calabrese (37 tackles in 2011). Both had to alternate because neither could quite seize the starting role. The position has to become more than serviceable if the defense is to continue to progress.

• Motta has been a durable three-year starter either on special teams or safety, but like Riddick, Calabrese and Fox, he has not yet had the “wow factor” campaign.

• The graduated David Ruffer supplanted kicker Nick Tausch in 2011-12, and it is easily forgotten that Tausch set the Notre Dame record for consecutive field goals made (14) during his freshman year (broken by Ruffer the next year). Not many teams can bring in a reserve who is 15 of 18 on three-pointers during his career. Punter Ben Turk begins his fourth season as a starter. He was sporadic for a good portion of his first three years before performing well down the stretch last season. Such consistency from him, and long-snapper Jordan Cowart, is mandatory if special teams are to become a true weapon for the Irish.

2012 Projected Impact
This won’t be renowned as a top all-around class because 1) it lacks a quarterback (understandable after five-stars Jimmy Clausen and Dayne Crist signed the two previous years), 2) has only three linemen total and 3) lacks overall numbers or depth, including no corners.

However, this senior group is capable of leading the first nine-win season at Notre Dame since 2006 if:

• The nucleus of Te’o, Eifert, Wood and offensive linemen Martin and Watt remain healthy and take another step forward. Last year’s senior class saw three of its mainstay linemen — Ethan Johnson, Kapron Lewis-Moore and Braxston Cave — all go down with injuries, as did Jonas Gray, who might have aided the offense during losses to Stanford and Florida State.

• The Riddick/Toma duo, the Calabrese/Fox tandem at Will and Motta at safety emerges with a breakout senior year the way Gray did last season.

• The three specialists, especially Tausch and Turk, make a difference on special teams (if they don’t get beat out by current freshman Kyle Brindza).

Summary
This group could become better than advertised — a rarity at Notre Dame the past 20 years — if the above blueprint falls into place.

It would have been much more difficult to have optimism about the 2012 season displaying improvement from its eight-win totals the past two years sans Te’o and Eifert, so their return alone is uplifting. Those two represent the Irish aircraft carriers on defense and offense, respectively.

It’s how the rest of the infantry continues to improve that should play a huge factor in determining whether the 2012 season will remain status quo or start elevating the program to a higher tier.

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