Ever since the 42-14 shellacking Notre Dame endured at the hands of Alabama in last year’s BCS National Championship Game, Irish head coach Brian Kelly has made it no secret that the program’s top personnel priority has been to build championship-caliber depth.
Head coach Brian Kelly and Notre Dame welcomed a 23-player class on Wednesday.
Heading into year five, mission accomplished, Kelly says.
“I really like the fact that this has come together and the fact that it really represents … the one thing that you’re looking for, and that is depth across the board,” Kelly said at his National Signing Day press conference Wednesday. “Some of the things that stand out, 18 of these recruits that are in this class were in the top 15 in their position group, and so that’s what we were trying to achieve in this class.”
When combining this year’s 23-man haul and last year’s 23-player group that finished in the top five according to 247Sports, the Irish seemingly filled a number of needs while attempting to assemble a more complete roster.
In the 2014 class, Kelly said, it began with attracting talent along the offensive and defensive lines.
“Yeah, there’s some great skill players that I’ll talk about, but you’re winning up front, and building that depth in the front seven and the offensive line really stands out in this class, and then having some really good players across the board for us,” he said.
Included in the offensive line haul are four four-star recruits that Kelly praised for their foot quickness.
“Looking at the offensive line as a need for us in terms of building that depth across the board, this year an area that we lost some key starters, and we had to really go and we had to play true freshmen this year, and then we had to play some guys that had not had any experience at all, and we were in a position that we needed to really augment that position across the board,” Kelly said. “They all have the ability to run block, pass [protection]. We like our guys to move, whether we’re running zone schemes or gap schemes, screens, all those things. You’re going to see that there's an athletic component to all of these guys.”
On the other side of the ball, Notre Dame signed six defensive linemen (not including three-star Kolin Hill, who projects more as an outside linebacker with the Irish), two of whom were offered in the final month of recruiting as the program scrambled to fill a need.
Kelly identified incoming defensive end Grant Blankenship as a possible 2014 contributor, but added that it’s impossible to know who will play this fall before they enroll.
The approach of the coaching staff to limit the offers until late in the process is one that is unlikely to be continued in the future, Kelly said.
“[Recruiting is] not an exact science, and so there are factors that change things, and sometimes it’s not just about what you watch on film but the way that you think about your team,” he said of the flurry of late offers. “Maybe it’s the way you want your team to look like after the year or during the year.
“I have an influence in that, and so sometimes my opinion needs to be heard on some things, and it shifts the way we want to go. My [coaches] are great. They’re going to go the way I ask them to go, and sometimes I’ll stay out of it and sometimes I’ll get involved. … As it related to the defensive line position, we just felt like we were — we didn’t cast a large enough net, and we just needed to be out there larger in terms of our number of candidates, and so that’s why we went back in that way.”
Avoiding The Three-And-Out Mentality
Kelly made it clear — perhaps more so than in recent National Signing Day press conferences — that the program is not interested in players simply looking to play three years and head to the NFL. While early entrants to the NFL Draft is typically a byproduct of a successful program, the Irish head coach said it is all about the recruit’s mindset and goals.
“I would have a serious problem recruiting [a player] to Notre Dame if they said, ‘I only want to come to Notre Dame for three years. I have no interest in really getting the degree at Notre Dame,’” said Kelly, who added that he passed on some pretty good players in such cases. “I would have serious reservations about bringing him to Notre Dame.
“I don’t want guys to come here and not finish their degree. I want guys to come to Notre Dame, get their degree, help us win a national championship, and be the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft. That’s what I want, if that’s what they want. So when you look at the list of guys, we vetted them out just like they vetted us out. So recruiting is a two-way street. A lot of times our fans ask why didn't they recruit this guy or they recruited this guy; it's a two‑way street when it comes to the recruiting process. So we are really, really pleased with the work that our coaches have done, our recruiting staff.”
Who’s Ready To Play Immediately?
One question in the front of Notre Dame fans’ minds is which players will contribute immediately like wide receiver Corey Robinson, offensive lineman Steve Elmer and linebacker Jaylon Smith (among others) did in 2013. That topic, Kelly contended, is impossible to answer on National Signing Day.
Incoming freshmen are more prepared physically than ever before, but it boils down to the mental aspect of adjusting to college life that will determine a prospect’s ability to see the field.
“I thought standing here last year if you had asked me, I would have pulled out some of the skill guys to [play immediately], and then [defensive end] Isaac Rochell plays for us,” Kelly said. “It’s not physical. And you really can’t tell that until they get into camp and how they pick up the grind of going through double sessions and the grind of school and balancing all those things, because physically if you look at a number of these guys, you could say they could play right now. I don’t know how they’re going to handle it mentally.
“That’s going to be the tougher question. I could tell you right now, why couldn’t [four-star defensive end] Grant Blankenship play right now? He’s 6-6, 260 [pounds]. I just saw him last week. He looks great. He looks like he could play right now. But I don’t know if he can handle all the other players. So that’s really hard for me to answer now that I stand here at Notre Dame.”
Identifying 2015 Needs
On the surface, the front seven — at least the interior of the defensive line — appears to be one of the needs in the next recruiting cycle. Kelly, however, wouldn’t confirm that it would be a priority as much as other needs as he sees them.
“There will be a couple things [to emphasize],” Kelly said. “Certainly quarterback, we need another quarterback at that position (Corona, Calif., four-star Blake Barnett is committed and plans to enroll next January). We’ll be recruiting a running back at that position. Certainly the offensive tackle position will always be one that you're looking for.
“So early on when you’re looking at your ’15 class, you’re trying to get those staple players right away, those guys that you know you’re going for, and then the numbers start to kind of take shape. You’ve got 14 [scholarships], you’ve got 16, you’ve got 18 scholarships, then we start to target in on those specific positions that we may have a need at. Is it another defensive tackle? Is it another offensive receiver position? My point being, you’re going to take those positions that you know are staple positions, and then you move from there. That’s where we are.”