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February 5, 2014

Class fit suits Kelly

Notre Dame took a recruiting class pulled in disparate directions and held it together with a singular theme.

The result of that work showed on National Signing Day as Notre Dame inked 23 prospects from 14 states to cap a recruiting campaign that spanned two years. All those hours netted Notre Dame a Top 10 caliber class that strengthened some strengths and assuaged some weaknesses.

Notre Dame landed three-star defensive tackle Daniel Cage to close the class on Wednesday morning, but missed on four-star athlete Michiah Quick (Oklahoma) and five-star safety JuJu Smith (USC) in the afternoon.

What Notre Dame didn't get in skilled talent, Brian Kelly believes the Irish offset with pure power.

"I think if you really boil it down, it's about the front seven and the offensive line," Kelly said. "Yeah, there's 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, and then having some really good players across the board for us."  

Notre Dame landed four offensive linemen rated four stars or better in Alex Bars, Quenton Nelson, Jimmy Byrne and Sam Mustipher, who Kelly said would remain on offense in South Bend. That group will arrive this summer alongside a front seven class that runs 10-men deep and is led by Rivals100 linebacker Nyles Morgan.

The Irish struck in Texas at a rate not seen by Notre Dame since the Bob Davie era, not only pulling out three prospects in cornerback Nick Watkins, linebacker Kolin Hill and defensive end Grant Blankenship, but taking out three prospects that had Longhorns' offers. That production offset an off year in California and Florida, where the Irish landed just one prospect in tight end Tyler Luatua and receiver Corey Holmes, respectively.

The class also included two early enrollees in receiver Justin Brent and defensive end Andrew Trumbetti.

"When we were having this opportunity to recruit a young man, they had to have a passion for wanting to get a degree from Notre Dame and winning a National Championship," Kelly said. "If they want to come here just to hang their hat to play football and go to the NFL, we passed on some pretty good players, because 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."

Nelson rates as the top-rated prospect in the Irish haul, but Brent, Bars and Morgan all finished in the Rivals100 as well. Quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive lineman Jay Hayes, tight end Nic Weishar and cornerback Nick Watkins also finished as four-star prospects, along with Mustipher, Holmes and Byrne.

For Kelly, the class was both a representation of the character he wants and seemingly a response to the early draft defections of Troy Niklas, George Atkinson III and Stephon Tuitt. Without naming those early exits, Kelly drew the distinction between their departures and Notre Dame's incoming entries.

"I just have to do a better job of educating our own players on the NFL and what it means to be a first‑round draft pick versus a second or a third," Kelly said. "When an agent says, 'Let's play for your second contract," how ridiculous that is. That's a whole different argument."

For how tumultuous Notre Dame's recruiting campaign could have been coming off last calendar year - the national title game loss, Kelly's NFL interview, the Manti Te'o saga, the Everett Golson suspension, the 9-4 season and the departure of both coordinators - this class held together with the standard level of de-commitments.

The Irish lost five-star running back Elijah Hood in the summer, as well as four-star defensive lineman Matt Dickerson and three-star linebacker Richard Yeargin late in the process, but they also created their own flips while also mining talent late after the staff look a longer look at particular prospects.

Notre Dame didn't turn up the heat on Hill, Cage, linebacker Nile Sykes, defensive tackle Pete Mokwuah or linebacker Jhonny Williams until late in the process. That group represented half of the front seven class.

"If it was an exact science, this recruiting process, well, we'd have it all down," Kelly said. "It's 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. Maybe it's the way you want your team to look like after the year or during the year."

Now Notre Dame's team has that new look heading into next season.

Kelly can thank these 23 incoming prospects for that, along with the singular message that binds a national haul to a small Catholic school in northern Indiana.


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