Best Notre Dame Recruiting Classes In The Rivals Era
Angst appears to be overtaking the 2021 Notre Dame recruiting cycle. What had an initial appearance of a top-five class — one that even head coach Brian Kelly hinted at in late December — has fallen off.
The 11-man group so far is ranked No. 16 by Rivals, which generally fits the 10-to-20 status-quo profile over the past seven years: consistently strong, but not classified as championship or closing-the-gap timber.
Since the launch of the Rivals network on Nov. 4, 1998, a question that is often posed by Notre Dame followers is: What Fighting Irish football recruiting class was the best one signed? An answer can be given two ways.
If we are talking about the best class on paper at the time, the 23-man haul in 2008 that ranked No. 2 (behind Alabama) would get the slight edge over the 24-man harvest in 2013 that came in at No. 3 (behind Alabama and Ohio State).
If we are talking about best combination of impact, overall class balance and depth, though, the 21-man group in 2003 — which was rated a more modest No. 12 — will be difficult to top.
Many times in recruiting, what is best “on paper” and actual production are not the same.
The ultimate value of a recruiting class is measured not so much by adding up individual star rankings but rather by filling needs in crucial areas (or how it complements the classes before and after it), finding the right “profile” recruit to fit a particular system/school, and development within a scheme by the coaching staff.
For example, the 27-man group signed in 2006 was ranked No. 6 and was labeled a “killer class” by Irish head coach Charlie Weis. Indeed, it turned into a “coach killer” because it was woefully lacking in defensive linemen, had an enormous rate of attrition (10 players left the program for one reason or another) and had only two players drafted by the NFL: offensive linemen Eric Olsen and Sam Young, both in the sixth round.
Meanwhile, Weis' final class in 2009 was a disappointing No. 21, coming up short in too many areas. Yet as seniors in 2012 the supreme play from members of the haul such as Manti Te’o, Tyler Eifert, Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood and Zeke Motta, combined with quality complementary contributions from others in the class, helped steer a 12-0 regular season before a defeat in the BCS National Championship Game.
Almost every class will have eight to 10 regular starters. Distinguishing their impact, balance and depth is what separates the solid hauls from the top ones. Let’s look at four of the more esteemed groups signed since 2000:
Rivals Rank: 12
Impact/Star Power: When this class was juniors and seniors, it carried the program to its lone back-to-back “major” bowls, losses to Ohio State in the 2006 Fiesta and LSU in the 2007 Sugar. After most of the class graduated, the bottom fell out with a 3-9 record in 2007.
The impact was excellent on offense with quarterback Brady Quinn, twice in the top five of the Heisman voting, two-time All-American receiver Jeff Samardzija, second-round tight end John Carlson, and linemen Ryan Harris and John Sullivan, both of whom had stellar NFL careers.
Defense featured second-round picks Victor Abiamiri and Trevor Laws along the line, plus future NFL safeties Tom Zbikowski and Chinedum Ndukwe.
Balance: There was a premier figure, NFL caliber player at every position group except running back, linebacker and cornerback.
Depth: Cornerback Ambrose Wooden, running back/linebacker/captain Travis Thomas, linebacker Joe Brockington and punter Geoff Price all were solid major college players who augmented the starting unit.
Rivals Rank: 2
Impact/Star Power: The unfortunate reality is while the No. 1-ranked class at Alabama would aid national title seasons in 2008 and 2011 during their four years, this Notre Dame harvest was 7-6, 6-6, 8-5 and 8-5 during their four undergraduate years.
Five-star recruits Michael Floyd at receiver and Kyle Rudolph at tight end (who turned pro after his junior year) lived up to their billing, but five-star QB Dayne Crist had an injury-riddled and unfulfilled football career.
Defensively, the standouts were defensive lineman Kapron Lewis-Moore, who had a major role as a fifth-year senior captain for the 12-1 team in 2012, linebacker Darius Fleming and cornerback Robert Blanton.
Balance: Every position group was well covered with a high school All-American figure, which is why it was ranked No. 2. Nineteen of the 23 players signed had at least a four-star rating, and the 3.96 aggregate designation even topped Alabama’s 3.72 with 32 players signed.
Depth: Offensive guard Trevor Robinson became a four-year mainstay with defensive lineman Ethan Johnson. Running back Jonas Gray blossomed as a senior prior to suffering a season-ending knee injury, while offensive linemen Braxston Cave and Mike Golic Jr. started as fifth-year seniors on the terrific 2012 outfit.
The main reason we have the 2003 ahead of 2008 is the back-to-back major bowls while working with less talented classes around them.
Rivals Rank: 10
Impact/Star Power: One of the most unique classes ever signed by Notre Dame because what had become the single most difficult position to recruit — impact defensive ends/pass rushers — featured three elite figures in Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt and Ishaq Williams.
The haul also was highlighted by signing the first Kelly-like spread QB in Everett Golson, playmaking wideout DaVaris Daniels, tight end Troy Niklas, safety Matthias Farley and kicker Kyle Brindza.
Led by Tuitt, at least a half-dozen members of this class had a profound impact as sophomores while helping Notre Dame to play in the BCS Championship
Balance: One quarterback, two running backs, one receiver, two tight ends, four offensive linemen, five defensive linemen, three linebackers, two corners, two safeties and a kicker/punter in Brindza.
Hard to draw it up much better than that on paper.
Depth: Center Nick Martin arrived with less fanfare than most of his classmates, but he became a two-time captain and second-round pick. Cam McDaniel led the 2013 team in rushing, and the late George Atkinson III had his moments in the backfield before leaving for the NFL after his junior year.
The scholarship count did not include walk-on linebacker Joe Schmidt, a future two-year starter and captain.
Seventeen of the 23 scholarship players left Notre Dame with eligibility remaining, from Freshman All-America Lynch transferring after his rookie year, to Tuitt becoming a second-round pick as a junior, to Williams missing the last two seasons because of academic issues.
Rivals Rank: 3
Impact/Star Power: The No. 3-ranking was earned with four five-star figures. One, defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes, never ended up enrolling. A second, running back Greg Bryant, was declared academically ineligible in August 2015, transferred and tragically was killed in May 2016 back in his home state of Florida. A third, safety Max Redfield, was dismissed from school prior to last season while trying to find consistency on a defense that he classified as more difficult to grasp than the Mandarin Chinese course he was taking.
Finally, 2015 Butkus Award winner Jaylon Smith left for the NFL after his junior season, but he would have been unavailable in 2016 anyway because of a devastating knee injury suffered in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State.
As juniors, led by wide receiver, Team MVP and first-round pick Will Fuller, this class did have the Fighting Irish in the College Football Playoff (CFP) hunt with a 10-1 start before finishing 10-3.
Balance: The lack of defensive linemen after the Vanderdoes fiasco was the main hole in the class, and a second safety to complement Redfield also was missing.
Depth: To be a CFP contender again in 2016, the Irish needed terrific senior campaigns on defense from lineman Isaac Rochell, cornerback Cole Luke, linebacker James Onwualu, plus running back Tarean Folston, wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr., offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey, the right guard combo of Hunter Bivin and Colin McGovern — and maybe even quarterback Malik Zaire.
There were some fine individual efforts, and both McGlinchey and Rochell are having fine pro careers, but it just didn’t work out collectively amid a mind-numbing 4-8 season.
Time and development tell the tale.