How good a recruiting class turns out to be is contingent on generally three factors:
1. Impact on winning — Did it go beyond status quo and help take the team to a higher level?
2. Balance — Did it have a major figure at almost every area, or was it top-heavy in one or two and not well spread out as a collective group?
3. Depth — All classes have five or six major contributors, but the better ones have about 10, and the great ones more than a dozen.
NOTRE DAME’S 2015 RECRUITING CLASS
Players Signed: 24, but three are no longer with the team.
Rivals Class Ranking: No. 11
The Main Ones Who Got Away: Two players who had originally committed verbally to Notre Dame at one point ended up signing elsewhere: quarterback Blake Barnett (Alabama, and now Arizona State) and safety Prentice McKinney (Oklahoma).
Players No Longer With Team: Three. Defensive end Bo Wallace never made it to Notre Dame and ended up at Arizona State, but he is not on the 2017 Sun Devils roster, nor was he in 2016.
Texas wideout Jalen Guyton was no longer with the Irish football team in December 2015 and is now at North Texas.
Finally, safety Mykelti Williams was dismissed from the team in spring of 2016. After attending Iowa Western Community College, he signed with Syracuse this year.
WHO SIGNED IN 2015
Quarterback: Brandon Wimbush*
Running Backs: Josh Adams and Dexter Williams
Receivers: Equanimeous St. Brown, C.J. Sanders, Miles Boykin* and Jalen Guyton
Tight End: Alizé Jones*
Offensive Line: Tristen Hoge* and Trevor Ruhland*
Defensive Line: Jerry Tillery, Micah Dew-Treadway*, Elijah Taylor*, Brandon Tiassum* and Bo Wallace
Linebackers: Te’Von Coney, Asmar Bilal* and Josh Barajas*
Cornerbacks: Nick Coleman, Shaun Crawford* and Ashton White*
Safeties: Nicco Fertitta and Mykelti Williams
Kicker: Justin Yoon
* Denotes that he is eligible for a fifth season in 2019
As has been the case with most of Notre Dame’s recruiting the past 20 years, the lion’s share of impact has come on offense.
• It began with Adams, who set the single-season freshman rushing record at Notre Dame in 2015 with 835 yards while averaging 7.1 yards per carry. He followed that with a team-high 933 rushing yards last season. Only three players in school history entered their junior season with more yards on the ground than Adams (current Irish running backs coach Autry Denson, Allen Pinkett and Darius Walker).
• Also as a freshman, Jones easily led the tight ends in catches with 13 for 190 yards and was in line to do more in 2016 before being declared academically ineligible (although he was allowed to practice with the team).
• On special teams, Yoon earned Freshman All-America notice from Sporting News while converting 15 of 17 field goals (long of 52), and he followed that up by making 13 of 17 as a sophomore.
Meanwhile, Sanders became the first Irish player to return both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown in the same season since Vontez Duff in 2002. Sanders had two more kick returns for scores last season, leaving him two short of the Notre Dame record with two seasons still remaining.
• St. Brown had the same meteoric rise from his freshman campaign (one catch for eight yards) to his sophomore year (58 catches for 961 yards, 16.6 yards per catch and nine touchdowns) that Fighting Irish wideout predecessors Golden Tate and Will Fuller did in 2008 and 2014, respectively.
Another stellar season and continued improvement from St. Brown could make him a prime NFL candidate after his junior season the way it did Tate and Fuller.
Ultimately, no player in this class could provide more impact than quarterback Wimbush. He is entrusted with the keys to the kingdom after making only two mop-up appearances as a freshman, getting redshirted as a sophomore and now stepping into the starting role with the departure of DeShone Kizer (early entry to the NFL) and Malik Zaire (graduate transfer).
If this class is going to actualize its potential, it needs much more productive influence from the defense.
The group does not possess an end/edge player to pressure the QB, and it needed more help at the safety position at the time in recruiting but fell short when Ben Edwards and Frank Buncom IV both opted for Stanford. In the 11th hour of recruiting back in 2015 the Irish also missed on the back end with corners Nathan Meadors (UCLA), Justin Reid (Stanford) and Arrington Farrar (Wisconsin).
Defensive tackle Tillery was originally projected to be Ronnie Stanley’s heir at left tackle, but his preference was to line up on the other side of the ball. A season ending knee injury to Jarron Jones in August 2015 thrust Tillery into a co-starting role with Daniel Cage at nose guard. Tillery improved his tackles total from 12 as a freshman to 37 as a sophomore (three for loss), but can he become an anchor and force along the line around which opposing offenses must game plan, a la Jones last year?
Beyond Tillery, the trio of Taylor, Tiassum and Dew-Treadway have combined for 31 snaps through two seasons — all by Taylor last year.
At linebacker, Coney and Bilal both made advancements as sophomores, but not quite enough where either is ensconsed as a sure-fire starter or every-down linebacker.
Defensive backs coach Todd Lyght believes Crawford could be the most talented cover man on the team. Unfortunately, Crawford has played five quarters of football with the Irish, missing all of 2015 with an ACL tear, and last year suffering an Achilles tear early in game two. Bouncing back from such setbacks would be an amazing achievement in itself.
The numbers overall are decent on both sides of the ball and with special teams aid, but the impact and contributions from more figures — especially Wimbush — will determine if the class is average or more than that.
• Williams is a bit of an enigma. The running back was heralded all of last spring for his progress, and after the Duke loss last year he was the lone player on the entire team singled out by head coach Brian Kelly appearing to play with any kind of passion. Yet Williams had all of 39 carries to show for it. With Tarean Folston (77 carries for 334 yards last year) opting not to return for a fifth season, Williams must seize the opportunity presented to him this season behind Adams.
• The receiving corps has a marquee figure in St. Brown, and it is augmented with Sanders’ speed in the slot (24 catches for 293 yards and two scores last season) and Boykin’s 6-4 frame on the outside (six catches for 81 yards and a touchdown in 2016).
• Can any of the developmental players along the defensive line (outside Tillery) supply a consistent 15-20 snaps per game as juniors to provide a quality rotation and not get leg weary at the end of the season?
• Fertitta has become a special teams mainstay, and his hitting skills belie his 5-9 frame. He needs to be ready at a position that has been unstable or inexperienced in recent seasons.
The current freshman class with Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott at safety, plus the corner/nickel trio of Julian Love, Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride Jr., has ostensibly leapfrogged this group.
For now this class seems to be a cross of the highly esteemed 2013 harvest (ranked No. 3 by Rivals at the time and led by Jaylon Smith and wide receiver Will Fuller) that were seniors in 2016 and the more “complementary” 2014 haul (current seniors) that features less star power.
It doesn’t appear as strong all around as the one in 2013, but for now seems to have a little more oomph to it than 2014 (although both 2014 and 2015 were ranked No. 11).
Because there is no quarterback, running back or wide receiver in the 2017 senior class (which was reviewed yesterday), the centerpiece of this haul to compensate for it is the triumvirate of Wimbush, Adams and St. Brown. That trio remaining healthy and fulfilling its potential in 2017 will be crucial to determining the season’s outcome.
Jones at tight end, Sanders at slot/return game, Tillery along the defensive front, Coney/Bilal at linebacker, Crawford at corner/nickel and Yoon at kicker also apper to possess a chance to compete at the next level provided they continue to grow and/or overcome previous setbacks.
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