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 2016 RECRUITING CLASS
Players Signed: 23, with everyone still with the team so far.
Rivals Class Ranking: No. 13
The Main Ones Who Got Away: While no school gets everyone they would like, Notre Dame for the first time in 10 years did not lose a single player after he had verbally committed to the Fighting Irish.
WHO SIGNED IN 2016
Quarterback: Ian Book*
Running Backs: Tony Jones Jr.* and Deon McIntosh*
Receivers: Kevin Stepherson, Chase Claypool and Javon McKinley
Offensive Line: Tommy Kraemer*, Liam Eichenberg* and Parker Boudreaux*
Defensive Line: Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem*, Julien Okwara and Ade Ogundeji*
Linebackers: Jamir Jones and Jonathan Jones*
Cornerbacks: Julian Love, Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride Jr.
Safeties: Devin Studstill, Jalen Elliott, Spencer Perry and D.J. Morgan*
Long-Snapper: John Shannon*
* Denotes that he is eligible for a fifth season in 2020
The two position groups where Notre Dame needed the most reinforcements in 2016 from the freshman class were wide receiver and the defensive backfield.
The wideout corps had lost Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle from 2015. While sophomores such as Equanimeous St. Brown, C.J. Sanders and Chris Finke significantly helped fill those voids, the unit also received a huge boost from Stepherson, an early enrollee whose 25 catches for 462 yards (18.5 yards per reception) were the best by an Irish freshman since Michael Floyd hauled in 48 for 719 yards and seven scores (all school records by a frosh) in 2008.
Claypool (99 snaps on offense, five catches for 81 yards) also helped mainly in a blocking capacity, but McKinley saw limited time before undergoing surgery for a fractured fibula Nov. 1.
Far greater overall impact came in the defensive backfield, where Studstill started nine games at free safety and Love (eight starts), Vaughn (four starts) and Pride Jr. (two starts) combined for 14 starts. Love, who also dabbled at nickel and safety, finished with 45 tackles, while Vaughn’s seven passes defended (including an interception) were second on the team to senior Cole Luke’s eight.
The lone five-star recruit in the class was Hayes, who made a transition from linebacker to defensive end and saw his weight fluctuate too much from the 255 to 239 range to make any major impact in the pass rushing area, which has been an albatross on the team. He played 155 snaps, or about 13 per game.
This spring, he will have the opportunity to win the weakside end slot. If Hayes can stay healthy, he possesses the physical skills to appreciably upgrade the pass rush up front. The Irish defensive line recorded only three sacks last year, the fewest among any Power Five conference teams.
The 13 players signed on defense in this class (and stayed through their freshman season) are the most in Kelly’s eight recruiting classes at Notre Dame, and the breakdown had four defensive ends (after inking none the year prior), two linebackers, three cornerbacks and four safety/rover prospects in the current setup.
On offense, the missing element among the nine signed was tight end, but that was not a position of need in 2016, especially because the Irish had secured two of best in 2017 (Brock Wright and Cole Kmet) prior to the 2016 signing date.
The Irish have already had two cycles of four-year starting long snappers with Jordan Cowart (2009-12) and Scott Daly (2013-16), and the next in line from 2017-20 is Shannon, who was redshirted last season.
Seldom will any recruiting class fill all 25 positions on a football team (including kicker, punter and long snapper) in one fell swoop, but this one came close, with a premium placed on the defensive backfield. That’s because from the two previous classes the Irish had only two safeties (Drue Tranquill and Nicco Fertitta) and four corners (Nick Watkins, Shaun Crawford, Nick Coleman and Ashton White), when four and six, respectively, would have been more ideal numbers.
The 14 freshmen that saw game action in 2016 were the most among Brian Kelly’s first seven recruiting classes at Notre Dame.
Quantity alone, however, cannot serve as evidence that it will prove to be his strongest class. Several, most notably Claypool, found a niche on special teams, but six defensive backs and three wide receivers formed the lion’s share of meaningful playing time.
Among the 10 who redshirted — including Kareem, a defensive lineman who did not play after the sixth game and saw action in only three, or less than the 30 percent required to redshirt — several will be in line for action, if not starting roles, as sophomores in 2017.
• The aforementioned Shannon is expected to take over the long snapping duties.
• Kraemer will have an excellent shot at seizing the vacated right guard spot, similar to two years ago when current senior Quenton Nelson took over at left guard as a sophomore after redshirting his rookie season. Kraemer arrived with accolades almost similar to Nelson, a third-team Associated Press All-America selection last year.
Eichenberg enrolled as a coveted tackle and, per Kelly, was a “stud” on the scout team last season. He is probably a year away from starting, but at worst he would project as the third tackle in 2017.
• Jones Jr. was a standout during the August practices with his physical, downhill yet elusive running, pass-catching skills and blocking acumen, but there was no room for playing time because of the presence of sophomores Josh Adams and Dexter Williams and the return of senior Tarean Folston from a knee injury.
With Folston opting not to return for a fifth season in 2017, the door is open for Jones to be more of a regular in the backfield rotation.
It would be premature to make judgements on any recruiting class after only one year. Injuries, disciplinary/academic issues, transfers or even early exits to the NFL can ravage the most promising hauls.
Just ask the 2013 Notre Dame harvest that at the time was ranked No. 3 nationally. It featured 24 players on National Signing Day, but by the first game of their senior season in 2016, only 12 were still with the team.
The primary strength of this class right now is the defensive backfield. The back end of the defense has to take another step up under new coordinator Mike Elko and capitalize on the baptisim by fire it experienced in 2016. It can’t just be a case of where they played because they were the only bodies available.
If defenders such as Hayes, Kareem or Okwara along the front seven can go beyond just being bit players and need to be inserted because of their playmaking skills, especially as pass rushers, then the defense has the opportunity to rise.
Offensively, Kraemer and the receiving corps are projected to be the major players, but under-the-radar quarterback Book has to be prepared for an emergency the way DeShone Kizer was in 2015 as a redshirt freshman.
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