Notre Dame’s Five Best Recruiting Classes Since 2000
Over the past week in our review of each current Notre Dame class, from the fifth-year seniors in 2016 to the incoming freshmen this year, we rated them on impact, balance and depth.
A conclusion we came to is that the group signed in 2016 — which includes current starters Ian Book, Liam Eichenberg, Tommy Kraemer, Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji, plus wideout Javon McKinley — might rival the 2003 harvest as the best at Notre Dame since the turn of the century (depending some on how it fares this season).
The two ways recruiting classes are judged are before and after: What they appear to be before they play, and what they actually produced after their careers are finished.
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 the standard to top for the 2016 group that already has produced the likes of cornerbacks Julian Love and Troy Pride Jr., safeties Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman, defensive ends Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara, wide receiver Chase Claypool and running back Tony Jones Jr.
The ultimate value of a recruiting class is measured not by adding up individual star rankings, but rather by filling needs in crucial areas, finding the right “profile” recruit to fit a particular system/school, and development within a scheme by the coaching staff.
For example, the 28-man group signed in 2006 was ranked No. 7 and was labeled a “killer class” by Irish head coach Charlie Weis. 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.
What looks good on paper in February four years later might result in a different evaluation.
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.
In addition to the aforementioned 2016 group that is now in its fifth season, here are four more esteemed groups signed since 2000 that can be measured against them:
Rivals Rank: No. 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 wide receiver Jeff Samardzija, second-round tight end John Carlson, and linemen Ryan Harris and John Sullivan, both of whom had strong NFL careers, with Harris winning a Super Bowl as the starting left tackle at Denver.
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 and captain Travis Thomas, linebacker Joe Brockington and punter Geoff Price all were solid major college players who augmented the starting unit.
Rivals Rank: No. 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 in Tuscaloosa, Notre Dame was 7-6, 6-6, 8-5 and 8-5 during those same four undergraduate years.
Five-star recruits Michael Floyd at wide receiver and Kyle Rudolph at tight end (who turned pro after his junior year) lived up to their billing, but five-star quarterback Dayne Crist had an injury-riddled and unfulfilled football career.
Defensively, the standouts were 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, all of whom played in the NFL.
Balance: Every position group was well covered with a high school All-American figure. 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 by the Crimson Tide).
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 a season-ending knee injury, and offensive linemen Braxston Cave and Mike Golic Jr. started as fifth-year seniors on the 2012 unit that finished the regular season 12-0.
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: No. 10
Impact/Star Power: One of the most unique classes ever signed by Notre Dame because 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 head coach Brian Kelly’s first Kelly-like spread quarterback 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 National Championship Game.
Balance: One quarterback, two running backs, one wide 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-American 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: No. 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 his senior season.
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 knee injury suffered in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State.
As juniors, led by wide receiver, team MVP and first-round draft pick Will Fuller, this class did have Notre Dame in the College Football Playoff hunt with a 10-1 start before finishing 10-3.
Also contributing regularly at wide receiver was Corey Robinson, but concussion issues ended his football career prior to his senior season.
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 College Football Playoff 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, receiver Torii Hunter Jr. linemen Mike McGlinchey, the right guard combo of Hunter Bivin and Colin McGovern — and maybe even quarterback Malik Zaire.
There were some fine individual efforts, but it just didn’t work out collectively amid a mind-numbing 4-8 season as seniors.
Time and development tell the tale.