Notre Dame's Top 5 Impact Recruiting Classes The Past 30 Years
From 1987-90, Notre Dame finished No. 1 in football recruiting four straight seasons. That 1990 group alone had five first-round picks in running back Jerome Bettis, defensive backs Tom Carter and Jeff Burris, defensive lineman Bryant Young and offensive lineman Aaron Taylor. Bettis is now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Taylor in the College Football Hall of Fame.
Since 1990, the Irish recruiting efforts have had numerous Top 10-15 efforts on paper — even top 5 — but not quite the ballyhoo of 1987-90.
We rate all recruiting classes on three factors:
First, how much did it help carry the program to success with its star-power impact?
Second, how balanced was it? Did it have major contributors and star power at numerous different positions?
Finally, how deep was it? All classes will have five or six standouts. But when you have at least 10-12 on Top-10 level-type teams, that’s when it starts becoming special.
Don’t mistake the highest rated classes with best or most impactful. In 2008, Notre Dame signed a No. 2-ranked group led by five stars such as receiver Michael Floyd and tight end Kyle Rudolph. Yet in their four years from 2008-11, that group never had a season with less than five losses.
Likewise, the No. 3-ranked class in 2013 with future Butkus Award winner Jaylon Smith and budding first-round pick Will Fuller had some great talent — but collectively was 4-8 as seniors.
Since 1991, our Top 5 recruiting classes at Notre Dame based on our three criteria are:
1. 2003: The Brady Bunch
Impact: It carried the program to Bowl Championship Series bids in 2005-06 after down recruiting years in 2001-02 and the two of the smallest and lowest-rated ones in school history in 2004-05.
During the five-year recruiting stretch from 2001-05, the other four classes in that time averaged only two NFL draft picks per group — whereas the 2003 have had six alone taken in the first three rounds (not including receiver Jeff Samardzija, who opted for Major League Baseball instead). It was the centerpiece of 19 regular season wins and two straight BCS berths in 2005-06 as juniors and seniors.
Balance/Star Power: This harvest produced a first-rounder with quarterback Brady Quinn, twice a top-5 finisher in the Heisman balloting, three in the second with tight end John Carlson and defensive linemen Victor Abiamiri and Trevor Laws, and two more in the third with offensive tackle Ryan Harris and safety/punt returner Tom Zbikowski.
A seventh, consensus All-America receiver Samardzija, would have been chosen in the first three rounds had he not opted for a lucrative pitching career in major league baseball.
Two others, center John Sullivan and safety Chinedum Ndukwe, became starters in the NFL — with Sullivan starting in the 2019 Super Bowl.
Depth: Other starters included cornerback Ambrose Wooden, linebacker Joe Brockington and punter Geoff Price.
2. 2016: Sweet ‘16
Impact: After the 4-8 debacle during its freshman season in 2016, this group made profound contributions to a 43-8 run the past four years, although it didn’t have to carry the team as much as the top group.
Balance/Star Power: The starters from this class were well spread out and include quarterback Ian Book, running back Tony Jones Jr., receivers Chase Claypool and Javon McKinley and offensive linemen Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kramer.
The defense had/has five prominent ends — Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem Daelin Hayes, Ade Ogundeji and Jamir Jones — that were all needed, plus safeties/captains Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman (via the Naval Academy after his freshman year) and cornerbacks Troy Pride Jr., and Julian Love, a consensus All-American who turned pro after his junior campaign.
Depth: The two missing elements in this class were tight end and linebacker, but few classes were better balanced.
3. 1999: Defense System
Impact: A powerful defensive haul that led Notre Dame’s surprising 8-0 start in 2002 when they were seniors, but also helped the Irish to a BCS bid (Fiesta) in 2000 with a 9-2 regular season.
Balance/Star Power: The headliner actually was a walk-on, consensus All-America cornerback Shane Walton who starred on the soccer team as a 1998 freshman before trying his hand at football the next season.
Also in this class were two future pro safeties, Gerome Sapp and Glenn Earl, a second-round linebacker in Courtney Watson and stout linemen Cedric Hilliard and Darrell Campbell.
The offense was led by first-round pick Jeff Faine at center, with tackles Jim Molinaro and Brennan Curtin flanking him, while second-round pick Julius Jones, although ineligible in 2002, was a game-breaking back/return man.
Depth: Tight end Gary Godsey also helped at quarterback during Notre Dame’s 2000 BCS season. For good measure, special teams included major contributors Nicholas Setta at kicker and Joey Hildbold at punter.
4. 2009: Quality, Not Quantity
Impact: This 18-man class was not a top-15 haul, and not even top 20 by some services. Head coach Charlie Weis’ 2006-08 recruiting classes all were Top 10, with the 2008 group ranked No. 2.
But the leadership, chemistry and production from this class were superb while leading Notre Dame to the BCS Championship game after a 12-0 regular season and No. 1 ranking.
Balance/Star Power: There wasn’t a better defense-offense game-changing combination than Walter Camp Award winner and Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te’o at linebacker and Mackey Award winner and first-round pick Tyler Eifert at tight end.
Tackle Zack Martin and guard Chris Watt on the left side of the offensive line were excellent, while running backs Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood combined for 1,659 yards rushing, with Riddick adding 36 catches, in 2012. Robby Toma quietly chipped in with 24 catches that season.
Depth: Safety Zeke Motta was named the Irish Defensive MVP with his traffic control on the back end, and the linebacker duo of Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese combined for 114 stops on the No. 1 defense at the end of the regular season.
Ben Turk provided some good work as a punter and holder.
5. 1998: Pro-ficient Players
Impact: Some helped a 9-1 start in 1998, most all did during the 9-2 regular season in 2002, and several did during the 10-2 regular season in 2002.
Balance/Star Power: There were a dozen pros here. The defense featured second-round lineman Anthony Weaver plus underrated Ryan Roberts, and linebackers Rocky Boiman and Tyreo Harrison.
The offense was replete with NFL talent: receivers David Givens, Arnaz Battle and Javin Hunter, running backs Tony Fisher and Tom Lopienski, tight end John Owens, and linemen Jordan Black and Sean Mahan.
Honorable Mention 1995: Gathered No Moss
On signing day 1995, Notre Dame was No. 1 again on the recruiting charts, but there was a catch — or one who wouldn’t catch, as it turned out.
Two of the original 25 commitments from Signing Day — wide receiver Randy Moss, whom head coach Lou Holtz said was the most exciting player he had ever seen on tape, and tailback James Jackson, a speedster from Florida — would later not be admitted into Notre Dame.
Nevertheless, prospects such as USA Today Defensive Player of the Year Kory Minor, all-time leading rusher Autry Denson (who originally started out at cornerback), offensive lineman Mike Rosenthal and punter Hunter Smith made impacts as freshmen, and more than a dozen athletes from this group became two-year starters, if not more.
This included quarterback Jarious Jackson, offensive linemen Jerry Wisne and Tim Ridder, wideout Bobby Brown, linebackers Lamont Bryant, Bobbie Howard (Moss’ teammate in high school) and Jimmy Friday, and safeties A’Jani Sanders and Benny Guilbeaux, all of whom helped lead a 9-1 start as seniors in 1998.
This class didn’t possess supreme talent that left the NFL salivating — Wisne was the top pick at No. 143 overall in the fifth round — but it was laden with productive major college players.
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