With just over three weeks until signing day, the 2014 recruiting cycle is coming down the home stretch. After months of evaluating, targeting and recruiting prospects, the Notre Dame coaching staff needs to hone in on one more position group to complete its mission: defensive tackle.
The position is the last hole to fill on an Irish roster that Brian Kelly and his staff have rebuilt. And while Louis Nix's dominant play has hid deficiencies on the interior of the defensive line, his departure—combined with a run of bad luck—has put the Irish in a position where they need to find another defensive tackle before they wrap up this recruiting cycle.
With their current efforts already viewed as the No. 7 recruiting class in the country according to 247Sports.com, finding another body at the point of attack could turn this into a top-five class.
The Irish thought they had Nix's replacement when they added Eddie Vanderdoes to their 2013 class. But the 5-star prospect wanted out of his letter-of-intent almost from the instant he signed it, finally winning a controversial appeal to play immediately at UCLA, a school that was closer to his ailing grandmother.
This year, the Irish staff suffered similar bad luck, when defensive tackle prospect Matt Dickerson also decided to back away from a Notre Dame commitment to go to UCLA. Dickerson's father was diagnosed with prostate cancer recently, making it difficult for the 6'5", 275-pound prospect to leave the state.
Vanderdoes and Dickerson looked like building blocks for future rosters. While Brooklyn 4-star prospect Jay Hayes is still solid, building some numbers on the interior of the defense will be key as the Irish move ahead in the post-Nix (and post-Stephon Tuitt) era.
Jarron Jones' solid play down the stretch give the Irish hope that he can be part of the solution at nose tackle. Combined with Tony Springmann, who sat out this year after tearing his ACL and battling through an infection, the Irish seem to be two deep at the position. But behind those two, the choices are practically nonexistent.
As the Irish staff still try to recover from the shock of Dickerson's departure, hitting the road these final weeks to find some additional linemen will be critical, especially as these recruits transition to new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's system.
Let's take a look at a few names the Irish coaching staff will be chasing:
6'0" 301, 4-Star
The Army All-American stepped away from his Texas commitment last week and now has to choose from among Oregon, LSU and Notre Dame for his final official visit, according to Rivals.com. Lealaimatafao is a stout, powerful 0-technique nose guard who could anchor a three-man front.
His departure from Texas shouldn't be all that surprising. Even while committed to Mack Brown's Longhorns he took multiple official visits. If Lealaimatafao is willing to check out South Bend, the Irish could have a real shot at a key late addition.
6'2" 300, 4-Star
Sawyers has been committed to Vanderbilt since July, but the departure of head coach James Franklin to Penn State has forced him to open up his options. Those now include Notre Dame, according to 247sports.com, with an offer catching Sawyers' attention.
The Irish aren't the only ones looking to take advantage of the coaching change, as Texas, South Carolina, Miami, Ole Miss and Tennessee are chasing as well. Sawyers has heard from Notre Dame defensive line coach Mike Elston, and Elston and rest of the staff will work to get the prospect committed to the program.
6'3" 300, 3-Star
Griffin doesn't have an offer from the Irish staff yet, but that could change if he takes an official visit to South Bend. There's been a surge in Griffin's recruitment from programs as far away as Mississippi State, as his senior tape and performance at the Semper-Fi All-American Bowl brought some additional attention to the Washington native.
According to 247sports.com, the Irish staff reached back out to Griffin but still seem to be taking its time with the one-time Washington State commit.
6'3" 295, 3-Star
The Irish are jumping in late with Cage, a Cincinnati product, who is taking a close look at Michigan State, Cincinnati and Louisville. A defensive lineman who's been on the Irish radar before, Cage seems to be back in favor with the Irish staff after former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco left for UConn.
Cage revealed to Rivals.com that he was targeted by the Irish staff, but "their defensive coordinator didn't like me so they stopped" recruiting him. Getting a visit out of Cage would be the next step. He's got official visits to Michigan State and Missouri set for later this month, so the Irish will need to pounce quickly.
6'4" 285, 5-Star
Notre Dame hasn't given up on Thomas Holley, one of their earliest defensive tackle targets. And it appears that the Irish could have an in if new Penn State coach James Franklin decides not to retain longtime defensive line coach Larry Johnson. Both Holley and his mother told the Daily News that if Johnson is out, Holley is starting his commitment process from scratch.
Holley has told the Irish staff essentially the same thing, and they feel good if Johnson is no longer with Penn State. Holley is more interested in Notre Dame than when Bob Diaco was in charge of his recruitment. The former Irish defensive coordinator saw Holley as a 0-technique run-stuffer, something that didn't appeal to the 5-star prospect.
If Johnson sticks around, so will Holley. But if Johnson's out, all bets are off.
6'5" 275, 3-Star
Don't expect the Irish to give up on Dickerson. After all, the Irish stuck with him through back surgery, an injury that kept him off the field for his entire senior season. They'll continue to believe they're the best option for Dickerson, even if the pull of staying closer to home to be near his father brought UCLA into the equation.
That the Bruins worked their way in with the longtime Irish commit just before the quiet period wasn't a surprise. That UCLA defensive line coach Angus McClure was able to capitalize on another family illness to take a recruit off Notre Dame's board hasn't gone unnoticed either.
Dickerson hasn't taken his official visit to Notre Dame. If the Irish could get him to South Bend in the next few weeks, it could be another late twist in a recruitment that just turned very interesting.