Looking at Notre Dame's 2014 recruiting class, you'd have hardly remembered all the things that went wrong during the 2013 season. As Brian Kelly took the podium to announce the 23 names that signed letters of intent on Wednesday, so much from the last 12 rocky months now feels like water under the bridge.
That the Irish could sign a class 247Sports.com sees as a top 10 group (one of only three schools outside the SEC to ink one) is a credit to Brian Kelly and the flexibility his staff showed. No other program in that elite group lost both its coordinators—Chuck Martin taking over the Miami (Ohio) program and Bob Diaco taking over at UConn.
Kelly also needed to reevaluate his team's needs on the fly, with George Atkinson, Troy Niklas and Stephon Tuitt all deciding to leave for the NFL after just three seasons. A recruiting board that looked locked got a big shake again in mid-January.
Short two coordinators and missing a few cornerstone pieces for the 2014 roster, Kelly and his staff didn't miss a beat—building on a core group of commitments pledged since the summer.
Even after losing four games just a season after playing for the BCS Championship, Kelly was recommitted to finding the right type of recruit for Notre Dame—doubling down on the very best student-athletes in the country.
|3. Ohio State||23|
|4. Florida State||29|
|5. Texas A&M||21|
|10. Notre Dame||23|
"When we were having this opportunity to recruit a young man, they had to have a passion for wanting to get a degree from Notre Dame and winning a National Championship," Kelly explained.
"If they want to come here just to hang their hat to play football and go to the NFL, we passed on some pretty good players, because I don't want guys to come here and not finish their degree. I want guys to come to Notre Dame, get their degree, help us win a national championship, and be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. That's what I want, if that's what they want," Kelly said.
The work Kelly and his staff did down the stretch is a big reason why experts see the class as one of the best in the country. While Notre Dame didn't land everyone they wanted—coming up just short with elite prospects Courtney Garnett, Terrence Alexander, John Smith and Michiah Quick on signing day—they closed strong, fighting against top programs to fill their needs.
That meant doing strong work in Texas, where all three of their signees had offers from Charlie Strong and the Longhorns. Holding on to long time commits Nick Watkins and Grant Blankenship wasn't easy, nor was keeping a pledge from recent recruit Kolin Hill. Kelly credited cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks for the work he did in Texas, a territory he's spent years developing.
"Kerry has been recruiting the state of Texas for a long time before he got to Notre Dame, so Kerry has had a great network down there for a period of time, and we've been digging hard down there," Kelly said.
"Are we going to get three kids from Texas every year that get offered by Texas? That's going to be tough sledding. But there are going to be years that I think we're going to be able to do well in Texas, and I think it's a great area for us."
Perhaps just as important as holding on to recruits was finding and identifying new ones late in the process. For almost a year, Notre Dame held the pledge of defensive lineman Matt Dickerson, with the Irish sticking by Dickerson even after a serious back injury. But when Dickerson's father found out he had prostate cancer, he decided to stay closer to home at UCLA, forcing the Irish to reevaluate their defensive line recruiting.
The Irish closed with a flurry, getting a commitment from one-time Rutgers pledge Pete Mokwuah and then a signing day surprise when Daniel Cage chose the Irish. Those two big bodies, joined by Jay Hayes on the inside, strengthen a position that's an unknown without Louis Nix.
In the end, the 2014 class will have to prove on the field that its worth the accolades currently being heaped on it. But after a chaotic year, Kelly and the rebuilt Irish staff deserve all the praise in the world for delivering a great class.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained first hand. Follow @KeithArnold on Twitter.