Notre Dame Football: New Class Ensures Irish Can Be Playoff Contenders

Matt Smith@MattSmithCFBCorrespondent IIIFebruary 6, 2014

Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly talks about recruits during football signing day at Notre Dame Feb. 5, 2014 in South Bend, Ind.  (AP Photo/Joe Raymond)
Joe Raymond/Associated Press

Notre Dame’s 2014 signing class hasn’t received a significant amount of accoladesnot in a year when Alabama may have just landed the best class ever.

Of course, landing one of the big fish in Californiaathlete John "Juju" Smith or wide receiver Michiah Quick, who signed with USC and Oklahoma, respectivelywould have generated some buzz, but that didn’t happen.

According to, the Irish closed the recruiting cycle with 23 signees. Most important for Notre Dame, however, is the makeup of the signing class.

You can’t build a house without a foundation. The football equivalent of a foundation is found on the offensive and defensive lines.

Charlie Weis had plenty of bells and whistles during his five-year run in charge of the Irish from 2005-2009, but they collapsed on top of a weak foundation. The foundation at Notre Dame under Brian Kelly is the strongest it’s been since the Lou Holtz era.

Weis didn’t fail at Notre Dame because he can’t run an offense. He failed because he didn’t grasp the fundamental differences between pro and college football. Sure, flashing those three New England Patriots Super Bowl rings helped land such skill position stars as Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate and Michael Floyd. The trio scored plenty of points in South Bend, but didn’t win many games.

Now entering his fifth season with the program, Kelly has stuck to an inside-out recruiting philosophy.

He inherited a defensive line that was insufficient for a national power. Within two years, Sheldon Day, Aaron Lynch, Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt all had signed with Notre Dame. Eddie Vanderdoes had a brief stint as a Notre Dame signee before transferring to UCLA and having a productive freshman season.

There is no 12-0 2012 season, or probably even any BCS bowl, without the play of the defensive line.

Next, Kelly moved on to the offensive line. No team in the country signed a better two-year haul of offensive linemen than the Irish did in 2013 and 2014.

There will be a transition year while grooming replacements for Zack Martin and Chris Watt, but by 2015, the Notre Dame offensive line should again be one of the best in college footballeven if a couple of the signees don’t pan out.

Sophomore Steve Elmer, part of Notre Dame's 2013 offensive line signing class, should help anchor one of college football's best lines in the coming seasons.
Sophomore Steve Elmer, part of Notre Dame's 2013 offensive line signing class, should help anchor one of college football's best lines in the coming seasons.JOE RAYMOND/Associated Press

If you’re going to criticize Kelly’s tenure, you have to start with those types of bells and whistles that helped get Weis in the news on national signing day.

The performance of skill position players under Kelly has left plenty to be desired. There is a variety of reasons for this lack of productionsome of which are out of Kelly’s controlbut the bottom line is Notre Dame’s offense has been stuck in neutral for most of Kelly’s four seasons.

So, then, how did the Irish reach the BCS National Championship Game in 2012? That goes back to the foundation.

The Irish offense was one of the worst ever for a national championship game participant. Nevertheless, an efficient running game and impenetrable defenseuntil it faced Alabamaallowed the Irish to remain perfect all the way to Miami.

Tying this back to Wednesday’s national signing day, with a combined 15 offensive line and defensive front seven signees, Notre Dame is hoping to reinforce its foundation.

Even without an offense that puts up 40 points per game, that can be enough to reach the top of college football with a couple of breaks. That’s been proven. A flashy quarterback and wide receiver group, combined with a weak foundation, have only been enough for Notre Dame to reach a minor bowl game.

Wednesday’s signees don't form a class full of future NFL All-Pros. At Notre Dame, an academically rigorous, faith-based university located in a cold and relatively unexciting part of the country, those classes aren’t going to happen in this era.

Despite building his credibility with exciting offenses at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, Kelly understands those inherent limitations at Notre Dame. He’s not bringing in six 5-star players on an annual basis like Alabama does.

However, Notre Dame has more than enough appeal to acquire top-10 classes. It has done that with consistency. So did Weis, but his “star-studded” classes couldn’t save his job. Kelly’s have gotten him a contract extension.

Notre Dame may not be a playoff participant in the near future, but Kelly’s plan has put the Irish in a position to compete for that elusive national title, as it did just two years ago despite a team with obvious flaws.

If you need a house built, call Brian Kelly. Your house may not win any Christmas light contests, but unlike Weis’, it won’t collapse.