When Brian Kelly inked the 2011 recruiting class, he settled a very large unanswered question. In landing a top-10 class, he quieted the skeptics who wondered if a coach from Grand Valley, Central Michigan, and Cincinnati was ready to compete on the national stage for elite recruits.
But as that recruiting class enters its senior season, it's time for that group to answer some questions as well. A season removed from playing for the national title, can it bring the Irish back to national prominence?
Right now, the sum total is certainly less than the individual parts. Stephon Tuitt and Troy Niklas both were second-round draft picks, but they departed South Bend after only scratching the surface on their ability. George Atkinson departed early as well, signing as an undrafted free agent rather than returning for his senior season.
Five-star prospect Aaron Lynch became the ultimate "what could have been" prospect, leaving Notre Dame the spring before his sophomore season. He put together one unimpressive season at South Florida before leaving for the NFL, plummeting to the the 150th pick of the draft, about 140 spots lower than many expected after seeing his freshman All-American campaign in South Bend.
But even without some of the headliners, there's still time for this group to make its push to greatness, before the Irish coaching staff has to make tough decisions on fifth-year seniors. Let's take a look at the 23-man class that Notre Dame signed in February 2011.
4-Star Wide Receiver
Signed as a multi-positional athlete, Kelly surprised many when he pegged Atkinson as a running back and not a wide receiver. With a rare blend of size and speed, Atkinson contributed immediately on special teams, scoring two kickoff return touchdowns in his freshman season.
While Atkinson's yards per carry were always impressive, he was hardly a natural running back. He didn't develop much better as a pass-catcher, making him a tough fit in the Irish offense, even after Kelly gave him multiple chances to win the starting running back job.
A late-season suspension for the Pinstripe Bowl ended Atkinson's career in South Bend with a whisper. He declared early for the draft yet wasn't selected, electing to sign with the Oakland Raiders, the organization where his father played and currently serves on the radio broadcast team.
While many thought Atkinson's offer was part of a package offer, the Irish had a desperate need at cornerback, and Atkinson brought ready-made speed and size to the position, something defensive coordinator Bob Diaco coveted.
Atkinson saw time immediately in the secondary, with the depth chart featuring just Robert Blanton and Gary Gray as starters and early departures from E.J. Banks and Spencer Boyd. While he's one of the fastest college football players in the country (Atkinson ran a 10.39 at the Big East outdoor track meet in 2012), he's struggled with the athletic demands of the position.
Atkinson will play out his eligibility this season, likely serving on special teams and as a reserve defensive back. He cross-trained as a wide receiver at times last season.
Brindza has lived up to the expectations Brian Kelly bestowed on him when on Signing Day he called Brindza "the most talented kicker in the country." The Irish staff believed then he had the ability to not just handled placekicking and kickoffs but eventually punting duties, and Brindza did that in 2013.
In his final season in South Bend, Brindza should be an awards candidate, a nice sign that the coaching staff nailed their projection, no easy task when recruiting a high school specialist.
Brown is another veteran cornerback who's been passed up by younger depth in the Irish secondary. Kelly and his staff hoped Brown was a sleeper prospect, coming out of a strong prep program in the Dallas area.
While he redshirted as a freshman, Brown will need to show some value to the Irish secondary if he's going to come back for a fifth year. With Brian VanGorder bringing in a new system that relies on man coverage, that could help the long (6'0.5") defender who was a high school sprinter.
3-Star Defensive End
Notre Dame's first commitment to the class, Carrico came from pipeline school Dublin Coffman and was one of the first "big-bodied" defensive ends the Irish staff targeted for their 3-4. There were questions as to whether he'd be able to stay at the position, and he transitioned to offensive line before an injury ended his career.
Carrico is finishing his degree at Notre Dame, but he's no longer a part of the football team.
4-Star Outside Linebacker
Councell was the prototype "Dog" linebacker for Kelly and Diaco's system, and while the North Carolina native redshirted his freshman season, he turned over the starting job to Danny Spond after beginning the 2012 season in the lineup.
Councell shared time with Jaylon Smith at the position in 2013 before tearing his ACL late in the season. Ahead of schedule, Councell will be ready for the fall, though his position in VanGorder's defense is still up in the air. He could help out at inside linebacker while also playing at the "Sam" outside linebacker position.
4-Star Wide Receiver
Daniels spent his freshman season watching, saving a year of eligibility, while Michael Floyd served as the team's primary receiver. After a promising, but injury-plagued, debut season in 2012, Daniels improved in 2013, even while he battled nagging ailments.
An academic suspension kept him out of Notre Dame for the spring semester. A university academic advisory board is expected to rubber-stamp his return in the next few days, allowing Daniels to return to campus...and the No. 1 receiver job. But Kelly expects to see a changed man when he returns for summer school.
Per CSNChicago.com's JJ Stankewitv, Kelly said:
He's immensely talented. He's got to have his foot on the pedal all the time. If he does, he's as good as anybody out there that I've coached. But there's only so many times you can go to the whip... Sooner or later you gotta do it. I think this hopefully is that time where he goes, I gotta be cognizant of the fact I got a lot riding on this, I gotta be that guy every single day.
One of the lowest-rated prospects in the Irish class, Farley was an intriguing athlete with a soccer background when Notre Dame's coaching staff plucked him from Charlotte. After spending his redshirt season as a wide receiver, Farley transitioned to safety in the spring and found himself on the field against Navy, beating out fifth-year senior Danny McCarthy.
Farley stepped into the starting lineup after Jamoris Slaughter went down early in 2012. While he struggled as a true deep field safety in 2013, Kelly and VanGorder transitioned the physical defensive back to cornerback, where he'll be matched up in the slot and work outside-in as a blitzer and run-stopper.
We've spent a few thousand words talking about what Golson means to this program, and after a very painful year away, he's back and ready to take over the offense. As a prospect, Golson was the first quarterback Kelly had a full recruiting cycle to pursue, and it's clear that he's the perfect prototype for the Irish offense.
While Golson's ability to steer the Irish to the BCS title game against Alabama served as a key datapoint, this season will likely be the one to determine if he's an elite college quarterback or just another good player. He'll have the team on his shoulders after being just another guy in the offensive huddle for much of his debut season.
3-Star Inside Linebacker
Grace was identified early by the Irish coaching staff as one of their top inside linebackers on their recruiting board. They were patient with him, letting Grace redshirt as he watched Manti Te'o anchor the interior of the defense.
Grace proved up to the task by taking over after Te'o left, relegating both Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese to part-time duty, while Grace stayed on the field. Just as he started to find his footing at the position, a serious leg break suffered against Arizona State threw his 2014 season into jeopardy.
Kelly expects to get an update from head trainer Rob Hunt on Grace's ability to begin working toward next season. But the injury could derail a player who was among the best at his position in the country.
3-Star Offensive Guard
The son of former Irish quarterback Terry Hanratty, many thought the offer to the lightly sought-after guard was a legacy obligation. But Hanratty proved that was not the case when he fought his way into the lineup last year, working with Steve Elmer to fill Christian Lombard's guard spot after the veteran went down with an injury.
It's going to be an uphill battle for Hanratty to be a starter on Harry Hiestand's stacked offensive line. But he'll be a valuable depth player and will likely stay around for a fifth season as a key reserve up front.
A knee injury early in camp as a freshman sidetracked Hardy for the better part of two seasons, pushing a promising recruit into a place where he was almost a forgotten man. But Hardy worked his way into the safety rotation last year as a junior, playing in 10 games and starting against both Pitt and BYU.
Hardy looks like a perfect fit for VanGorder's defense, a big hitter with a mean streak who can run with receivers. While he's playing behind Max Redfield and Austin Collinsworth, don't be surprised to see Hardy work his way into the rotation and stick around for a fifth year.
4-Star Offensive Tackle
A medical scare that could've been life-threatening has made many forget that Hegarty was one of the elite offensive line prospects in the country. And while the Irish staff immediately shifted Hegarty to the interior, while recruiting services saw him as a tackle, Hegarty showed his value after Nick Martin went down last season.
Hegarty can play center or both guard positions, making him a versatile piece of depth. Whether that's good enough to keep him around for a fifth year, Hegarty's a starting-caliber football player who overcame serious adversity to work his way back into the lineup.
3-Star Defensive End
It's hard to say how good Hounshell can be because he hasn't been healthy long enough to show it. Three shoulder surgeries have kept him off the field from the start of his career. But Hounshell contributed as a freshman, playing in seven games and working his way onto the field even surrounded by a stacked recruiting class.
If he can stay healthy, Hounshell will be a valuable piece of depth on a defensive line looking for contributors. He's got the bulk to play inside or out and will be needed at either position in VanGorder's multiple-front scheme.
4-Star Tight End
While Niklas stole the show, Koyack was the elite tight end prospect in this recruiting class. Close to garnering a 5-star rating, Koyack played immediately, but he only started making an impact late last season.
With Niklas gone, Koyack will be among Kelly's most trusted pass-catchers. He's got the size and athleticism NFL teams covet, but Koyack will need to leave behind the inconsistency he's shown in the past if he's going to play up to the standard set by Irish tight ends.
5-Star Defensive End
Lynch was a freshman All-American in 2011, leading the Irish in sacks and quarterback hits. But he quit the team in the middle of spring practice and moved home to Florida. He reappeared on the football field in 2013 over 40 pounds lighter, making only a mild impact before declaring for the NFL draft.
His selection by the San Francisco 49ers ended up getting USF strength coach Hans Straub to resign, after Straub torched Lynch on social media by saying: "Thought an organization with 5 Super Bowl titles would have a stricter draft criteria. Clearly, integrity & character are not a priority."
3-Star Offensive Guard
After seeing how quickly Zack Martin worked his way into the starting left tackle job, Kelly and the Irish staff pulled Nick Martin away from Kentucky after a fairly tough battle. Martin spent his freshman season redshirting and took over the starting-center job after Braxston Cave graduated.
Martin played well until injuring his knee late in the season. He's on track to return healthy in the fall, taking limited non-contact reps this fall. Expect Martin to be a three-year starter at center, a lock to stick around for a fifth year.
3-Star Running Back
McDaniel may not have been the most glamorous recruit, but he's been a key contributor for the Irish in his four seasons. After being forced to cross-train at cornerback after Tee Shepard departed from the program before ever taking a snap, McDaniel worked his way back into the running back depth chart and led the Irish in rushing in 2013.
While sophomores Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant are expected to beat out McDaniel for carries in 2014, don't expect the senior leader to go down without a fight. He'll be a key contributor both on and off the field in his final season in South Bend.
4-Star Defensive End
Niklas was a signing-day steal for the Irish, and the staff's excitement was a clear indication that they knew just how impressive the Southern California native was. Starting his career as an outside linebacker, Niklas turned into a valuable defender, forced to play along the defensive line as injuries piled up there as well as at the drop linebacker position.
But Niklas made the surprising move to tight end during spring drills after his freshman season, and he immediately contributed there as an in-line blocker, while Tyler Eifert played mostly split wide. Niklas did a nice job filling the void Eifert left behind in 2013, but he surprised many by leaving after his junior season.
The Arizona Cardinals selected him in the second round, with head coach Bruce Arians echoing Brian Kelly's sentiments that Niklas was only just scratching the surface of his ability.
"Probably had he gone back, he would have been a top 10 pick with that skill set,” Arians said in a post-draft press conference.
3-Star Defensive End
Rabasa has been one of many without a position in Bob Diaco's system, bouncing from defensive end to multiple linebacker spots. With Brian VanGorder's new scheme, Rabasa has the opportunity to make his senior season a good one, rushing the passer from the defensive end position.
It's hard to know if Rabasa will be able to fight his way onto the field. But that'll likely determine whether or not he's invited back for a fifth year.
3-Star Defensive End
Springmann suffered a major knee injury that cost him the 2013 season, a tough break for an Irish defensive line that was counting on him to provide depth. Springmann will likely shift inside in VanGorder's scheme, supplying some much-needed bulk to the front seven.
At 6'5.5", 296 pounds, Springmann has the size of a defensive tackle but the agility that made him an effective 3-4 defensive end. Expected to be healthy by summer workouts, Springmann will be one of the defenders who'll allow the Irish to remain versatile up front.
4-Star Defensive End
Tuitt played like an All-American in 2012, making 12 sacks as a sophomore. He didn't play up to that level in 2013, struggling to come back from a hernia injury that had him playing at over 330 pounds. That didn't keep Tuitt in school and the one-time lock of a first rounder slid into the second round where the Pittsburgh Steelers snatched him up.
If Tuitt returned, he would have been a consensus preseason All-American. And while his decision to leave early landed him in a perfect scheme for his talents, it also might have cost him millions.
5-Star Outside Linebacker
Williams enrolled early at Notre Dame, the blue-chip recruit picking Notre Dame after Diaco famously sat outside his house in the wee hours of the morning to land his commitment. But those expecting an instant impact from Williams are still waiting.
After struggling to see the field stuck behind Darius Fleming and Prince Shembo, Williams will now shift positions for his final season in South Bend, playing defensive end. That should let him use his natural abilities to rush the passer, instead of reading and reacting as an outside linebacker.
Williams absolutely looks the part of an All-American. But right now, he's just another 5-star recruit who hasn't played up to his star rating.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. All recruiting rankings are from 247Sports.
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