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Notre Dame Football: Top 10 Recruiting Classes of All Time

Matt MattareCorrespondent IIIJanuary 16, 2017

Notre Dame Football: Top Ten Recruiting Classes Of All Time

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    Brian Kelly has come out this recruiting season with guns blazing, landing a consensus top 10 class loaded with elite prospects along both sides of the ball. The recent stretch of success where three five-star prospects along the defensive line pledged their commitments to the Irish has led fans to break out the hyperbole and start talking about how this may be the greatest class in Notre Dame history.

    Only time will tell how great this class turns out to be, but today we'll examine the ten classes they'll be measured against when their time on campus is complete. If it finds a way to crack this list there's a good chance Notre Dame will be back in the upper echelon of college football's elite.

10: Class Of 1999

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    Headliners: Julius Jones, Gerome Sapp

    Four-Year Record: 29-19

    Crowning Achievement at ND: Earned berth in 2000 Fiesta Bowl…10-win season in 2002

    Post-ND Achievements: One First Rounder (Faine)…One Second Rounder (Jones)

    Bob Davie’s best recruiting effort ironically helped set up Ty Willingham’s year of success in 2002. The backbone of that “Return to Glory” defense was entrenched within the class of 1999. Linebacker Courtney Watson, safeties Gerome Sapp and Glenn Earl, and defensive linemen Cedric Hilliard and Darrell Campbell were all starters that arrived on campus that offseason. Perhaps the most shocking member of the class was Sapp, a top ten national prospect that the Irish managed to lure out of Texas.

    On the offensive side of the ball Julius Jones brought a game-breaking home run threat at running back Notre Dame had lacked since Reggie Brooks graduated. He would go on to break the school single game rushing record in his final season against Pitt before being drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the second round of the NFL Draft.

    Helping to pave the way for him were center Jeff Faine and fellow offensive lineman Brennan Curtin. Faine would go on to become a three year starter and eventually a first round draft pick.

    This class even had two elite specialists! Kicker Nick Setta turned out to be a one-man offensive powerhouse in 2002 while Joey Hildbold provided consistent punting for four straight seasons—something Notre Dame fans have pined for (and not received) in quite some time.

    The fruits of Davie’s labor ultimately laid the foundation for a ten win season and one of the best defenses in recent Irish history. The only problem was he wasn’t around to see the harvest.

9: Class Of 1995

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Headliners: Kory Minor, Autry Denson

    Four-Year Record: 33-15

    Crowning College Achievement: 9-3 season in 1998

    Post-College Achievements: Rosenthal went on to an 8-year career in the NFL

    The Class of 1994 was Holtz’s weakest recruiting effort at Notre Dame when he failed to land a single Parade or USA Today All-American. He answered that hiccup with a monster class in 1995 where he landed a whopping 11 members of the combined aforementioned All-American teams—and that doesn’t include the verbal commits he couldn’t get by admissions like Randy Moss and James Jackson.

    The biggest catch in this class was USA Today Defensive Player of the Year Kory Minor. His mother famously gave the following quote when he told her that he didn’t want to go to Notre Dame on his visit because the weather in South Bend was too cold:

    “Kory, do you see that man walking over there? Do you see that young lady over there? Do you see those students over there? They can handle this weather and so can you. I can buy you a coat; I can’t buy you a Notre Dame education. You WILL tell Coach Holtz you’re coming to Notre Dame.”

    In the crew that accompanied him to campus was a trio of All-American linemen (Mike Rosenthal, Jerry Wisne, Tim Ridder) and running back Autry Denson. By the time Denson left school he’d broken one of Notre Dame’s most revered records: most all-time rushing yards.

    Unfortunately this class’ accolades in the press didn’t lead to an overly success tenure on the field. Lou Holtz left town after the 1996 season and in the next two seasons the Irish went to two mid-to-lower level bowls before bottoming out at 5-7 in ’99.

    Many would argue that Bob Davie was the reason that this highly touted group underachieved, but it must be noted that many of the players that were so highly regarded turned out to be overrated.

    In any case, this group sneaks on the list partially for the fanfare it received when it was signed and partially because they deserve the benefit of the doubt (after all, Davie was their coach when they were upperclassmen).

8: Class Of 1988

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    Headliners: Rocket Ismail, Rodney Culver

    Four-Year Record: 43-7

    Crowning College Achievement: 1988 National Championship…National Runner-up in 1989…Three major bowl victories (’89 Fiesta, ’90 Orange, ’92 Sugar)

    Post-College Achievements: One First Rounder (Derek Brown)…Ismail signed the largest contract in North American football history out of college ($18.2 million over four years).

    The 1988 class didn’t have a slew of superstar performers that other recruiting hauls had, but it had one man that more than made up for it: The Rocket.

    Rocket Ismail burst onto the scene as a freshman, helping Notre Dame secure its 11th national championship. His electrifying speed dazzled fans and earned him two All-American honors as well as second place in the Heisman voting behind Ty Detmer in 1990.

    Other major contributors included linebacker Devon McDonald, running back Rodney Culver, tight end Derek Brown, and cornerback Rod Smith. All spent time in the NFL and played large roles in notching the most wins over a four-year period in school history.

7: Class Of 1989

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    Headliners: Rick Mirer, Demetrius Dubose

    Four-Year Record: 41-8

    Crowning Achievement at ND: Three Major Bowl Victories (’89 Orange, ’91 Sugar, ’92 Cotton)

    Post-ND Achievements: Two First Rounders (Mirer, Smith)…Two Second Rounders (Dubose, Brooks)

    Lou Holtz used the momentum from the 1988 National Championship to help land one of the nation’s highest rated classes the following spring. The gem that landed on campus in August was the best quarterback in the country, Rick Mirer. Despite the fact that he was a dropback passer that was sought after by almost every major school, Mirer chose Notre Dame’s option attack for the education and the chance to chase championships.

    After playing understudy to Tony Rice during the ’89 campaign, Mirer quickly emerged as a leader and seized the starting position for his last three years on campus. After taking Notre Dame to three major bowls as starter and setting a slew of passing records, he moved on to the NFL and was picked #2 in the 1993 Draft. 

    His battery mate in the backfield was classmate Reggie Brooks, brother of former Irish running back Tony Brooks. He wasn’t nearly as highly touted as Tony, but Reggie handed in one of the most spectacular seasons in Notre Dame history his senior year piling up 1,372 yards at a staggering 8.0 yard per carry. He would join Mirer in the NFL, getting swooped up by the Washington Redskins in the second round. Jerome Bettis, Mirer, and Brooks actually ended up 1-2-3 in rookie of the year voting their first year in the league, the only time three players from the same school ever swept the top three slots.

    On the opposite side of the ball Demetrius Dubose and Junior Bryant helped anchor a defense that shut down Steve Spurrier’s high-flying attack in the Sugar Bowl after the ’91 season. After productive careers in South Bend they both went on to log substantial time in the NFL.

    This class was essential to Holtz continuing the momentum he’d built in his first three years in South Bend and provided key building blocks to Notre Dame piecing together a six year run where they were arguably the best program in college football. 

6: Class Of 2003

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Headliners: Brady Quinn, Victor Abiamiri

    Four-Year Record: 30-19

    Crowning Achievement at ND: Earned back-to-back berths in BCS Bowls (’05 Fiesta, ’06 Sugar)

    Post-ND Achievements: One First Round Pick (Quinn)…Two Second Rounders (Abiamiri, Laws)

    This was Ty Willingham’s only recruiting effort that would land in the Top 100 All-Time Recruiting Classes at Notre Dame. Riding the wave from a successful 2002 campaign he reeled in elite prospects from coast-to-coast and the Irish surged to one of the highest rated classes in the country.

    The jewel of the class was defensive end Victor Abiamiri. A five-star prospect by every recruiting outlet, he would go on to become a solid two-year starter for the Irish before being drafted in the second round in the NFL Draft. Joining him along the line was Trevor Laws. In his redshirt season of 2007 he was about the only bright spot for arguably the worst year in school history. He notched the best statistical season for a Notre Dame defensive linemen since Ross Browner, registering 112 tackles.

    Also on the defensive side of the ball in the class of ’03 was the safety tandem of Chinedum Ndukwe and Tom Zbikowski. Both had a slew of highlight reel plays in the secondary and the return game and have been contributors for their respective teams in the NFL.

    While Abiamiri was the big name coming to campus, the biggest name at the end of four years was undoubtedly quarterback Brady Quinn. A four-year starter, Quinn rewrote the Irish passing record books under the guidance of Charlie Weis. He finished in the top four of the Heisman voting during his junior and senior seasons while engineering back-to-back BCS berths.

    Fellow classmate Jeff Samardzija was on the receiving end of 27 of Quinn’s record 95 touchdown passes. The receiver did plenty of his own rewriting of the Irish record books in two prolific seasons under Weis.

    While this class was the foundation for back-to-back major bowl berths it was not a harbinger of prolonged success. The bottom fell out the year after most of this class graduated and the result was the worst three-year stretch in school history. The Class of 2003 didn’t permanently launch Notre Dame back into the national championship landscape, but the steep fall the followed highlights just how impactful and strong the class really was.

5: Class Of 1987

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    Headliners: Chris Zorich, Ricky Watters

    Four-Year Record: 41-8

    Crowning Achievement at ND: 1988 National Championship

    Post-ND Achievements: One First rounder (Lyght), Two Second Rounders (Watters, Zorich)

    When Lou Holtz was recruiting after his first season at Notre Dame he approached prospects with this simple line:

    “Son, you have two options: you can join me and take part in Notre Dame’s return to glory or you can watch it on television.”

    Dr. Lou’s pitch landed a well-rounded group blended with hard-nosed grapplers and talented skill players. On defense, the duo of nose tackle Chris Zorich and linebacker Michael Stonebreaker stepped in as major contributors as sophomores on the 1988 national championship squad. Both helped transform on to earn All-American status by their senior seasons.

    On offense the running back duo of Ricky Watters and Tony Brooks helped ignite the Irish offense, filling the void left by Heisman Winner Tim Brown. Watters led the national championship team in receptions and the next season was the second leading rusher behind Tony Rice as he shuttled between receiver and running back.

    This class was the first clear indication that Notre Dame was going to be a force on the national recruiting scene under Lou Holtz and set the stage for a five-year stretch of highly acclaimed hauls. The result was a 23-game win streak, a national championship, and the removal of all doubt that Notre Dame could be a power once again. 

4: Class Of 1973

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    Headliners: Ross Browner, Luther Bradley

    Four-Year Record: 38-8*

    Crowning College Achievement: National Championship in ’73 and ‘77*

    Post-College Achievements: One First Rounder (Browner)

    *= Browner and Bradley were among five players who played a fifth year in 1977, the year they won the national championship.

    In 1972 the NCAA ruled that freshman were eligible to compete in D-I college football. Ara Parseghian seized that opportunity shortly thereafter and corralled a slew of instant impact players on the defensive side of the ball that would help push his Fighting Irish over the top and earn his second national championship.

    The keystone of the class was defensive end Ross Browner, who made his presence felt instantly as a freshman. He actually scored the first points of the 1973 season as a freshman when he blocked a punt that went through the back of the endzone for an Irish safety. By the time he left South Bend he’d pieced together one of the most productive and dominant careers in Irish history, racking up 340 tackles—including 77 tackles for loss—and the Outland and Lombardi Awards en route to being selected in the first round of the 1978 NFL Draft.

    Defensive back Luther Bradley went on to set the Notre Dame record for interceptions in a career with 17. Defensive end Willie Fry was a standout contributor as well. When the trio of Bradley, Browner, and Fry wrapped up their careers they had won a pair of national championships, the only group of players to do it since Frank Leahy left town. 

3: Class Of 1963

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    Headliners: Alan Page, Kevin Hardy

    Three-Year Record: 25-3-1*

    Crowning Achievement at ND: 1966 National Championship

    Post-ND Achievements: One NFL Hall of Famer (Page), Four First Rounders (Page, Hardy, Regner, Seiler)

    * = Were not eligible to play as freshman in ‘63

    The groundwork for Ara Parseghian ultimate “return to glory” in 1966 was actually laid the year before he arrived when Hugh Devore lured four stellar linemen to campus: Alan Page (DL), Kevin Hardy (DL), Tom Regner (OL), and Tom Seiler (OL).

    The Class of ’66 burst onto the scene during Parseghian’s opening campaign in ‘64, the first year they were eligible. They contributed greatly to Notre Dame’s record turnaround from 2-7 in ‘63 to 9-1 in ‘64. Under Ara’s guidance they breathed life into a sleeping giant and immediately reestablished Notre Dame’s presence on the national stage.

    Two years later Page, Hardy, and fellow classmate Jim Lynch anchored a dominant defense that allowed only 38 points the entire 1966 season. Meanwhile on the other side of the ball, Regner and Seiler made life a easier for sophomore quarterback Terry Hanratty and helped pave the way to a consensus national championship.

    The 2011 recruiting class certainly has an impressive group of offensive and defensive linemen committed, but they have a lot to live up to if they are going to surpass the success and sheer dominance of the ’63 group.

2: Class Of 1990

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    Headliners: Bryant Young, Jerome Bettis

    Four-Year Record: 40-8-1

    Crowning College Achievement: 11-1 season and #2 final ranking in 1993

    Post-College Achievements: Five First Rounder (Bettis, Bryant, Taylor, Burris, and Carter)…One Future NFL Hall of Famer (Bettis)

    Lou Holtz’s greatest recruiting class was chock full of superstars on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Kevin McDougal was the sparkplug and leader of the ’93 squad that controversially finished runner-up to Florida State in the polls. His main target was big-play wide receiver Lake Dawson, who averaged almost 18 yards per catch over the course of his career.

    The most well-known member of this class is without a doubt “The Bus, ” Jerome Bettis. As a fullback in Holtz’s option attack he punished the middle of defenses to the tune of 5.6 yards per carry. His performance in the ’92 Sugar Bowl where he decimated Steve Spurrier trash talking Florida Gators down the stretch has a special place in Irish lore. Clearing the way for Bettis was 1993 Lombardi Award winner and All-American offensive tackle Aaron Taylor, one of the best Irish linemen ever, and long-time NFL starter center Tim Ruddy.

    On the defensive side of the ball the squad had three future first round picks: defensive tackle Bryant Young and defensive backs Jeff Burris and Tom Carter.

    Top to bottom this was a loaded class that was full of superstars (Bettis, Young, Burris) and valuable role players alike. When all was said and done, 14 of its 21 players landed in the NFL. They never brought home a national title, but many consider the ’92 squad to be the most talented Irish team in the last 50 years to fall short of the championship and the ’93 outfit was essentially robbed of their rightful title.

    What they won’t be robbed of though is their rightful title as the best Notre Dame recruiting class of the last 60 years.

1: Class Of 1946

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    Headliners: Leon Hart, Jim Martin

    Four-Year Record: 36-0-2

    Crowning College Achievement: What, 36-0-2 isn’t achievement enough? Included in those 36 wins were three national championships (’46, ’47, ’49)

    Post-College Achievements: #1 overall pick of the NFL Draft (Hart)

    This wasn’t just the best class in Notre Dame history, but by just about any metric used it’s the greatest class in the history of all college football. Four years, zero losses. Defensive end Leon Hart won the Heisman Trophy in 1949, which earned him the distinction of being one of only two linemen to ever win the award. 

    If you’re talking about production on the field in college then this class will always be the gold standard. There’s only one chance to top it: go undefeated and untied for all four years. Good luck with that…

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