Things are indeed looking up for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Heard that before?
Well, I've said that before...
But as National Signing Day draws ever closer (February 3rd has been circled on my calendar for about three months), the Notre Dame football program appears to be headed in the right direction as Brian Kelly begins work on his second season in South Bend.
The Fighting Irish had an up-and-down year to say the least, but we won't re-visit the downs (student videographer Declan Sullivan's tragic death, a mind-numbing loss to Tulsa) or ups (win over hated rival USC, impressive bowl win over long-time rival Miami (FL)) here, but rather take a glimpse into Notre Dame's future.
The future is bright, and it all starts up front defensively.
Anyone who watched Auburn's BCS national championship game victory over the Oregon Ducks would recognize a key component to the Tigers' win: incredible front-seven defensive play—particularly the defensive line.
Nick Fairly (probable NFL top-five draft pick and possible NFL Pro Bowler) and mates were a menace to the Oregon Ducks' high-powered offense and lived in the Ducks' backfield.
Living in an opponents' backfield is a good way to play defense—but Notre Dame hasn't been doing that of late.
The reason is obvious: Notre Dame hasn't been getting electrifying defensive linemen to go along with their otherwise electrifying offensive standouts.
Sure, any Irish fan would love Brady Quinn, Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate, Michael Floyd, and Kyle Rudolph, but as good as they are/were in Notre Dame uniforms, they couldn't prevent opponents from scoring on them.
Notre Dame had commitments from Justin Trattou and Omar Hunter several years back (now both Florida Gators), but neither high-profile defensive lineman signed with the Irish on Signing Day, leaving coach Charlie Weis with top-ten classes built primarily on the offensive side of the ball.
We know offenses win games, but defenses win championships.
Of course, Weis' teams didn't even win many games, so he was promptly shipped back to the NFL.
A rejuvenated front-seven and defensive line could be just what the doctor ordered for Notre Dame to return to prominence in the college football world.
With this year's recruiting haul, the Irish are shaping up to be very tough in the front-seven defensively and hope to keep opponents out of the end zone, while still maintaining their own high-level production on offense.
Williams, who already has signed a letter-of-intent, is one of the head-liners for a recruiting class ranked No. 7 according to rivals.com.
At 6'6", 230 lbs., Williams possesses the incredible size-speed combination that has eluded Notre Dame defensive linemen for so many years.
His 4.7 forty-yard dash indicates Williams will be the perfect fit in Notre Dame's 3-4 defensive scheme, playing outside the tackles and rushing the quarterback at will.
Williams, the No. 16 overall prospect in the nation, came on strong at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl and deserves to be ranked as the No. 2 defensive end in the nation according to rivals.com.
He figures to see game action soon in his career in South Bend and even comes with another added bonus as his recruitment could open up newer pipe-lines in the New York City area, an area not often touched by Notre Dame coaches.
Tuitt's recruitment had more movement than a roller-coaster, but the No. 22 overall prospect finally ended the madness by committing to Notre Dame over in-state power Georgia Tech.
Tuitt was a solid verbal to the Irish up until the middle of January, when he took a visit to Georgia Tech and committed to the Yellow Jackets.
Less than a week later (in fact, it was less than 72 hours later), Tuitt was back on board with the Fighting Irish—and Brian Kelly and his staff couldn't be happier.
Tuitt is Georgia's top overall prospect and another gifted athlete to fill in with the new-look Irish front-seven.
The 6'5", 260-pounder is a coveted five-star prospect according to rivals.com, and will also compete for early playing time in South Bend.
After too many swings-and-misses in recruitment over the last several seasons, Tuitt's re-committing is peace-of-mind to the Irish fans everywhere who thought that Notre Dame could no longer attract the nation's best athletes—of course, winning BCS-caliber games with them remains the bigger issue.
No one exemplifies the new feeling the Irish have of keeping their own recruits better than Aaron Lynch, a four-star recruit and No. 28 overall prospect on the rivals.com board.
Lynch, like Tuitt, was an early Notre Dame-committ, who changed his mind, then changed it back.
The difference is Lynch did not do his mind-changing gymnastics in such a short, frantic time period.
Lynch de-committed from Florida State only a few weeks ago, but is now on campus at Notre Dame as an early-enrolee and has a leg-up on seeing the field in 2011 for the Irish defense.
Lynch is the No. 15 overall prospect according to espn.com, and gives the Irish yet another athletic weapon to unleash at opposing quarterbacks.
Lynch runs a 4.7 forty-yard dash, but also has the size to play along the defensive line, coming in at 6'6" and weighing 245 pounds.
He will be an immediate impact player somewhere along the front-seven for Notre Dame, possibly as soon as September rolls around.
He will have the ability to play outside linebacker, too, if the defensive end jobs are snatched up.
Councell is yet another top-100 defensive recruit on his way to South Bend to play for the Irish.
Rivals.com has Councell as the fifth-best weak-side defensive end in the nation, and the 6'5", 225-pounder will have the option to play outside linebacker at Notre Dame as well as defensive end.
His leaner frame could be tailored to play alongside star linebacker Manti Te'o for the next two seasons, and the four-star recruit will add immediate depth alongside a front-seven in need of an overhaul.
Councell had a whopping 25 tackles-for-loss during his senior year—he won't have to do half as much to be an impact player for Notre Dame.
The wave of talent to the front-seven continues towards South Bend in the form of Anthony Rabassa, the 123rd-best prospect in America according to espn.com.
At 6'3", 220-pounds, Rabassa seems destined to play outside linebacker in defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's 3-4 scheme, especially with the extreme talent already in this recruiting class along the defensive line.
Rabassa is the 11th-best weak-side end according to rivals.com.
He'll be competing for playing time from the moment he steps on campus with the likes of Williams, Lynch, Tuitt, and Councell, but it's never hurt any team to have too many good players, or too much depth.
Notre Dame fought injuries throughout the 2010 season, but the incoming freshmen class will make that much easier to do in the future.
With all the excitement over the incoming recruits, it's important to remember that Notre Dame already had a former top-100 recruit along their defensive line already last season.
Though Louis Nix didn't make any impact for the Irish last season, the former top-prospect will be a key component to Notre Dame's resurgence along the front-seven defensively.
Nix is a monster of a man at 6'3", 350-pounds, and was the 85th-best player in the nation according to rivals.com last season and the seventh-best defensive tackle.
Because Nix didn't see the field last season, he'll be eligible for a red-shirt at Notre Dame, meaning he can play four full years with the incoming class of front-seven defenders.
Nix can hopefully fill the large shoes left by Ian Williams, who was a standout nose tackle throughout his Notre Dame career.
Nix is obviously already in the future plans for the Fighting Irish, but so are are two more key high school seniors that will join the uber-talented front-seven next year.
Tony Springmann (Fort Wayne, IN) and Brad Carrico (Dublin, OH) add even more depth and youth to the Irish next season on the defensive side of the ball.
This figures to be the most talent Notre Dame has ever brought in on the defensive side of the ball, at least from a front-seven standpoint.
But the Irish will also bring in tight end Ben Koyack, wide receiver Devaris Daniels, offensive lineman Matthew Hegarty, and quarterback Everett Golson to keep the talented offense re-stocked for the future.
Koyack, Daniels, and Hegarty are top-100 level recruits, while Golson adds a dynamic playmaker to the inevitable quarterback derby of 2011.
The future is bright in South Bend for certain.
This will be the finest front-seven ever assembled in Notre Dame's illustrious history.