Notre Dame Recruiting: Putting Brian Kelly's 2011 Class in Historical Context

Matt MattareCorrespondent IIIFebruary 3, 2011

Notre Dame Recruiting: Putting Brian Kelly's 2011 Class in Historical Context

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    National Signing Day is without a doubt one of the most backwards days in American sports. It's an all-day event when teenagers hold press conferences, college coaches that make millions hold their breath, and middle aged men take off work to watch and scream and yell at the television depending on which hat the 18-year old decided to put on his head. 

    The dust has settled from 2011's edition of this bizarre ritual and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have emerged from the roller coaster as one of the clear winners of the day.

    In Survivor-esque fashion, Coach Brian Kelly and his staff outwitted, outlasted, and outplayed schools like Florida State, Penn State, and Georgia Tech to land a haul for the ages along the defensive line. Whether it was defensive coordinator Bob Diaco meeting with Ishaq Williams at 4:30am the morning he was supposed to head to Penn State or assistant Tony Alford patiently waiting out Aaron Lynch in the hotel at the Army All-American Bowl, the staff went above and beyond to ensure the bedrock of an Irish Revival was put in place.

    The accolades from this class are rolling in and nearly every scouting service has Notre Dame placed squarely in the Top 10 classes in the country. Irish fans are ecstatic and of course the superlatives have begun to fly when describing the haul.

    Greatest ever? Greatest of the past decade? It's time to put it in some context in regards to recent history.

    In this slideshow we're going to look back at every Notre Dame recruiting class since Ty Willingham took over in the 2002 off-season. It's nearly impossible to rank truly rank the more recent classes because some are still only rising sophomores and juniors and haven't been presented with the opportunity to contribute yet.

    Still, what I've attempted to do is create some semblance of objectivity by devising a point system to compare the hype of the class coming in against the reality of production and contribution once they arrived on campus. Here's the breakdown:

    The Hype...This is what the classes perceived value was when they signed on NSD. I've assigned point values to each player of the class based on their Rivals rating.

    5-star = 4 Points            
    4-star = 3 Points            
    3-star = 2 Points            
    2-star = 1 Point            

    The Reality...This is what the class actually contributed while at Notre Dame. Each player is individually assigned a point value on a scale of 4 to -1. 

    4 Points - Superstar (One of the best players of the decade for ND)
    3 Points - Major Contributor (Solid multi-year starter or someone who made an undeniably large impact)
    2 Points - Contributor (Someone who played a relatively significant role but was unspectacular)
    1 Point - Played with No Impact or Was a Liability (Pretty self-explanatory)
    -1 Point - Transferred or Never Played (Once again, self-explanatory)

    Now that everything is outlined, let's get to the class breakdowns and see how things shake out! 

Class Of 2002

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    Rivals Ranking: #24 Superstars: 3
    Number of Recruits: 18 Major Contributors: 2
    5-Stars: 0 Contributors: 4
    4-Stars: 12 Non-Descript/Liability: 2
    3-Stars: 4 Transfers/Never Played: 7
    2-Stars: 2 Contribution Pct.: 50%
    Arrival Score: 46 (#7 since 2002) Exit Score: 21

    Category 1 – Stovall, McKnight, Fasano
    Category 2 – Morton, Landri
    Category 3 – Richardson, Santucci, Frome, Freeman
    Category 4 – Leitko, Jenkins
    Category 5 – Bonelli, Carney, Mattes, Olsen, Raridon, Ryan, Schiccatano 

    Willingham's first effort on the short recruiting cycle wasn't a bad one at all. The headliners of the group were clearly the highly-rated receiving tandem of Maurice Stovall and Rhema McKnight, two gamebreakers that he snatched up late in the process. The way he picked up the pieces and reeled in two explosive offensive athletes while picking up the pieces of Davie's class gave Irish fans hope that he would find a way to bring the talent on the offensive side of the ball that Davie had failed to do. 

    It's amazing that a class with that had 12 4-stars rated as only the 24th best class on Rivals, but you have to remember that's right when the website was getting its start. If you look at that year's ratings they tended to hand out 5-stars with reckless abandon. Rivals really tightened up their system the following year.

    In any case, this class proved to have a few big hits and a lot of big whiffs. 

    Stovall and McKnight emerged as big threats once Charlie Weis came to town while Bob Morton turned into a four year starter. The biggest surprise was probably Mike Richardson stepping up and becoming a starter after being the lowest rated recruit in the class.

    Unfortunately though, the contributions of the Class of 2002 were counteracted by the fact that half never made any sort of significant contribution on the field during their four years (in fact, seven literally never saw it in any meaningful capacity). Even if a class isn't full of star it needs to provide quality depth when the recruits mature as upperclassmen. The fact that it didn't happen here shows how the drop-off between starter and backup became so steep in the middle of the decade.

Class Of 2003

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    Rivals Ranking: #12Superstars: 8
    Number of Recruits: 21Major Contributors: 2
    5-Stars: 1Contributors: 5
    4-Stars: 6Non-Descript/Liability: 2
    3-Stars: 13Transfers/Never Played: 5
    2-Stars: 2Contribution Pct.: 71%
    Arrival Score: 49 (T-#5 since 2002)Exit Score: 45

    Cat 1 – Quinn, Samardzija, Harris, Abiamiri, Laws, Carlson, Zbikowski, Ndukwe
    Cat 2 – T. Thomas, Sullivan
    Cat 3 – Price, Wooden, Brockington
    Cat 4 – Anastasio, McConnell, M. Thomas
    Cat 5 – Borseti, Gardner, Hedgemon, Parish, Stephenson 

    This might have been called "The Year of Irish Fools Gold, presented by Ty Willingham." After a season that saw Notre Dame ascend to the top five in the country despite having an offense that relied on the golden right foot of Nick Setta, Willingham inked the best of his three classes while in South Bend.

    As the Irish Faithful soon found out, the successes on the field and on the recruiting trail were nothing more than mirages.

    A late surge (and some compliance issues with the Maryland coaching staff) plopped highly touted recruits Victor Abiamiri and Ambrose Wooden into Ty's lap very late in the recruiting cycle. It ultimately salvaged what was shaping up to be a mediocre class on the surface. 

    By the time this group left campus, they'd carved their niche as the most successful since the Lou Holtz Era. Quarterback Brady Quinn (who was only a 3-star upon arrival) shattered just about every Notre Dame passing record in the book. His leadership and charisma captured the attention of the nation and the hearts of Notre Dame fans. Quinn's battery mate Jeff Samardzija was on the receiving end of many of his throws as he did his part to mark his mark in Irish Lore. 

    Ultimately nine players would go on to play in the NFL and that didn't include Samardzija, who undoubtedly would've been a first day draft pick had he not chosen to sign with the Chicago Cubs instead. 

    This group won't be remembered as one of the greatest in Irish history for two reasons. First of all, almost 1/3 of the class never made any impact. This largely contributed to the dearth of depth Notre Dame faced in the middle of the decade. Secondly, their cumulative record despite two BCS berths was rather pedestrian.

    It doesn't belong at the top of the Pantheon, but it shouldn't diminish just how big an impact this class had and what place it holds in fans' hearts. This was the bedrock class for a pair of BCS seasons which proved to be two of the few true bright spots in a dark, dark decade.

Class Of 2004

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    Rivals Ranking: #32Superstars: 1
    Number of Recruits: 16Major Contributors: 1
    5-Stars: 0Contributors: 2
    4-Stars: 3Non-Descript/Liability: 3
    3-Stars: 9Transfers/Never Played: 9
    2-Stars: 6Contribution Pct.: 25%
    Arrival Score: 33 (#9 since 2002)Exit Score: 5

    Cat 1 – Walker
    Cat 2 – Crum
    Cat 3 – Lambert, J. Brown
    Cat 4 – Vernaglia, Jabbie, Ferrine
    Cat 5 – Banda, Bragg, Duerson, Hoskins, Incarnato, Kadous, Nicholas, Talley, Wolke

    Here is where the wheels came off for Ty Willingham.

    After suffering through a losing season punctuated with a beat down in the Carrier Dome in the final game, Willingham earned the dubious distinction of landing one of the worst classes in Notre Dame history. When they arrived on campus there was little-to-no hype. By the time they left, they had somehow found a way to crawl under the bar despite it being set almost comically low.

    Darius Walker and Maurice Crum were the only two players to make a significant contribution during their time on campus. Walker burst onto the scene in the second game of his freshman season when the Irish upset a top ten ranked Michigan team. He ended up holding down the starting job for three years before entering the draft early (he was not selected). Crum surprisingly emerged as a starter his sophomore season and evolved into one of the quiet leaders of the defense. 

    When perusing the list of names in this class Notre Dame fans can't help but shake their heads. This failure was the root of the 2007 disaster. When less than 13% of a class fails to make a significant contribution and more than half either transfers, quits the team, or disappears on the depth chart then there are going to be serious repercussions. Unfortunately those repercussions reared their ugly heads when this class entered their senior season to the tune of nine losses, the most in Notre Dame history.

Class Of 2005

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    Rivals Ranking: #40 Superstars: 2
    Number of Recruits: 15 Major Contributors: 4
    5-Stars: 0 Contributors: 2
    4-Stars: 2 Non-Descript/Liability: 4
    3-Stars: 11 Transfers/Never Played: 3
    2-Stars: 2 Contribution Pct.: 53%
    Arrival Score: 30 (#10 since 2002) Exit Score: 25

    Cat 1 – Bruton, McCarthy
    Cat 2 – Duncan, Turkovich, Kuntz, Grimes
    Cat 3 – Herring, Schwapp
    Cat 4 – Hand, Quinn, Sharpley, Smith
    Cat 5 – Hiben, Washington, Hord

    If the wheels came off in the 2004 recruiting cycle then the resulting tailspin manifested itself in 2005. When Charlie Weis walked in the door, Notre Dame was in the midst of a dreadful recruiting class–and that was before the national media storm that engulfed South Bend after the "racially driven firing of Ty Willingham."

    The few highly touted recruits Willingham had seduced over the phone on the back nine of his rounds at the Warren Course (Lawrence Jackson, Brandon Harrison, etc) quickly fled, leaving Weis with the recruiting equivalent of the Hindenburg to survey.

    Rather than stack the class with low level prospects late in the game, he decided to cut losses and signed only 15 players. From this small group a surprisingly solid core emerged. Safeties David Bruton and Kyle McCarthy both helped anchor Irish secondaries from '07-'09, Paul Duncan and Mike Turkovich both emerged late in their careers as solid starters, and Patrick Kuntz evolved into one of the hardest working, productive, and like-able defensive linemen of the decade. 

    Unfortunately those small contributions did not make up for almost half the class making impact whatsoever. The class was so small it was almost like Notre Dame was on self-imposed probation. When seven of the fifteen recruits flopped it combined with the Class of 2004 to create a crater that set the program back at least 2-3 years. 

Class Of 2006

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    Rivals Ranking: #8Superstars: 0
    Number of Recruits: 28Major Contributors: 4
    5-Stars: 2Contributors: 8
    4-Stars: 10Non-Descript/Liability: 3
    3-Stars: 15Transfers/Never Played: 13
    2-Stars: 1Contribution Pct.: 43%
    Arrival Score: 69 (#1 since 2002)Exit Score: 18

    Cat 1 – NONE
    Cat 2 – Young, Stewart, Walls, Olsen
    Cat 3 – Wenger, Aldridge, Brown, T. Smith, Ryan, Richardson, Parris, McNeil
    Cat 4 – West, Gordon, Gallup
    Cat 5 – Burkhart, Carufel, Frazer, Gaines, Jackson, Jones, Mullen, Prince, Reuland, Schmidt, Wade, Webb, Yeatman

    Fans may be surprised to see that the Class of 2006 checked in as the highest rated incoming class in terms of the grading metric we're using. A big reason for that was the fact that there were a whopping 28 recruits in this haul thanks to a chance in Notre Dame policy that allowed for the first group of early enrollees.

    This group was much ballyhooed by every recruiting service and reestablished the Irish as players on the national recruiting scene. Charlie Weis secured two Rivals Top 100 quarterbacks, added six highly rated offensive linemen (including 5-star Sam Young from Florida) to a position in dire need of reinforcements, and landed highly rated skill players on both sides of the ball.

    Unfortunately this group turned out to be the most highly overrated group of the last ten years. The attrition it went through was staggering: a whopping 13 players either transferred or never saw the field and less than 50% made a noteworthy contribution. This was an instance where the recruiting services whiffed on their evaluations and the coaching staff failed in helping the players overachieve.

    When their time on-campus was complete there was not one play who fell in the "superstar" category, the only group since 2002 (obviously other than 2010 and the current one) that failed to produce one. The minimal impact of what was supposed to be a key class in the resurrection and rebuilding of the program set the table for the failures of 2008 and 2009. 

Class Of 2007

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    Rivals Ranking: #8 Superstars: 3
    Number of Recruits: 18 Major Contributors: 5
    5-Stars: 1 Contributors: 4
    4-Stars: 12 Non-Descript/Liability: 5
    3-Stars: 4 Transfers/Never Played: 1
    2-Stars: 1 Contribution Pct.: 66%
    Arrival Score: 49 (T-#5 since 2002) Exit Score: 39

    Cat 1 – Clausen, Tate, Allen
    Cat 2 – I. Williams, G. Gray, B. Smith, H. Smith, Dever
    Cat 3 – Hughes, Kamara, Neal, Ragone
    Cat 4 – Romine, Paskorz, Nwankwo, Nuss, Walker
    Cat 5 – Nagel

    Almost an entire year before signing day 2007 Notre Dame landed its biggest recruit: the nation's top-rated signal caller, Jimmy Clausen. This was significant not only because Charlie Weis had reeled in the #1 player in the country, but he plucked him from Southern Cal and Pete Carroll's backyard. Weis would pull similar robberies in Florida (Armando Allen) and Tennessee (Golden Tate and Harrison Smith) which seemed to further validate the fact that Notre Dame was more than capable of hanging with the big boys on the recruiting trail.

    The combination of Clausen and Tate dazzled fans before they both took their talents to the NFL after their junior years. In their final year in South Bend, they each had arguably the best season in Irish History for their respective positions. On the other side of the ball the quartet of Ian Williams, Brian Smith, Gary Gray, and Harrison Smith all started three years (Gray and Harrison are penciled in to start their third in 2011) and played key roles in turning around a dreadful defense during their senior season. 

    The most surprising bust of the class was most likely offensive tackle Matt Romine. Irish fans had high hopes for him to step in right away and challenge for a starting spot after a stellar performance at the Army All-American Bowl, but injuries and inconsistency derailed him and he never made a significant impact. 

    This group was low on numbers but relatively high on contribution. With the exception of the 2003 class, 2007 had the highest contribution percentage of the last 10 years at 66%. It's just a shame ND fans were robbed of the senior years of one of the three most prolific duos in Irish passing history (along with Quinn-Samardzija and Huarte-Snow). 

Class Of 2008

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    Rivals Ranking: #2 Superstars: 3
    Number of Recruits: 18 Major Contributors: 6
    5-Stars: 3 Contributors: 6
    4-Stars: 16 Non-Descript/Liability: 7
    3-Stars: 4 Transfers/Never Played: 1
    2-Stars: 0 Contribution Pct.: 65%
    Arrival Score: 68 (#2 since 2002) Exit Score: 48

    Cat 1 – Floyd, Rudolph, T. Robinson
    Cat 2 – Blanton, Fleming, E. Johnson, Lewis-Moore, Slaughter, Cave
    Cat 3 – Crist, Cwynar, Filer, Goodman, H. Williams, Gray
    Cat 4 – McDonald, Walker, Posluszny, Newman, McCarthy, Golic, Cleeland
    Cat 5 – Fauria 

    According to the recruiting services, this was the highest rated class Notre Dame inked since Lou Holtz's 1995 off-season campaign. It fell just short of the Class of 2006 in terms of Arrival Score in this metric (69 to 68), but that's only because the '06 group had 10 more players than this one. What made this far and away Weis' most impressive recruiting effort was the fact it came on the heels of a 3-9 disaster that fall. His plan to restock the talent in South Bend was uninterrupted by the lack of success on the field.

    Headlining the class was a trio of five-star offensive studs: wide receiver Michael Floyd, tight end Kyle Rudolph, and quarterback Dayne Crist. The first two stepped in right away as freshman and seized starting roles while Crist was groomed as the heir apparent to Jimmy Clausen. There most likely will end up being five players who earn the title four year starters when all is said and done (Floyd, Rudolph, T. Robinson, E. Johnson, and Lewis-Moore). 

    This was a surprisingly well rounded class for how small it was. It contained a potential three-year starter at quarterback, two potential first round picks in the receiving core, two four-year starters on the defensive line (and solid interior depth with Cwynar and Williams), and major contributors in the secondary. By the time they leave campus they may have made a serious run at the Class of 2003 for the most productive group of the last ten years.

Class Of 2009

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    Rivals Ranking: #21 Superstars: 5
    Number of Recruits: 18 Major Contributors: 5
    5-Stars: 1 Contributors: 3
    4-Stars: 9 Non-Descript/Liability: 3
    3-Stars: 5 Transfers/Never Played: 4
    2-Stars: 3 Contribution Pct.: 61%
    Arrival Score: 44 (#8 since 2002) Current Score: 32

    Cat 1 – Te’o, Riddick, Martin
    Cat 2 – Watt, Calabrese, Eifert, Motta, Wood
    Cat 3 – Toma, Fox, Tausch
    Cat 4 – Stockton, Cowart, Turk
    Cat 5 – Evans, Banks, Bullard, Golic

    This class is where it gets a bit tricky in terms of "The Reality" column because they're only rising juniors, but there have still been plenty of contributions from the 2009 haul during their two years on-campus.

    This was not nearly as highly rated a class as Weis' previous three efforts, but it provided the most thrilling victory of all when Hawaiian superstar Manti Te'o selected Notre Dame over Southern Cal in front of a national audience on signing day. The monumental recruiting upset was the culmination of an extraordinary effort from Weis and his entire staff. In two short years Te'o has gone a long way in living up to the monumental hype that accompanied him from the Pacific. He's established himself as one of the country's elite linebackers and thrived in a leadership role on the defense.

    Two other players that fall into Category #1 (and perhaps we're projecting a bit here) are running back/slot receiver Theo Riddick and left tackle Zach Martin. Riddick is a gamebreaker no matter where he lines up. In the end the coaching will determine whether he does his damage at running back or receiver. He began to flourish in the slot position after a bumpy start to the season, but he's poised to be a superstar no matter where he lands. Martin was the most consistent offensive lineman as a redshirt freshman and seems ready to follow in Sam Young's footsteps as a four years starter (albeit a more consistent one than Young based on early returns). 

    This was yet another class that was a little low on numbers. There's plenty of time for players to emerge but already 11 of the 19 have made a contribution. When this group writes its final chapter there's a good chance that another 3-4 players could bump up into the top tier which speaks to the potential this team has moving forward over the next couple years.

Class Of 2010

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    Rivals Ranking: #14 Superstars: 0
    Number of Recruits: 23 Major Contributors: 1
    5-Stars: 0 Contributors: 4
    4-Stars: 10 Non-Descript/Liability: 4
    3-Stars: 12 Transfers/Never Played: 18
    2-Stars: 1 Contribution Pct.: N/A
    Arrival Score: 55 (#4 since 2002) Current Score: +15, -2 Transfers, -1 Matt James

    Cat 1 – NONE
    Cat 2 – Rees
    Cat 3 – Schwenke, Jones, Jackson, Shembo
    Cat 4 – Spond, Collinsworth, Smith, Wood
    Cat 5 – Boyd, Roback, James, Moore, Nichols, Nix, Massa, Lombard, Hendrix, Heggie, Badger, Roberson, Utupo, Welch

    Brian Kelly's first recruiting effort was light on superstars and heavy on what he infamously called "RKG's," which is an abbreviation for "Right Kind of Guys." He stocked the class with athletes that fit his system even if they weren't necessarily recognized as the most elite by the recruiting services.

    When he'd finished he'd amassed a solid if not spectacular class that infused much needed numbers and depth to the roster. Three quarterbacks enrolled including Tommy Rees who would lead the Irish to four straight victories to end the season when starter Dayne Crist was knocked out. On the defensive side of the ball Prince Shembo and Kona Schwenke both earned playing time as the year wore on, showing that they would be capable of contributing earlier in their careers than many anticipated.

    This class has already lost three members and most likely will lose one or two more to transfers, but early reports show that a significant amount fit Kelly's system and are poised to make their mark whether it be next year or when they're upperclassmen.

    Here are some quick hit predictions for guys who vault themselves from Category 5 to Category 1 or 2 in the next couple years:

    * NT Louis Nix...the immovable object is penciled in as a starter by coaches and as superstar by fans.
    * OT Tate of the lowest rated recruits of the class, he's a athletic freak who will find a way into the starting lineup on the O-Line.
    * OT Christian Lombard...word is that he's been extremely impressive and like Nichols is poised to make an impact.
    * LB Kendall Moore...he was scout team defensive player of the year and is a perfect fit for inside linebacker.
    * S Chris Badger...a forgotten man since he's on a Mormon mission, but he's a smart player who will step in and provide immediate (and crucial) quality depth when he returns in 2012.

Class Of 2011

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    Rivals Ranking: #9Superstars: N/A
    Number of Recruits: 23Major Contributors: N/A
    5-Stars: 2Contributors: N/A
    4-Stars: 8Non-Descript/Liability: N/A
    3-Stars: 12Transfers/Never Played: N/A
    2-Stars: 1Contribution Pct.: N/A
    Arrival Score: 57 (#3 since 2002)Current Score: N/A

    Brian Kelly has answered a lot of the critics that didn’t believe he could recruit on a national level this off-season by delivering a consensus top ten class. A highly touted group of high schoolers pledging their commitment to ND isn’t something that’s particularly new—Charlie Weis brought in some huge and even higher rated hauls—but what has Irish fans especially excited is the fact that this class is loaded with potential difference makers on the defensive side of the ball.

    The three stories that accompany the three commitments of Stephon Tuitt, Aaron Lynch, and Ishaq Williams show exactly why this staff deserves nothing less than an A for this year’s recruiting cycle. All three seemed bound for other schools—in fact, two were well publicized Notre Dame decommitments—but relentless work by Bob Diaco, Chuck Martin, Tony Alford, and the big man BK himself ensured that all three ended up in blue and gold.

    With Tuitt, the trio of Diaco, Martin, and Kelly were in his living room within 24 hours of his decommitment from Notre Dame and by the time they left he was back in the fold. Aaron Lynch was ready to enroll in Florida State just days before Tony Alford was able to sway him back to Notre Dame. And perhaps most famously, Bob Diaco paid Ishaq a 4:30am visit the morning he was supposed to visit Penn State and convinced him to head to the Midwest instead of central Pennsylvania.

    The class itself is not flawless which is why it’s not an A. There are holes that must be addressed quickly in the next recruiting cycle (CB, RB, NT) and some stinging misses, but this was a serious “mythbusting” class.

    The myth that Notre Dame couldn’t recruit top defensive talent was debunked by landing three of the top five defensive ends in the country according to Rivals. The myth that Notre Dame was forever doomed to lose every major defensive line recruit that gave a verbal commitment was busted. And perhaps most importantly (at least in the mind of skeptics among the Irish Faithful), the myth that Brian Kelly was too “small-time” to handle national recruiting was proved completely false thanks to his effort and the staff’s entire body of work.

    Things are snowballing in South Bend—and for once the momentum is headed in the right direction.