Notre Dame Football: Best Recruiting Class Sleepers 2002-2003

James ToljCorrespondent IINovember 13, 2011

Notre Dame Football: Best Recruiting Class Sleepers 2002-2003

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    Fans of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish are often filled with joy when mulling over the year's incoming star recruits.

    While blue-chip prospects should bring about excitement, sometimes players who aren't as heavily recruited can have a tremendous impact on the team's fortune as well.

    Looking at the recruiting classes from 2002 and 2003, we will take a peek at six players who weren't considered All-Star recruits, but they all made great strides of improvement over their time at Notre Dame while making vast contributions to the team.

Dan Santucci 2002

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    Dan Santucci committed to Notre Dame's 2002 recruiting class as a defensive lineman under head coach, Tyrone Willingham (rated a three-star defensive lineman by Rivals.com).

    In Santucci's first two years, he rarely saw the field other than as a contributor on special teams.

    Santucci, in his junior year, was moved to the offensive line during spring practice (2004). While Santucci didn't see much playing time, he got his first career start at left guard in a loss to Oregon State at the Insight Bowl.

    After a head coaching change from Willingham to Charlie Weis, Santucci became the starting right guard for all 12 games in the 2005-2006 season. He was part of a powerful offensive attack led by quarterback, Brady Quinn, and running back, Darius Walker.

    Santucci came back for a fifth-year in the 2006-2007 season. The Fighting Irish finished the season 10-3 with a loss to LSU in the Sugar Bowl—Notre Dame's second straight BCS game appearance.

    Santucci's play late in his college career got him noticed by NFL scouts. He was drafted in the seventh round of the 2007 NFL draft by the Cincinnati Bengals.

Mike Richardson 2002

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    Mike Richardson was rated a two-star wide receiver by Rivals.com in the 2002 recruiting class, and he received literally no national attention before signing with the Irish.

    Richardson sat patiently in the wings during his freshman season while not playing a down.

    In his sophomore season, Richardson saw minutes on special teams and sporadically as a defensive back.

    His playing time increased in his junior year. Richardson started in five games as a cornerback.

    In his senior season, Richardson finally achieved the status of full-time starter playing in all 12 games including the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. He finished the season with three interceptions, 66 total tackles and a team-high 10 passes deflected.

    Richardson came back in 2006 for a fifth year. He helped the Irish to a 10-3 record and a Sugar Bowl appearance. He had a team-high four interceptions, five passes deflected and 55 total tackles.

    Richardson heard his fair share of criticism while playing cornerback for Notre Dame, but like Santucci, his play caught the attention of scouts.

    After his fifth season with the Fighting Irish, Richardson entered the 2007 NFL Draft and was selected in the sixth round by the New England Patriots. 

Joe Brockington 2003

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    Joe Brockington came into the 2003 recruiting class rated a three-star linebacker by Rivals.com, and it took him a few years before he had a serious impact on the field.

    Brockington started the final nine games of his senior season (he played minutely in his junior season), and ended it with 59 total tackles including one sack. 

    Brockington came back in 2007 for a fifth year. Although the Irish posted a dismal 3-9 record, Brockington had his best season with 108 total tackles, four quarterback hurries and a sack.

    Brockington never was drafted, but he signed a free-agent contract with the Buffalo Bills. He was cut from the team a month after signing his contract.

Chinedum Ndukwe 2003

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    Chinedum Ndukwe was part of a 2003 Notre Dame recruiting class that would see eight players drafted to the NFL. 

    Ndukwe started his career at Notre Dame as a wide receiver (rated three-star wide receiver by Rivals.com), but he was switched to safety in his sophomore year.

    Ndukwe started every game for the Irish at safety during his junior year. He finished the the 2005-2006 season with 52 tackles, two interceptions, five passes deflected and a forced fumble (and four fumble recoveries).

    Ndukwe returned as the starter at safety in 2006-2007 and had his best year for the Irish.

    Ndukwe posted 98 total tackles, two interceptions, six passes deflected and two forced fumbles for Notre Dame on the season.

    He entered the 2007 NFL Draft, and Ndukwe was selected in the seventh round by the Cincinnati Bengals.

Jeff Samardzija 2003

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    Jeff Samardzija might not have been a relative unknown like some of the other recruits on this list (he was the runner-up for Mr. Football in Indiana and rated the state's top receiver), but there weren't soaring expectations for Samardzija either.

    He was rated a three-star wide receiver by Rivals.com in the 2003 recruiting class.

    In Samardzija's freshman year, he played in 11 games as a wide receiver, and he finished the season with seven receptions for 53 yards.

    Samardzija improved in his sophomore year. Playing in every game, he had 17 receptions for 274 yards on the season.

    In the 2005-2006 season, Samardzija went off as he became Brady Quinn's favorite target. He caught 77 receptions for 1,249 yards and 15 touchdowns.

    The next season Samardzija continued his stellar play finishing the 2006-2007 season with 78 receptions for 1,017 yards and 12 touchdowns.

    Samardzija was guaranteed to be an early-round draft pick, but he chose to remove his name from the NFL Draft after being selected as a pitcher by the Chicago Cubs in the Major League Draft.

John Carlson 2003

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    John Carlson was rated a three-star tight end by Rivals.com in Notre Dame's 2003 recruiting class.

    Carlson didn't play in his freshman year, but he got two starts at tight end as a sophomore (he had six catches for 31 yards).

    In his junior year, Carlson started six games, yet he only had seven receptions for 56 yards and a touchdown on the season.

    Carlson's senior year is when he began to impress. He had a great season finishing with 47 catches for 634 yards and four touchdowns.

    Carlson came back for a fifth year in 2007. Although he didn't put up the outstanding numbers he had in his senior year, Carlson still had a solid season. He finished the year with 40 receptions for 372 yards and three touchdowns.

    Carlson was selected in the second round of the 2008 NFL Draft by the Seattle Seahawks.