Notre Dame routinely maintained its perfect record — and thus advanced to the BCS championship game — by the skin of its teeth. Purdue, BYU, Stanford, Pitt: all required either overtime or final drives to win. The 42-14 loss to Alabama proved that despite exceeding expectations against a quality schedule, Brian Kelly does not yet have Notre Dame at college football’s highest level.
Emphasis on yet.
Kelly inherited a favorable situation. While Charlie Weis had game management issues that spurred on underachievement, the pieces for success existed. Manti Te’o, face of this Notre Dame team, was a Weis recruit. So were most of the Irish’s starters on the offensive side of the ball, as examined in this SB Nation piece. Kelly added other pieces that shaped the program’s progression since 2010, both in the form of recruits and coaches.
Irish eyes are smiling on the recruiting, and vice versa. Each signing class since 2010 has grown progressively stronger — no small feat, given some of the talent Kelly has inked in his time in South Bend. The 2010 class featured nose tackle Louis Nix III and linebacker Prince Shembo. Notre Dame’s 2011 crop featured this season’s starting quarterback, Everett Golson, and a duo of defensive ends in Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch.
Lynch transferred in one of the more surprising moves of the 2012 off-season, but was the breakout star in 2011. His hypothetical impact on this season’s defense is an interesting what-if.
The full impact of the 2011 and 2012 classes are nowhere near felt. Signee KeiVarae Russell played an important role after converting from wide receiver to defensive back, and his role will only continue to grow. Same for tackle Sheldon Day, apprenticing under Nix. William Mahone is waiting in the wings behind Cierre Wood and George Atkinson. Punt returner Davonte Neal has the potential to develop into a dangerous perimeter option as the spread offense matures — and the offense will. Notre Dame showed signs of offensive progress as Golson grew more comfortable.
Rivals.com currently ranks Kelly’s 2013 signing class its No. 1 overall, with a little less than a month before National Signing Day. The Fighting Irish scored a major coup over the weekend, when five star defensive back Max Redfield announced his commitment at the Under Armour All-America game. Redfield flipped from Notre Dame rival USC in a move reminiscent of last year’s signing of quarterback Gunner Kiel.
Remember Kiel? He is the No. 1 overall quarterback recruit from the 2012 class, who flirted with Indiana and LSU before landing under the Golden Dome. Kelly utilized a situational, two-quarterback system this season with Golson and Tommy Rees. Playing quarterbacks with unique skill sets isn’t new for Kelly, who seamlessly replaced injured pocket passer Tony Pike with spread-style player Zach Collaros at Cincinnati in 2009.
Kiel’s integration into the offense will be a fascinating story line to follow this spring season, and into the summer.
Equally intriguing is the aforementioned 2013 signing class. A bevy of running backs will compete for carries with five star Greg Bryant and four star Tarean Folston coming aboard. ESPN scores Mike Heuerman’s hands favorably — perhaps the four star recruit is the next in Notre Dame’s long line of standout tight ends?
And defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has plenty more additions with which to work joining an already talented unit. Redfield headlines a group also featuring linebacker Alex Anzalone and lineman Isaac Rochell. Should Kelly land tackle Eddie Vanderdoes — another USC decommit — an already impressive signing class becomes otherworldly.
Barring an unforeseen move in the coming weeks, that group will get quality tutelage from Diaco. Bringing Diaco along from Cincinnati was one of Kelly’s best moves in the last three years. The Fighting Irish defense experienced instantaneous turnaround from 2009 to 2010, and has improved every season since. Keeping Diaco in the fold through the coaching carousel season may have been Kelly’s biggest win yet.