This may be Brian Kelly’s best class at Notre Dame. That may not be good enough. Notre Dame was likely the second best team in the country last year, but second may as well have been 10th given the evident gap the country saw on January 7th. As good as this year was relative to recent Irish performances, history will little note this era unless the Irish can catch the Alabama juggernaut.*
So the crucial question this recruiting season isn’t if Notre Dame’s class is elite, it is. The question is, “is it good enough to compete with Alabama”?
Given this is all a combination of art + science, we won’t know for a few years, but for the first time since 2008, the answer appears to be “yes”. To understand how big the gap has been, look at the numbers over the past four classes from Rivals:
- 2012 Alabama #1, Notre Dame #20
- 2011 Alabama #1, Notre Dame #10
- 2010 Alabama #5, Notre Dame #14
- 2009 Alabama #1, Notre Dame #21
On average, Alabama’s classes ranked 14 places higher than Notre Dame’s classes. What makes the comparison even more stark is to look at the numbers behind the numbers. Here are the breakdowns by years with total recruits, five star and four star athletes:
- 2012 Alabama 26,3,17 | Notre Dame 17,1,9
- 2011 Alabama 22,3,17 | Notre Dame 23,2,8
- 2010 Alabama 26,1,15 | Notre Dame 23,0,10
- 2009 Alabama 27,4, 14 | Notre Dame 18,1,9
Over a four year period, Alabama recruited 101 total players, 11 five star players and 63 four star players.
Over a four year period, Notre Dame recruited 81 total players, 4 five star players and 36 four star players.
Now, recruiting rankings are subjective by nature and spotting talent in the lower ranked areas can even things out, but no matter how you want to adjust the numbers, the gap is canyon-esque.
Alabama, with its recruiting prowess, focused development and aggressive “roster management” has un-leveled the playing field. Consider just five star talent. Given these numbers, Alabama can have just a 50% hit rate on developing that talent while Notre Dame has a 100% hit rate on developing that talent and Alabama would still have a slight advantage… and that’s simply not going to happen. Over a four year period, Alabama recruited 20 more overall players, 6 more five star players and 27 more four star players than did Notre Dame. Throw in the fact that Alabama can add JC players to fill in holes (2 of 3 starting nose guards on Alabama’s title teams were JCs), and that advantage grows.
That’s the size of the chasm Notre Dame is dealing with. Make any kind of adjustments you like and it’s still a sinkhole big enough to swallow Irish Chocolate with room to spare.
But the Irish leveled the playing field in 2013 and may have nudged into the lead in a couple of important ways.
From a pure numbers perspective, Alabama has 25 total recruits, with 4 five stars and 13 four stars. Notre Dame has 24 total recruits, with 4 five stars and 14 four star recruits. Notre Dame actually has a slight edge in quality, though the classes are so close that’s highly subjective.
What bodes well for the Irish is that the Irish class combines elite talent, with exceptional line recruiting and overall balance.
Notre Dame’s stars may be the very best at their positions and 3 of the 4 best players in this class are on defense. Jaylon Smith is clearly the nation’s best linebacker. Eddie Vanderdoes has, according to many, outshown Alabama’s A’shawn Robinson in all-star match-ups. I don’t think the Irish coaches would trade Max Redfield for any defensive back on Alabama’s roster. Alabama’s Derrick Henry is a runaway train of a running back, but many would argue that Greg Bryant is the better overall back.
The Irish offensive line is at the very least a top 3 unit, if not the top unit in the country. It compares very well to Alabama’s haul of 1 four star and 3 three star recruits (development matters more here.) On defense, Vanderdoes and Rochelle were both Alabama targets on the defensive line. While Vanderdoes may be the top overall player, Alabama clearly has an edge here with 2 five star recruits and 3 four star recruits.
Recruiting misses at Notre Dame almost always come home to roost. The OL problems in 2007 trace right back to Willingham’s poor recruiting. The QB situation Kelly inherited is directly traceable to Weis’s QB recruiting, which left ND with 1 QB for the Junior through 5th year classes.
I can only speak to the Irish on balance, but the clear need this recruiting class was the offensive line and the Irish couldn’t have done better here. The other need was at cornerback, where the Irish may not have gotten the top talent in the country, but nabbed three players with size and athleticism. Overall, there are no glaring holes that will cause catastrophic failure in years to come. This category is very important for Notre Dame to get right as every other team in the country can plug holes with JC transfers.
Brian Kelly didn’t mince words during or after the blowout loss in the BCS title game. At half time, when asked what he could do to turn things around, Kelly deadpanned, “Maybe Alabama doesn’t come back in the second half…It’s all Alabama.” After the game he continued, “We’ve got to get physically stronger, continue close the gap there,… our guys clearly know what it looks like now – a championship football team. That’s back-to-back national champions. That’s what it looks like. That’s what you measure yourself against there. It’s pretty clear across the board what we have to do.”
When it comes to raw talent, Notre Dame is back in the game. While recruiting is just one piece of the puzzle, it’s a critical piece and for the first time in years, Notre Dame is clearly recruiting at a standard that will allow the Irish to compete with Alabama in the future. Even more promising is the fact that this class was built on the back of an 8-5 season where there was considerable doubt as to whether the Irish could return to prominence. With that question answered, Notre Dame will be recruiting from a position of strength going forward.