2015 was a memorable year for Notre Dame, as the Fighting Irish finished with double-digit wins for just the fourth time since the turn of the century. Stability is something that has been missing in South Bend for quite some time, but it seems as though head coach Brian Kelly has been able to establish a winning culture in the program over the course of his six-year tenure. Of those four double-digit win seasons since 2000, two have come under Kelly, as well as the school’s first national championship bid since 1988.
Kelly has changed the perception of Notre Dame among young recruits who have not grown up knowing the same Notre Dame as their fathers and grandfathers. The golden dome is once again a destination for elite football talent thanks to the culture change brought on by Kelly. Many of the 2015 squad’s upperclassmen were freshmen during Notre Dame’s run to the national title game in 2012, making this senior class the most successful in recent Notre Dame history.
As successful as these graduating seniors were, it is the early exiting juniors that are receiving most of the attention from NFL scouts. Many analysts predict that all three of the players who chose to forgo their senior seasons at Notre Dame (LB Jaylon Smith, OT Ronnie Stanley, WR Will Fuller) will be selected in the first round of the draft this upcoming April. The loss of this elite talent along with the departure of ten graduating seniors leaves quite a bit of work for the Notre Dame coaching staff to do, but they seem optimistic about the potential of the team’s incoming freshmen. With that, here is a quick Notre Dame recruiting update.
Notre Dame’s 2016 recruiting class currently consists of twenty-two commits, five of which are already on campus as early enrollees. Headlined by five-star linebacker Daelin Hayes, Notre Dame’s 2016 class is currently ranked ninth by 247Sports, fourth by Rivals, fifth by Scout, and twelfth by ESPN. Six of Notre Dame’s commits landed in ESPN’s final top 300 rankings, and a number of the staff’s top remaining targets were included on the list.
Notre Dame has lacked a consistent pass rush since the loss of Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix in 2013. The loss of Sheldon Day, who was the team’s best pass rusher in 2015, means that the Irish are once again in need of an elite pass rusher. Kelly and his staff feel that they have found disruptive forces in the aforementioned Hayes, as well as in defensive line commits Khalid Kareem (4*), Adetokunbo Ogundeji (3*), and Julian Okwara (4*), who is the brother of Romeo Okwara, the former Notre Dame defensive end.
This past season exposed serious holes in the Notre Dame secondary, which will likely only become larger next fall. The Irish had trouble defending the pass all season long. In turn, the coaching staff set out to solve this problem. Kelly and his staff hope that they have done so by signing a total of five four-star recruits in the secondary. Notre Dame fared well on the offensive side of the ball in this class as well, but the team’s biggest issues heading into next year lie on defense, and the coaches appear to have put together a promising group on that side of the ball.
With just over a week until signing day, Notre Dame has commitments from some of the top players around the nation and is still in the running for several more top recruits. Needless to say, Notre Dame fans will be glued to any screen they can get their eyes on next Wednesday. Kelly and his staff look to have hauled in a solid group this recruiting cycle, but as we have seen in years past, the first Wednesday in February never comes without a little drama.
As signing day approaches, each day becomes more crucial than the last on the recruiting trail. Kelly and his coaches are making the most of their final week with a few in-home visits and by hosting a few more recruits on campus. Look for the Irish to make headlines on signing day, as they could potentially sign two more five-star recruits and add to their current total of twenty-two commitments. Notre Dame fans will want to watch for the decisions of these five players on signing day:
Gordo (Ala.) high school five-star linebacker Ben Davis
Before Davis took his first visit to South Bend on January 15, Notre Dame was considered a long shot to land the top linebacker in the 2016 class. After Davis’ campus visit, however, the Irish appear to be a major player in the race for his services. It is more likely that Davis will end up in Tuscaloosa playing for the Crimson Tide, but he did label his Notre Dame visit as ‘eye-opening,’ and mentioned that the Irish have made their way into his top three schools. Kelly has an in-home visit scheduled with Davis later this week that could ultimately determine his decision.
Savannah (Ga.) Christian Prep five-star athlete Demetris Robertson
Notre Dame looks to have pulled away from the rest of the pack for the number one rated athlete on Rivals, but nothing is official yet. Tom Loy, the Notre Dame recruiting analyst for 247Sports, predicts that Robertson will end up in South Bend, but his visits to Georgia and Georgia Tech this week could change that. Robertson has been forced to miss his last two scheduled visits with Alabama, which seemed to have helped the Irish gain ground on the athlete.
Fresno (Calif.) Clovis West four-star linebacker Caleb Kelly
It has been clear that Kelly will end up in South Bend, Indiana or Norman, Oklahoma for quite some time. Until recently, it seemed that Kelly was favoring Notre Dame, but he has been relatively pro-Oklahoma on Twitter recently. Coach Kelly has an in-home visit planned for later this week, which no doubt will have a large affect on his decision. Tom Loy predicts the number two linebacker in the 2016 class to sign with Notre Dame, but he is in the minority.
Thompson’s Station (Tenn.) Independence four-star wide receiver Nathan Johnson
The Michigan commit seemed set on heading to Ann Arbor until Notre Dame assistant coach Autry Denson visited his home last week. The visit prompted a change in heart, and Johnson will be in South Bend later this week on an official visit. The wideout has already declared that his official decision won’t come until signing day, but it will be interesting to see the impact that his visit to South Bend later this week has on his choice between Notre Dame, Miami, and Michigan.
Orlando (Fla.) Oak Ridge four-star linebacker Jonathan Jones
Jones, like Johnson, has narrowed his search to Notre Dame and Michigan. He visited Duke on January 22 but announced Sunday that he will be deciding between the two Midwest powers. Outside of that, Jones’ recruitment process has been fairly quiet. He is not as highly touted as some of Notre Dame’s current linebacker commits, but the Irish coaching staff has made it clear that they believe in his leadership abilities. As of right now, it looks safe to chalk up Jones as part of Notre Dame’s 2016 recruiting class.