A smattering of thoughts in the wake of National Signing Day. What thinkest you? Feel free to chime in with your Magic 8 Ball forecast for the Class of 2014.
1) Overall Grade for the Class:
Doug: B-. I'd say we got some nice building blocks with James and Nix and Lombard up front, but there's not a lot of sizzle here. Of the 23 guys signed, 8 guys were Kelly recruits. That's a pretty good flurry of bodies down the stretch. Between James, Lombard, Nix, T. Jones, Utopo, Welch, Wood, Badger and Moore, we have a good group of 8-10 guys who you can look at on signing day and think about them as starters somewhere on this roster in the future. And if some of the other guys blossom or the QBs pan out or we get quality special teams contributions, this class will be fine. It's not a home run class, but it's a solid class.
Jeremy: Most years, this would be a comfortable C or even a C-. But given the circumstances (new coach, 16-21 in the last 3 years), I think Kelly did just about as well as possible. So I'll give him a B, but expect that he'll be able to bring in a home run class next year.
Jimmy: A solid B-. Not quite flashy enough, though not too bad either. On a scale of 1 to 10, it scores a 7.2. This has very little reflection on what I think of Brian Kelly and his ability to teach and develop talent.
Pokey Reese: With this class, Brian Kelly got a lot of "glue" guys (read "RKGs" I guess). I could see many of them being contributors, and a few potentially growing into more prominent roles. Kelly accomplished something in his first class that Snot Bubbles never did. He was able to recruit at position of need and not completely whiff at any position (although I'm a tad concerned with our pure numbers at corner). Given Kelly's late star, I thought he closed exceptionally well. Schwenke was a nice surprise late in the game. All that said, there is 0 star power in this recruiting class, and four classes like this don't put you in the "national championship" conversation. I'll give two grades...on the national landscape, C+. From the standpoint of a transition class...B+.
2) What Players Do You Really Like/Excited About?
Doug: Even though the d-line class is small, I like what we've done. Nix is a bulldozer in the middle, Utopo seems like one of those guys who just gets it done even though he's undersized, and Schwenke has the raw tools to be a pass rusher. All three of those guys could start in my book. Offensively, I think we're solid on the o-line with two potential anchors in James and Lombard.
Also like all the Cincy area high school guys that we recruited, and I like that Kelly went right out and started implementing this "big skill" mentality in his first class. He took a lot of tall, big frame guys who could project to a lot of different positions. It gives us options in terms of depth and versatility. These "big skill" guys could end up anywhere from DB to OL, and it probably helps team speed overall to take undersized guys and put weight on them.
Jeremy: The Usual Suspects - Louis Nix is the stud DT that ND has been waiting for; Matt James and Christian Lombard look like the next great ND o-linemen; Alex Welch will attempt to continue the GCL TE pipeline; and Tai-ler Jones should be the perfect slot WR for the Kelly offense. But I've got 3 guys that maybe are flying under the radar a bit that could be some real mainstays on the Irish defense for years to come. The first two guys are both on campus now, and could see some early playing time in the Irish secondary. Chris Badger flipped his commitment from Stanford to ND after visiting in June and represented the first pure safety commit in the class. Given the open depth chart at that position and Badger's natural skills on film, Badger's got a chance to make an early impact. Lo Wood, from the talent-heavy pipeline of Apopka, FL is the epitome of a ball-hawing, lock-down corner. As an early entrant, Wood might be able to hop on the field early as a special teams contributor and should add important depth to the CB position. Finally, Kendall Moore seems like a perfect fit as an ILB in the 3-4 defense, and can hopefully join with Te'o to create a hard-hitting, run-stopping tandem that ND has been lacking for quite some time.
Jimmy: I'm giddy about a few names that could become defensive stalwarts. Prince Shembo looks and sounds like a bad mofo as a rush LB. Love his high school production and the fact that defensive-minded southern schools like Va. Tech, Tennessee, UNC and Wake were vying for his attention. We need some lunch-pail guys to transform the defense. Also love Lo Wood as a ball-hawing CB who'll be christened by the student section with a big play salute befitting his jazzy moniker. Wood blocked seven (7!) kicks last year. Sign me up for a taste of Beamer Ball!! A guy you're not hearing much about is Spencer Boyd - a burner who projects as a CB. He's an early enrollee with Lo Wood, creating some early competition among the freshmen DBs. Justin Utopo & Kendall Moore are guys who will put some serious bite in the D - just get after the ball and be active. And love the size of Kona Schwenke - he could blossom into a main cog on the line with Lou Nix. Basically, I'm eager for a defensive overhaul. Nothing like new look hungry to show what they got. Kelly should have not problem finding ways to score. Until there's a new defensive mindset with a different attitude, winning a BCS game can't enter the discussion, let alone contending for the whole enchilada.
Pokey Reese: I like Tai-ler Jones, but mostly cause there is a hyphen in his first name. One of my friends teaches a girl named La-a (pronounced La-Dash-a). I'm only hoping that I can one day hear Hammond belting out "Ty-Dash-ler Jones into the end zone for the Irish touchdown." Hyphenated names aside, I'm most excited to see Louis Nix play a Casey Hampton (thankless) type roll in the middle. If he can learn to occupy blockers and allow our LBs to run free, we have made an immediate upgrade on the defensive side of the ball.
3) Biggest Disappointment About the Class:
Doug: Just not enough impact horses. Look at USC. They landed five 5 stars and 7 guys overall in the top 50. Absurd!! We didn't get one top 50 guy. This is a product of the 6-6 season and 15 years of mediocrity of course, but it's still a bummer and something that might hold us back from getting back into the elite picture. You can't win titles unless you have the big time studs. There are sleepers of course, but go back through the years and look at the top 50 rankings on Rivals. (No really, take a look: 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006) The top 50 is littered with the studs that become All-Americans and NFL draft picks. The Adrian Petersons and Rey Maualugas and Ted Ginns and Percy Harvins and CJ Spillers and DeSean Jacksons of the world. It's an impressive list, and we need to get more of those guys. We had some success in the Weis era with Clausen and Crist and Floyd and Te'o, but this year's class is more "solid" than something that jumps off the charts with high end guys.
Jeremy: Has to do mainly with expectations and needs. Rewind to the end of the 2008 season - Weis had just suffered an embarrassing home loss to a terrible Syracuse team and was on the verge of losing his job. But he was eventually retained, in part to keep his 2009 recruiting together. Also, the combination of a big Hawaii Bowl win and the surprise signing of the Hawaiian Hitman on Signing Day last year led some to believe that Weis' recruiting successes could help pull him out of the doldrums. The early verbals from Chris Martin and Christian Lombard, coupled with rumors of mutual interest from superstar recruits like Kyle Prater, Anthony Barr, Seantrel Henderson and others had Irish fans dreaming of perhaps snatching another Top 5 class. But as the losses mounted, the class started to stagnate. Superstar OT prospect James Hurst, from ND's backyard, verballed to UNC, interest from guys like Henderson, Prater and others waned and suddenly there were rumblings that Weis was headed for his second "filler" class in a row. Although the big USC weekend had some recruitniks thinking rejuvenation, the losses on the field were just too much to overcome, and the "next great class" quickly became an afterthought. The defection of Chris Martin was really just an example of the bigger disappointment - a continued failure by the coaching staff to meet expectations.
Jimmy: Since defense has been a glaring need, losing Chris Martin was a huge disappointment. He had star end rusher written all over him. His defection hurt. But if didn't want to be a part of what BK builds, we don't need him. Don't want to consider anybody that joins BK's first class to set the building blocks for a new winning tradition as a disappointment, even if one B. Heggie is the biggest head-scratcher of a signee in a long time.
Pokey Reese: I'm torn. Early in this recruiting cycle I was sure that we had two complete studs already signed, sealed and delivered. One hails from a traditional Irish pipeline (C-C-C-R-E_ _ _ T-T-T-T-N...C-R-E-T-I-N, Cretin-Derham Hall!) and the other is the son of Tony Brooks. In Snot Bubbles offense, Henderson is the shoe in winner for biggest disappointment. However, I agree with Kelly that left tackle is somewhat minimized in the spread. I'll go with Anthony Barr as the biggest disappointment. (not literally...Henderson is way bigger).
4) Thoughts on Kelly's Late Additions / RKGs in General? Do You Think Kelly has a Different Approach to Recruiting and Do You Like It?
Doug: In terms of filling out the back end of recruiting classes, I don't mind this approach. This is something that Kelly can bring to the table in terms of finding undervalued guys who could project to different positions. He has spent a lot of years scouting under-the-radar prospects, and I would guess he has a system to know what types of guys tend to pan out. When you are a small school coach, you need to have a "Moneyball" type system to beat the big boys by finding gems who are a little too small or slow to be a DB but could be a great linebacker. Or maybe don't have the size right now to be an offensive tackle, but could get there with the right physical development. Or maybe the guy was a great high school quarterback and a leader but might be better suited to play middle linebacker in college as the quarterback of the defense. You can gain an edge if you believe in your system and know how to develop those types of guys.
Only concern for me going forward is if Kelly focuses too much on these RKGs and loads up the class with lesser talent when we could be out there targeting more elite guys. We will find out more about Kelly's recruiting philosophy this year. I think he will prove to be fine on the recruiting trail, and will go after all the big names. He has offered every big name out there in 2011 at this point.
Jeremy: Obviously there's been quite a bit of discussion about the "RKG" issue, and I think Doug has done a good job covering just about every angle. I did enjoy listening to Kelly talk more about his recruiting philosophy on Signing Day - particularly the 5 or 6 things he looks for in HS kids before even thinking about making an offer. It's obvious that the RKG label is probably going to keep biting Kelly in the ass, but I think next year's class, and the offers that have already gone out to 2011 prospects show that Kelly is not going to avoid the 4 and 5-star kids. He might be a little more selective than Weis or his other predecessors in making offers to the highly ranked guys, but I think this is going to end up being a non-issue. With regard to his approach, I think we're going to have to wait and see. Frankly, I don't really care who he recruits as long as he wins on the field. Weis brought in plenty of 4-stars but couldn't get it done where it really mattered - in the win column.
Jimmy: First of all, you need players. I'm sure Kelly tried like heck to land the big fish that were still in the pond the last few days of signing. But if ND was far down the list, why waste time if you can spend it more wisely on looking for some unpolished gems Surprised to see a number of Stanford de-commitments and players interested in Harbaugh's program - he clearly has a good thing going in Palo Alto for the time being.
Though there's a nagging feeling that BK went a tad overboard targeting his "RKGs", I'm a firm believer that you need the glue guys in place first to set the tone for success to come. Let the premier skill position recruits fall into place and reap the benefits of an organic team working together for one purpose. That's been a foreign concept for a while on campus. I'm also confident in Kelly's ability to teach and develop talent, MUCH better than Tubby McHoodie, which was a hallmark disappointment from day one when teams never improved over the course of a season. This will be different, I am sure.
Pokey Reese: Was Jimmy Clausen an RKG? How about Michael Floyd? Kyle Rudolph? I mean...come on. RKG should mean the best talent that we can get [PERIOD]. The way it's being talked about in ND circles right now is embarrassing. Brian Kelly is not the Billy Beane of college football. He simply didn't have time to cultivate the relationships necessary to recruit the top level guys. If Kyle Prater was going to a school with a new coach, it certainly wasn't going to be in blustery, blue-gray skied South Bend. The only chance BK has is to show recruits that it will be different under his reign and develop relationships with recruits. RKG is a media spin to help us rationalize this class. Sure Briank Kelly looks at talent differently than Stoops and Meyer, but trust me...they all though Prater was an RKG.
5) Expectations for 2011 Class - Biggest Needs, Goals on the Trail, What Kelly Needs to Show, Etc.
Doug: Put it this way. This is Kelly's first big class. I think he needs to bring home a top 10 class with 20+ guys. Although we handed out a lot of scholarships late in the game, I still expect to have 18-20 to hand out next year. I'd put my wish list like this:
1) Impact safety and corner - Not only do we need depth, but we really need to get a couple studs back there. Should be interesting to see what our DBs look like this year. If they look much better, we might become an attractive place for some stud DBs.
2) 2-3 difference-makers at WR/RB/QB - Need to get that pipeline back up at the offensive skill positions.
3) Defense, defense, defense - Load up on front seven guys. You win in college football with the horses on defense. Kelly can scratch out offensive numbers with just about anything, but we need talent and playmakers in that front seven. Get me two stud defensive ends and a rush linebacker, and we could be onto something.
I'm pretty confident in Kelly's ability to recruit. I also think we're going to surprise some people in 2010 with the Ewing Theory in full effect.
Jeremy: Probably the two biggest needs will be at DE and S. The depth chart at those positions is frighteningly thin, particularly at S. I expect Kelly will also look to beef up the OL and bring in some great athletes to plug in on offense, particularly at WR. I fully expect that if Kelly has success on the field next year, he'll be just fine on the recruiting trail. Its almost a universal given that a new coach's 1st full recruiting class (after their 1st year on the field) results in a pretty good haul. Hell, even Bill Callahan had a great recruiting class after his first full season at Nebraska.
Jimmy: A few big splashes are sure to come. Major needs at RB and WR require addressing, though I don't think that will be too difficult. If Kelly molds his offense into the same high-octane force it's been, plenty of skill threats will clamor for South Bend. Defense still needs horses in the stable. Landing the difference-maker DT and CB who plays from the get-go is imperative. Most of all, Kelly needs to show that he can develop talent on the biggest stage. Do that and there'll be no shortage of top recruits lining up for the opportunity to place ND football in the national discussion for the right reasons.
Pokey Reese: The biggest need is for Brian Kelly to be talked about as a prime time recruiter. We need to have a big class (star power, not numbers). Outside of corner, I'm not particularly concerned about any position, but it is absolutely crucial that we land two or three studs. Buzz is the most important factor in recruiting. We need four or five kids being the ND crew at the all-star games. Snot Bubbles had it for a few years, and its really hard to compete consistently without it. There is always a need to find diamonds where others can't, but you also have to win your fair share of battles against Urbie, Stoops and Kiffykins.