Kelly describes importance of 2013 class
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- As Notre Dame licked its wounds after the BCS Championship, something became clear to Irish coaches: There was a significant gap between them and Alabama, and they had to do something to close it.
Bringing in a highly-touted crop of freshman on Wednesday's national signing day appears to be a step in that direction.
Notre Dame's class of 2013 is headlined by four Rivals five-star recruits, the most players ranked that high since Dayne Crist, Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph signed in 2008. Linebacker Jaylon Smith comes to South Bend rated better than the last five-star linebacker Notre Dame signed -- and that was Manti Te'o. Greg Bryant will join a stable of running backs that's reloading after losing Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick. Safety Max Redfield very well could find himself starting for the Irish at some point next fall.
Bryant, Redfield and Smith all signed their letters of intent Wednesday morning, with defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes donning a Notre Dame hat Wednesday night and sending in his LOI. The Placer, Calif., native was rated as the No. 3 defensive tackle in the class of 2013 and the No. 21 player nationally by Rivals.
Adding another odd wrinkle to signing day, Notre Dame's official signing day release contained a bio of Vanderdoes -- as if he had signed his LOI earlier in the day. Still, it was hardly as odd as South Florida running back Alex Collins having his LOI stolen by his own mother so he couldn't sign with Arkansas.
Winning certainly played a major part in Notre Dame landing a top-flight class, although it's worth noting 16 members of the team's incoming class were committed before the season started. But Bryant and Redfield -- both of whom could make major impacts in 2013 -- were brought on after Notre Dame rose back to national prominence.
"That certainly had an impact with him as far as piquing his interest," running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Tony Alford said regarding Bryant. "Going from having zero contact from May until (after the Wake Forest game), I would like to believe that probably added some strength to it."
Alford explained, though, that while Notre Dame's undefeated record was what first attracted Bryant to the school, it was everything else that sold the highly-touted running back on coming to South Bend.
"We tell kids up front here's what we're doing, and if that doesn't fit they'll bail quickly," Alford said.
Notre Dame's class isn't just about its three five-star players, though. Notre Dame signed 14 Rivals four-star players, four of which are offensive linemen. That was a big need for Notre Dame last season, when a major injury to a starting lineman could've brought a thin unit crashing down.
Kelly referred to adding offensive linemen as a "critical need" for his team, which only had five capable offensive linemen practicing during parts of the buildup to the BCS Championship. With that in mind, Kelly said adding more linemen (three-star lineman Colin McGovern made it five) was "central to this recruiting class."
Notre Dame also added some much-needed depth in the secondary, with four-star cornerback Cole Luke leading that group. Three-star defensive backs Rashad Kinlaw and Devin Butler could be players to watch behind incumbent starters KeiVarae Russell and Bennett Jackson as well -- there was such little depth behind them last year that running back Cam McDaniel was flipped to cornerback for parts of the season.
There are plenty more intriguing players in this class, including two four-star wide receivers with All-Star pedigrees. Torii Hunter, Jr. (son of Detroit Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter) and Corey Robinson (son of former San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson) bring plenty of upside to South Bend, with Robinson one of the more intriguing signees of the class.
"He's just beginning to blossom," Kelly said. "He's just started to take hold in this game of football … we think we've got a guy early on that has not even come close to tapping his potential."
But even with all that talent, though, Notre Dame's signing class is only on par with the crop of blue-chippers brought in by Alabama and its SEC brethren. Rivals ranks the Tide's class No. 2, while Ole Miss secured the nation's No. 1 recruit (DE Robert Nkemdiche) and a top 10 class. The SEC as a whole has a staggering 12 classes ranked in Rivals' top 25.
Losing to Alabama didn't change how Notre Dame recruited -- after all, the loss came less than one month from signing day -- but this class, Kelly explained, is just part of the climb to pull the Irish closer to the nation's most powerful program.
"Our players are going to continue to close that gap, even if it's a little bit, through this recruiting process," Kelly said. "I don't think we went into this and said, well, we know Alabama looks like this, we've got to change what we do. I think we're just three years into this, and I think we continue to close the gap."