Thursday, February 10, 2011

Here Come the Irish: 2011 recruiting and preview

Okay, so I've been a little MIA lately. Quitting your job to start your own law practice will do that to you. But now that the dust has settled somewhat, I thought I'd put in my two cents on the much-ballyhooed recruiting class that Kelly and Co. just inked on Feb. 2.

I've spent the last week absorbing a lot of what's out there about this year's class, and my general impression is that this will in fact be the class that brings about the oft-mentioned "Return to Glory." I've tried my best to find fault with the class, and there are some misses, including an elite running back.

But it's what this staff did at the top of the class that has everyone excited.

If you've followed Irish recruiting for any amount of time, you will remember miss after miss on elite recruits on the defensive line. Elite defensive line recruits like Justin Trattou, Omar Hunter and Gerald McCoy haunt Irish memories. And those misses have led to year after year of mediocre performance by the defensive line. There were bright spots - Victor Abiamiri and Trevor Laws come to mind - but we didn't have the talent and depth we needed to control the line of scrimmage on defense.

Which is what makes the recruiting haul this year so impressive. We didn't just land one or two elite recruits up front. We landed arguable the strongest pass-rushing class anywhere in at least a decade. Perhaps longer. Maybe ever.

Aaron Lynch - Scout: #10 overall, #2 DE, Rivals: #28 overall, #3 strongside DE
Ishaq Williams - Scout: #20 overall, #4 DE, Rivals: #16 overall, #2 weakside DE
Stephon Tuitt - Scout: #44 overall, #10 DE, Rivals: #22 overall, #2 strongside DE
Ben Councell - Scout: Not ranked overall, #32 OLB, Rivals: #91 overall, #5 weakside DE
Plus, three other talented defensive end prospects in Carrico, Rabasa and Springmann.

That's a great recruiting haul over a 4-year period, much less a single year. Depending on how these guys develop, one or more could move outside to the linebacker or inside to the nose. Regardless, we have significantly upgraded the pass-rushing talent, and that will make it difficult for teams to pass against us with that much depth coming off the corners.

With the way that Manti Te'o plays, and what we've seen from 2010 defense towards the end of the year, there is certainly plenty of reason to get excited.

This recruiting class suddenly makes next year's team a legit contender as long as one of the quarterbacks step up. This recruiting class conjures up memories of 1973, when Notre Dame signed bookends at defensive end in Browner and Fry. They won a title as freshmen.

Indeed, it's not out of the realm of possibility for this team to win them all next year. I'm not going to go so far as to actually predict such a finish, but a quick look at the schedule makes it look like a definite possibility:

South Florida - I wouldn't take Skip Holtz and the Bulls for granted - this team beat Clemson in a bowl game last season. But, the talent differential and being unlucky enough to be the first opponent of the season means this should be a W for the Irish.
Michigan - The Rich Rodriguez era crashed and burned, and the Wolverines were repeatedly spurned by their anointed Michigan men Jim Harbaugh and Les Miles. The stumbled onto some unproven potential in Brady Hoke, but there are still too many holes in recruiting, particularly at the skill positions, to expect that the Irish will lose this one.
Michigan State - It took them a trick play in overtime after the play clock had expired to beat us at the beginning of the season, before we hit our stride. Michigan State is a stable program and will certainly challenge us, but an improved team should be able to win over Sparty.
Pittsburgh - The Pitt team we beat last year took a beating this offseason when they hired and fired Mike Haywood then turned at the last second to Todd Graham, of the prolific Tulsa offense. That confusion, however, has killed their recruiting class, dropping them out of the top 50 classes. That high flying offense is dangerous, but I have trouble believing that we'll lose this game.
Purdue - It's Purdue - count it as a win. They couldn't even beat my Hoosiers last year. Their recruiting class was disappointing at best, and none of their classes have ranked in the top 50. Win.
Air Force - How much hype have you heard about the 2011 Falcons? Bueller? Bueller? We should be able to handle this team, as long as we don't get caught looking ahead to USC.
Southern Cal - We took care of the USC monkey this year, and they are on probation. They will still be talented, but I don't think they'll be better next year (most likely worse), and I'm positive we will be better. Should win.
Navy - Navy has had our number lately, and they destroyed us last season. However, the loss of Ricky Dobbs, a healthy Michael Floyd and the defensive upgrade should lead to a return to form next year with the Irish beating the Middies.
Wake Forest - 3-9 last year. And coach Grobe has already said he wants to redshirt his whole freshman class if possible. Win.
Maryland - Maryland won a bowl game in impressive fashion, but they will be yet another team trotting out a new coach in Randy Edsall. Coach Edsall has shown that he can build a program, but it should take some time. Some big losses on both sides of the ball, and a recruiting class in the bottom half of the ACC.
Boston College - A young team that will improve each year, but we beat them soundly last year, and they are coming to Notre Dame stadium. New offensive coordinator could mean some struggles on that side of the ball. I'm always worried about BC, especially when we could be very highly rated and they thrive on being the spoiler. But we should win this game.
Stanford - Stanford was great last year, and kicked the crap out of us. Most of the team will be back, including Andrew Luck. But, they have a new head coach in promoted offensive coordinator David Shaw. They should still be a very good team, but come the end of the season, I'm betting that Notre Dame will have more to play for, and will be clickiing on all cylinders.

A lot can happen between this early in the spring and the season - young players will step up and become household names and there are plenty of examples of new head coaches having immediate success. However, it's hard to look at the schedule right now and believe that we won't have a chance to win every game.

Other recruits to watch:

Everett Golson, QB A true dual threat quarterback who fits Kelly's system perfectly.
George Atkinson III, WR A great athlete being recruited as a wide receiver, it will be hard to keep his speed and athleticism off of the field.
Matt Hegarty, OL Consensus top 10 offensive tackle recruit - won't play early as he needs to bulk up, but has a great frame and technique.
Troy Niklas, OL/DL Not sure where he'll end up, but he has the frame to play tackle or nose. If he plays on defense, could be the middle of an epic defensive line. Snatched him from the clutches of USC on signing day,