Notre Dame recruiting: Kelly, ND taking steps toward the next step

ERIC HANSEN - <a href="http:

From a laptop screen, watching a live stream from outside U.S. borders, Aaron Taylor saw a gap that was as unembellished as it was pronounced, even through a lo-def vantage point. But the former Notre Dame All-America offensive lineman and current CBS Sports football analyst also saw hope, beyond the statistical carnage in Alabama's Jan. 7 coronation as dynastic power in college football at the expense of his alma mater. Recruiting analysts JC Shurburtt and Tom Lemming saw it too, the potential that the 42-14 mauling in the BCS National Championship at Miami Gardens, Fla., had to fuel another step in Notre Dame's football evolution.

Shurburtt, of 247Sports, in fact, counts Notre Dame as one of the eight programs -- five outside the Southeastern Conference -- with the best shot at someday closing the gap on the rolling Tide and perhaps toppling the dynasty. SEC brethren LSU, Florida and Texas A&M, along with outsiders Ohio State, Oregon, Florida State and USC, are the others.

"I think Notre Dame fans -- and the Notre Dame team too -- should be thankful for what the national championship game showed them," Taylor said, "because now they know exactly how far they have to go and exactly what they're trying to do and trying to look at.

"I think that could help them in the offseason training program and lifting, where guys realize, 'Holy (crap), we were pretty good during the regular season. But when we got into a street fight with a street fighter, we got our (butts) whipped.' I know, as a 19-year-old kid, that would have been pretty motivating to me. All that helps.

"But if that gap is going to close, it's imperative that what happens Wednesday is the start of it."

Wednesday happens to be National Signing Day in college football, the fourth that Brian Kelly has presided over as the head football coach at Notre Dame. Five members of what could swell to a 24-man class by the end of the day, enrolled early, in mid-January, and will be able to participate in spring practice, starting March 20.

It's a consensus top 5 class, the second Kelly has concocted at ND. But the ranking isn't as important necessarily as how it advances the program.

The beauty in Kelly's 2011 class is that it was flush with defensive front-seven talent, headlined by Stephon Tuitt, Ishaq Williams and eventual one-and-doner Aaron Lynch (now at the University of South Florida).

That position group had been the elusive piece that had separated the Irish from a top five finish since 1993, Taylor's senior season at ND. With that evolutionary step and a couple of seasons to incubate, the Irish finished No. 4 in the final AP poll in January, even with the dressing down from Alabama.

And now the next step?

"Defensive linemen, overall ability and overall team depth are what you need to be successful in the SEC and, therefore, in the national landscape," Taylor said. "When you look at it, the difference in the BCS Era, of all the national championship teams, you can name defensive linemen off those teams.

"That's why Oregon hasn't been able to get over that hump, even though they came close against Auburn. Now Notre Dame has some guys like that -- Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt. But they need more of them.

"The big misconception is that it's all about the 22 you put on the field. But if Notre Dame is going to get to the top level, it's what's beyond those 22 that's going to get them there. That's where Alabama, and LSU, for that matter, are. They've got a team full of Manti Te'os at their respective positions. And when they lose one to injury or early to the draft, they just simply reload and plug another one in."

So as ND moves forward, it's not simply about whether linebacker Jaylon Smith, the nation's consensus No. 3 player overall, flashes five-star form throughout his career but also whether fellow linebackers Michael Deeb and Doug Randolph develop.

"As you look at Alabama, they've put together six straight outstanding classes," Lemming said. "That started before they began winning national championships.

"Notre Dame has had great classes, but they've been consistently inconsistent over the past 23 years. They need to string great classes together, and there's no reason why they shouldn't with this coaching staff."

Lemming, of CBS Sports, said the position groups that saw significant upgrades in terms of quantity and quality in this class are at linebacker, defensive back, running back and offensive line. If there's one group that lacks difference-makers, he said, it's the wide receivers.

"Of the guys in this class and already on the roster, the one guy who has a chance to develop into that go-to-guy is (sophomore) DaVaris Daniels," Lemming said. "The incoming guys are all solid, but they're not like Alabama's receivers or USC's. That's something they'll need to address in the next class."

The cynic will say ND will never catch up with the SEC, because purportedly, those schools are playing by a different set of recruiting rules, namely by oversigning and the use of grey-shirting.

Oversigning is signing more players than the NCAA limit of 25 without using the early-enrollment loophole. Grey-shirting is having a signed player either delay his enrollment until the spring semester of his freshman year or attend part-time at his own expense in the fall until he can go on scholarship as part of the next class in January of his freshman year.

The alleged roster manipulation includes stashing prospects at prep schools and cutting existing players or putting them unnecessarily on medical hardship to make room for more-promising prospects.

Taylor, Shurburtt and Lemming all said that in the current state of the SEC, oversigning in particular, is more myth than reality.

"The SEC created their own oversigning rule a couple of years ago," Taylor said. "(SEC commissioner) Mike Slive is a pretty bright guy and realizes the brand of the SEC is college football's most powerful and doesn't want to do anything to besmirch that.

"With that being said, coaches are always looking for ways and opportunities to circumnavigate the rules, to push the envelope, to get as close to the line of demarcation as you can, and they're always trying to find creative ways to do that. I think SEC coaches are no different, but I certainly wouldn't say that they're any worse than any other conference."

Shurburtt said grey-shirting is a reality in the SEC, but is a misunderstood concept. He said that 95 percent of the grey-shirt situations are prearranged and not dropped on a prospect at the 11th hour to manipulate the roster.

"What it is, is a guy really wants to go to a school," Shurburtt said. "That school doesn't have a scholarship for that first semester and he chooses the grey-shirt option maybe over some four-year options, maybe because he wants to play up a level or just always dreamed of going to that school.

"To me if you ban grey-shirting, you're almost denying kids an opportunity, because most of these guys that do it, willingly do it and arrange it and take it. That's what they want to do.

"Now if it's proven guys are getting cut, certainly that's unethical, it's an unfair advantage and somebody should do something about it. But there needs to be proof. People are looking for an explanation on the SEC, and this is an easy way to do it -- to get in there and look at the numbers and say, 'They've got all these extra players.'

"(Alabama coach) Nick Saban has better players, because he evaluates better. He misses less often. Same with Brian Kelly. If you have better players than other people, you're usually going to make some noise."

Ultimately, though, it's more than simply the raw talent. It's also player development. And Alabama, under Saban, excels there, too. A glaring example is All-America guard Chance Warmack, a probable top 10 pick in April's NFL Draft.

Warmack was a three-star prospect from Atlanta coming out of high school, who was looked at but not offered a scholarship by homestate power Georgia, per

Add to all that Saban's X's and O's, which seem to be heightened when his teams plays on the biggest stages. Alabama has won its last four bowl games, three of them for national titles, by a combined 149-42.

"He's got it down to a science," Taylor said of Saban. "How he's going to rest his guys, how he's going to work his guys, how hard they'll tackle or not, whether they'll scrimmage or not, keeping the guys on task and being focused. As good as a coach as Brian Kelly is, it's not easy to navigate and manage."

And yet apparently it can be learned.

Saban's first three bowl games as a college head coach, all at Michigan State, resulted in three lopsided losses by a combined score of 134-49. The basketball parallel is UCLA icon John Wooden, who went 0-4 in his first four and 3-9 in his first 12 NCAA Tournament games before going 44-1 in those contests to end his career.

"The system, obviously, that Nick Saban has is proven," Shurburtt said. "The process is proven, and he proved it at LSU 10 years ago, too. But Brian Kelly certainly has proven throughout his career that he's able to recruit and develop and coach too."

"Notre Dame still has some work to do," Taylor added, "but I think it's work that's getting done. Had they gone 9-4 or 10-3 instead of 12-1 this past season, people would be really excited about what's coming up this next season and what the immediate future holds. But because we got our (butt) kicked so bad on a national stage against a team that's won three out of the last four national championships, now everybody is saying. 'Oh man, we've got so far to go.'

"That's not the case. Brian Kelly is the guy. He's building the program right. He's building it slowly. He's building it through depth and development, and that's what he's going to need to be successful."

Staff writer Eric Hansen