Notre Dame recruiting: Unexpected season elevated Irish class

BOB WIENEKE - <a href="http:

If you scan the list of players expected to sign with Notre Dame today, a chronological listing of when those players committed will show that most of the 23 pledged the Irish before the season.

Most. But not all.

Cornerback Cole Luke picked ND in early November, after the Irish had hit their stride and were on their way to a perfect regular season.

Running back Greg Bryant jumped aboard in early December, roughly a week after ND secured a spot in the BCS National Championship Game. Safety Max Redfield backed out of his USC commitment during the season and switched to ND in early January.

What do those three have in common? They just so happen to be among the biggest names in a class that is ticketed to finish in the top 5 after today's cocktail of pomp, drama, angst and relief (otherwise known as National Signing Day) is drained.

The conclusion? Notre Dame took that surprising and successful season, made it one of the key elements of its recruiting pitch and parlayed it into signing day success.

"I think they took advantage of the season they had," said national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell, "and that's the most important thing in recruiting."

"The season ND had on the field played into them landing guys at the end," said CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming.

The level of success, however, wasn't limited to the time period after ND barged into the national title hunt.

Well before that, Brian Kelly and his staff had secured commitments from five offensive linemen who compose one of the nation's top groups at the position. Last summer Fort Wayne linebacker Jaylon Smith gave the class a shot of octane with his pledge. The last two years, ND didn't secure a quarterback until late in each of those cycles. This year, Malik Zaire provided continuity with his spring commitment.

"Here's a guy that's a little bit small, but so is Everett Golson," Farrell said of the 6-foot, 196-pound Zaire, "and he's done pretty well."

Farrell pointed out that he believes the answer in terms of what ND's biggest need is/was isn't a particular position group.

"I think when you're Notre Dame, the initial need is not position," he said, "it's speed. It's to get quicker. It's to get more athletic. It's to get faster."

In addition to the aforementioned needs, Farrell pointed out that the Irish replenished at other spots that suffered loss.

With running backs Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood gone, the Irish added Bryant and likely Tarean Folston, who committed last month, but flirting with Auburn.

Tight end Tyler Eifert is gone to the NFL, but Farrell sees already-enrolled Mike Heuerman as a guy who could someday fill the role as pass-catching tight end that Eifert vacated.

Farrell had to drill down to find possible misses, identifying speed at wide receiver as one possibility and defensive line as another, although Eddie Vanderdoes, who announces his pick today, would allay that.

And the loss of linebacker Alex Anzalone, who flipped to Florida during the period when Kelly's name was linked to the Philadelphia Eagles job, took a bit of the shine off the linebacker luster.

Still, a commitment today from Vanderdoes would further round out the class, one that went from good to great as the season sped toward special.

"It was a dream season. Everything came together," Farrell said. "Now it's sort of a cruse control when it comes to recruiting. You can go 3-9 at Notre Dame and still recruit a top-5 class.

"You go 12-0, your recruiting can go to a different level, a stratosphere that hasn't been reached before."

Staff writer Bob Wieneke