DL star power proves elusive for Notre Dame
While making his rounds visiting the nation’s top high school football players in the Class of 2015 last week, CBS Sports recruiting analyst Tom Lemming spent time with Albert Huggins in Orangeburg, S.C.
Lemming said the 6-foot-4, 285-pound Huggins, regarded as the best player in South Carolina and one of the best defensive linemen in the country in next year’s recruiting class, has 20 scholarship offers from several big-time colleges.
But, according to Lemming, Notre Dame’s not one of them.
Making an early (heck, in terms of today’s recruiting world, it may be considered late) pitch for Huggins might not be a bad idea for the Irish.
“Huggins has the grades to get into Notre Dame, so that’s not a problem,” Lemming said. “(Huggins) told me he got a questionnaire from Notre Dame, but that’s it.”
When Lemming had finished his conversation with Huggins, he said Alabama coach Nick Saban was waiting at the door.
Within a span of two recruiting cycles, Notre Dame has lost some amazing talent
along the defensive line. Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt each left a year of eligibility on the table when they rolled the dice for what could be first-round selections in May’s NFL draft. Aaron Lynch bolted for The League after two years of college ball — one at Notre Dame and one at South Florida — and Eddie Vanderdoes left the Irish for UCLA after he signed with Notre Dame last year.
Given those situations, the Brian Kelly regime at Notre Dame obviously has a track record for landing top defensive line talent. Still, the fact of the matter is the current group of recruits, who will sign letters-of-intent Wednesday, may lack the star power of phenoms gone by.
Six guys — ends Andrew Trumbetti (already enrolled) and Jonathan Bonner; end/outside linebackers Grant Blankenship and Jhonny Williams; end/tackle Jay Hayes; and nose guard Pete Mokwuah — comprise what appears to be the signing-day haul to bolster the Irish defensive line.
That perceived dip in the talent level comes at a difficult time for Kelly and his new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.
In a perfect world — seen through shamrock-crusted glasses — having Nix, Tuitt, Lynch and Vanderdoes, along with Sheldon Day, on the Irish defensive line in 2014 would have made for an imposing front, no matter the scheme VanGorder would have chosen.
Instead, Day will be the only proven entity along the line. That’s why making a big splash with a ready-to-use big man was a mandate that doesn’t seem to have been answered with this class.
At least, it depends on who’s talking.
“It’s a tough position to fill,” Lemming said of stocking the defensive line. “You need a 300-pound guy who can run like a tight end. You need someone who is quicker and more athletic than an offensive lineman.”
“No matter what level, you need big, physical, fast guys up front to keep the offensive linemen off the linebackers,” said Penn High coach Cory Yeoman, who played defensive line at Miami (Ohio) from 1980-83. “Those guys are rare.
“I remember watching Sheldon Day in high school (at Warren Central in Indianapolis). A lot of people would say even he was undersized (6-foot-2, 290 pounds). Look at what a great player he’s become.”
“The interior guys are a whole different breed (compared to defensive ends),” said Bryan Mattison, a Penn High grad who played defensive end at the University of Iowa in 2003-07. “I’ve never had to recruit, but I could imagine it would be difficult to find that guy.
“Great linebackers get to be that way because they have great defensive linemen in front of them. Keep the offensive linemen off them, then let (the linebacker) make an open-field tackle.”
It’s all a process. The process begins up front.
“The key is to recognize them as freshmen or sophomores, then recruit them for at least two years,” said Lemming.
That’s why Lemming feels the Irish have already missed the boat on a talented athlete like Huggins, who is in the second semester of his junior year.
“Notre Dame’s (2014) class, in my opinion, is lacking impact players at running back, wide receiver and the defensive line,” said Lemming.
The young talent already in place at running back and receiver on the roster can make up for this deficiency, but defensive line ...
Steve Wiltfong, a recruiting analyst for 247Sports, isn’t convinced the Irish stockpile won’t be a quality ensemble of defensive linemen.
“The defensive line is one of the strengths of their class,” Wiltfong said. “All of them have explosiveness. They aren’t getting any plodders.”
According to Wiltfong, one of the biggest disappointments the Irish dealt with during this recruiting period was the loss of four-star defensive lineman Matt Dickerson, who flipped from Notre Dame to UCLA when a family situation surfaced.
“Losing Dickerson really hurt,” Wiltfong said. “With him, that class could have been rated a lot higher.”
Ratings aside, the Irish will have to figure out a way to piece together a line around Day with relatively unknown commodities like Jarron Jones, Isaac Rochell and Jacob Matuska, along with Tony Springmann, who missed all of last season after knee surgery, and maybe even Ishaq Williams and Romeo Okwara, who might find their way from linebacker to defensive line.
Many possibilities. But, how many legitimate answers to some pretty significant questions up front?
“This was an excellent year for defensive linemen all over the country,” Lemming said. “All it takes is the stick-to-it-tivenss of the assistants in their area of the country. Georgia, Texas, Florida, South Carolina — there were great players in a lot of places.
“Notre Dame is the easiest school in America to sell. The key is to stay on top of those recruits the whole time. Recruiting’s no longer a one-year process.”
An inexact science with a 24/7/365 timetable.
And, oh yeah, just a wee bit of pressure.