Recruiting Reset: Notre Dame packing a powerful punch at running back

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Notre Dame’s need for a power running back in the 2018 class was so apparent, the Irish addressed it twice.

Teaming Markese Stepp and Jahmir Smith at running back has allowed Notre Dame to bring a bruising element to its future offenses.

The search for physical running backs hit a string of misses after losing Elijah Hood’s commitment to North Carolina in the 2014 class. The Irish have been able to sign at least one running back in the last three classes, but Stepp and Smith bring a different skill set to the program.

Sophomore running back Tony Jones Jr. may be the most physical running back on the current roster, but he could also stake claim as the position’s best receiving threat.

Running backs coach Autry Denson has assembled a crew of running backs who complement each other well. Adding Stepp and Smith to the mix continues that tradition.

Commitments

• Markese Stepp, 6-0, 210; Indianapolis Cathedral: By the time Stepp enrolls at Notre Dame, he could probably lead campus tours for his fellow freshmen. The four-star running back has been making recruiting trips to South Bend since his sophomore year at Cathedral.

Notre Dame extended a scholarship offer to Stepp in February of 2016, and the visits kept coming. Stepp could have easily become the first Irish commitment in the 2018 class, but quarterback Phil Jurkovec beat him to the punch by a month. Eventually, in June of 2016, Stepp did what seemed inevitable and committed to Notre Dame.

Though winning him over wasn’t exactly a challenge, gaining Stepp’s commitment was significant. Most importantly, he’s a talented in-state recruit from one of the top Catholic programs in Indiana. Secondarily, Stepp has been vocal and active in trying to recruit others to join him at Notre Dame. If the Irish are pursuing a recruit, he can expect to hear from Stepp.

On the football field, Stepp ran into some bad luck last season with a hamstring strain on his first carry of the year. The injury sidelined him for much of the season, but he made an impact in his limited opportunities. He rushed five times for 81 yards and four touchdowns in three games.

Following a drawn out recovery, a healthy hamstring has returned for Stepp. He tested it out at a couple of offseason camps and started his senior season with a bang on Friday. He turned 18 carries into 203 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-28 loss for Cathedral.

Stepp, ranked as the No. 9 running back in the 2018 class by Rivals and 247Sports, plays with both power and quickness when at his best. He can break a 73-yard touchdown on a run up the middle and bulldoze a defender standing in his way at the goal line.

• Jahmir Smith, 5-11, 198; Sanford (N.C.) Lee County: Notre Dame’s search for a second running back in the 2018 class appeared all but dead heading into July. Nearly every running back with an Irish offer had already lined up a commitment save for Smith, who had yet to make a visit to campus.

But behind the scenes, Smith scheduled an unofficial visit to Notre Dame without announcing it. He made the trip to South Bend and committed to the Irish less than a week later. Only when he shared his commitment publicly on July 23 was his visit to Notre Dame discovered.

Smith’s pledge allowed the Irish to double up on powerful running backs. If there was any concern about Stepp’s injury history, having a similar player in the class makes sense. While Stepp was nursing his hamstring last season, Smith was pounding his way to 2,130 yards and 40 touchdowns on 317 carries.

The three-star running back may be overshadowed in his own home state. North Carolina is home to multiple four-star running backs and the nation’s top running back, Zamir White. Rivals ranks Smith as the No. 17 running back in the 2018 class. 247Sports slates him at No. 24.

Smith committed to Notre Dame over offers from USC, North Carolina, N.C. State, Nebraska, Louisville and others.

In the first game of his senior season, Smith racked up 149 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries. He showed his ability to both avoid and run through defenders near the goal line on his two scores.

Missed targets

• Christian Turner, 5-10, 185; Buford (Ga.) High: Notre Dame went from home to runner-up in a matter of days for Turner. During his visit to Notre Dame in April, Turner used the home emoji to caption an Instagram photo from his time on campus. But a visit to Michigan the next day pushed the Wolverines ahead to gain his commitment the following week.

Rivals: Three stars, No. 15 RB. | 247Sports: Three stars, No. 23 RB.

• Jaelen Gill, 6-0, 175; Westerville (Ohio) South: The possibility of playing both football and baseball at Notre Dame produced early interest from Gill. Then the 2016 season happened. Gill broke his leg in September, but he still attended an Irish home game a month later. Notre Dame lost to Stanford that day and eventually started to fade in Gill’s recruitment. He committed to Ohio State in March with baseball being treated as a secondary option rather than a priority.

247Sports: Four stars, No. 1 all-purpose back. | Rivals: Four stars, No. 1 APB.

• T.J. Pledger, 5-9, 185; Bradenton (Fla.) IMG Academy: Before Pledger’s junior season, the Irish hosted the four-star running back from West Hills (Calif.) Chaminade. Months later, Pledger transferred to IMG Academy. But Notre Dame couldn’t get Pledger to follow in the footsteps of former IMG running back Tony Jones Jr. Pledger has been committed to Oklahoma since March.

Rivals: Four stars, No. 5 RB. | Four stars, No. 3 APB.

• Zamir White, 6-1, 210; Laurinburg (N.C.) Scotland County: Notre Dame landed a visit from the consensus top running back in the 2018 class last summer, but he never returned while making numerous visits elsewhere. White committed to Georgia in June.

Rivals: Five stars, No. 1 RB. | 247Sports: Five stars, No. 1 RB.

tjames@ndinsider.com

574-235-6214

Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Markese Stepp runs drills during Irish Invasion Saturday, June 10, 2017, inside Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

In the coming days, the ND Insider Recruiting Reset series will take a position-by-position look at Notre Dame’s recruiting efforts in the 2018 class. This is the second story of the series.

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