Notebook: Notre Dame's search continues at O-line, defensive back positions
SOUTH BEND — There were no recruiting surprises and no gimmick commitments on the first day of the early signing period for Notre Dame.
Everything went as expected, and the Irish can’t ask for much more than that. All 20 of the Notre Dame verbal commits sent in a National Letter of Intent before 11 a.m. EST, allowing head coach Brian Kelly to gush about his future players at a scheduled press conference.
“Be hard-pressed to find a college football program that signed 20 players today,” Kelly said, “and so my estimation is this is probably the number one recruiting class in the country if you talk about signed players.”
Several programs hit 20 signees on Wednesday, but the list of teams ranked ahead of the Irish was short. As of Wednesday evening, Rivals ranked Notre Dame’s class at No. 6 nationally behind Ohio State, Georgia, Penn State, Miami and Texas. 247Sports slated the class at No. 9
The last two weeks saw Notre Dame add three commitments (cornerback Tariq Bracy, defensive back Houston Griffith and tight end Tommy Tremble) and lose commitments from two others (wide receiver Geordon Porter and running back Markese Stepp). The Irish found little push-back in the ability to sign recruits with long-standing or recent verbal commitments.
“It's put the commitment back in commitment, and really what that means,” Kelly said of what he likes about the early signing period, which runs through Friday night. “No more soft commitments.
“The charge that I gave to our assistant coaches is that if a player has given us his commitment, we have been committed to them that they're going to sign with us. If not, that's fine, but we're going to keep recruiting that position.”
The early signing period gave Kelly the rare opportunity to discuss what the Irish coaching staff is still looking for to finish the class. He indicated defensive back and offensive line will receive top priority with the remaining spots going to the best players available. Notre Dame seems most likely to settle on a class with close to 25 recruits.
A position Kelly didn’t name was wide receiver, which may have been an indication of how he feels Notre Dame will fare when four-star recruit Braden Lenzy announces his commitment Friday at 6 p.m. EST. The Irish could beat out Oregon and UCLA in his recruitment.
Notre Dame is also awaiting word from four-star cornerback Kyler Gordon, who will sign following an announcement Thursday at 10 p.m. EST. He will pick between Washington and Notre Dame on KING 5, the local NBC TV station in Seattle.
Notre Dame was unable to land a late flip from three-star offensive lineman Frank Fillip, who solidified his six-month commitment to Colorado.
Brian Polian, named Notre Dame’s recruiting coordinator in August, was tasked with making sure everything came together in the last four months. He was quick to thank his fellow coaches, their families and temper expectations for the recruits who have signed during Wednesday’s press conference. But he also made clear that the Irish aren’t done yet.
“We've got a really good group of kids that were fun to recruit,” Polian said, “and I hope that we will add to this group, because there is still some work to do.”
Picking out the recruits who will surpass expectations has become an annual recruiting tradition.
Almost every class has them. Naturally Notre Dame’s coaches typically hold their own recruits in higher esteem than some of the recruiting services.
Polian was happy to point out a handful of future Irish players who he deems underrated.
On running back Jahmir Smith: “I am a big Jahmir Smith fan, and I'm not sure that he got the type of recognition that he deserved. He's a big, physical back, 5-10, 5-11, nearly 200 pounds as a high school senior, north and south runner, exceptional student, terrific kid.”
On cornerback Tariq Bracy: “He's in northern California, metro Oakland, which is not necessarily a recruiting destination for the people that are going into California. When you look at what he's done on both sides of the ball he's a unique player.”
On offensive linemen Cole Mabry and John Dirksen: “These are going to be really big men that can move their feet. Often on the offensive line, ‘Boy, he weighs 270 right now, is he going to get big enough?’ We have a great strength staff, the world is filled with big guys. Big and can move their feet and bend and athleticism, you recruit that and hand them over to Coach Balis and his staff and let nature take its course.”
On safety Paul Moala: “A local guy here. How special is that? That we can find a player that ultimately we believe we can compete for a national championship with that fits the academic profile and comes from 10 miles away (at Penn High School). Whenever you can do that, it's great for your program, and he's a wonderful kid with a great family.”
Polian covered himself with plenty of choices. Each one he named has a three-star rating from either Rivals or 247Sports. Only Bracy has a four-star rating from 247Sports. Rivals rates Moala as a two-star talent.
The Irish signed just one defensive end, three-star recruit Justin Ademilola. Finding a second pass rusher has been a priority in recent months, but the Irish appear to have run out of realistic options.
New targets could develop in January, but Kelly noted they aren’t willing to reach at the position. He said the Irish like some of their options in the 2019 class at defensive end.
“If we had targeted and profiled the right fit for Notre Dame, we would have taken another pass rusher,” Kelly said. “We think next year's class is a group of players in there that really fits a lot of the needs and profile of a Notre Dame defensive player at that position. We're not going to take somebody just to take somebody in this class at that position.”
Polian has coached at eight different college football programs and served as Nevada’s head coach before returning to Notre Dame this year.
His recruiting prowess, including his famous pursuit of five-star linebacker Manti Te’o, has been well-documented. So what does he think of Kelly as a recruiter?
“He’s as active and competitive about it as anybody else I've worked for,” Polian said. “The great thing about coach Kelly is that if the coordinators or a position coach has a strong conviction about a young man, Coach will hear them out and say, ‘OK, if everybody is on board, let's go.’
“He is not a micromanager, but that's a good thing sometimes, and the coordinators know what they're looking for and know what they want, and we’re able to build that way.”
Polian’s first job as a graduate assistant was on head coach Nick Saban’s staff at Michigan State in 1997.
The 2018 class could end up being the second-best of Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame come February. Rivals ranked his 2013 class No. 3 nationally.