Notre Dame football recruiting flourishing ahead of early signing period

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

In less than a full year, the entire recruiting outlook for Notre Dame football has changed.

The Irish were hemorrhaging commitments throughout and following a disastrous 2016 season and were forced to finish the 2017 class with a number of late targets in January.

Thanks to a coaching staff shuffle, a rebound season on the field and the first early signing period for college football, Notre Dame should have wrapped up the vast majority of its Christmas wish list by the end of this week.

The Irish enter the early signing period, which starts Wednesday morning and runs through Friday night, with 20 commitments expected to sign a binding National Letter of Intent and at least three other recruits considering the possibility of joining the class in the coming days.

“It's an outstanding class as a whole so far,” said CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming. “They've done a great job. I have them sixth in the country right now.

“Everything's tentative because there are so many good players out there. They could drop out of the top 10 by signing day (in February). Who knows? Right now at this stage, Notre Dame's doing very well. Now it comes down to how well they close.”

The close started earlier this month with the addition of cornerback Tariq Bracy, defensive back Houston Griffith and tight end Tommy Tremble. It will continue this week with impending verdicts from cornerback Kyler Gordon and wide receiver Braden Lenzy, both four-star recruits and long-time targets of the Irish.

Three-star offensive lineman Frank Fillip, a Colorado commit, could also solidify a decision after visiting Notre Dame this past weekend. Four-star defensive back Julius Irvin had initially planned to sign with the school of his choice this week, but he announced Tuesday on Twitter that a family emergency will delay his decision until February.

What will define how high the Irish class ranks come February will be the ability to close on preferred targets rather than having to move to backup plans.

"In the past 15 years, closing has been a major problem for Notre Dame on super players at the end of the class,” Lemming said. “That’s when a good number of the impact players decide and will announce."

The Irish will continue to pursue at least nine different recruits at wide receiver, offensive line, defensive end, linebacker and cornerback to finish a class that could reach 25 commits in total.

The most fascinating decision will come Friday evening when Lenzy settles on his signature. The 6-foot, 175-pound speedster from Tigard (Ore.) High flipped his commitment from Notre Dame to Oregon in June, ditched his Ducks pledge earlier this month when head coach Willie Taggart left for Florida State, and made an official visit to South Bend shortly thereafter. He will now choose between Notre Dame, Oregon and UCLA with the Irish once again surging.

The 5-11, 180-pound Gordon has been torn between Washington and Notre Dame. It may be tough for the senior from Everett (Wash.) Archbishop Murphy to leave his home state, but he paid his way for a return trip to Notre Dame on an unofficial visit earlier this month.

Fillip has a Notre Dame official visit fresh on his mind from this past weekend, but his Irish recruitment hasn't lasted long. He received an offer from the Irish, who are trying to pull Fillip away from the verbal commitment he gave to Colorado in June. Houston Clear Lake head coach Larry McRae said the 6-foot-7, 275-pound Fillip has shown a good poker face in regards to his upcoming decision.

The core of Notre Dame’s recruiting class has been long established, which has allowed for an easy transition into the early signing period. Fifteen of the committed players gave their pledge to Notre Dame’s coaching staff before the 2017 season started.

The legend of quarterback Phil Jurkovec has only grown since he became the first commitment to the class in May 2016. He capped his career with an undefeated season and state championship for Gibsonia (Pa.) Pine-Richland by completing 243 of his 334 (73 percent) for 3,969 yards and 39 touchdowns with only six interceptions. Jurkovec also rushed for 1,211 yards and 24 touchdowns.

High school coaches and reporters in Western Pennsylvania have drawn serious, though cautious, comparisons between Jurkovec and the great quarterbacks to come from the area including Dan Marino, Joe Montana and Joe Namath. The hype has led to fan chatter about how soon Jurkovec can push junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush for the starting spot at Notre Dame.

No pressure, right? Both Rivals and 247Sports peg Jurkovec among the top five dual-threat quarterbacks in the 2018 class.

Similarly, safety Derrik Allen of Marietta (Ga.) Lassiter has been positioned as the cornerstone of Notre Dame’s defensive class with slightly fewer grandiose projections. He became the first big commitment in the 2018 class under defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s watch and is ranked as a top 10 safety by Rivals and 247Sports.

A flood of defensive talent has followed Allen and the four defensive commits Elko inherited: defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola, defensive end Justin Ademilola and linebackers Bo Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo.

Rivals ranks six Irish defensive commits as four-star talents: Griffith, Bauer, Allen, Jayson Ademilola, rover Shayne Simon and linebacker Jack Lamb.

Lemming says it’s Notre Dame’s best group of defensive recruits since the 1990 class that included three future first-round NFL Draft picks (defensive tackle Bryant Young and defensive backs Tom Carter and Jeff Burris) and the USA Today 1989 High School Football Defensive Player of the Year (linebacker Oliver Gibson).

And yes, that means better than the 2013 class featuring Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield and the 2011 class with Ishaq Williams, Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch.

“It tells you something about how weakly they've recruited defensive players for the past 28 years,” Lemming said. “That's the reason why they haven't been winning on a consistent basis because they always seem to bring in the offensive guys.

“But they had a lot of trouble defensively mainly because the coordinators, as soon as they got to Notre Dame, started looking for head coaching jobs. Or they were just inept like Brian VanGorder."

A strong finish could keep Notre Dame in the top five nationally in 2018 class rankings. Rivals slates the Irish at No. 5 with 247Sports slightly lower at No. 7. Kelly’s 2013 class received the highest ranking (No. 3) of his Notre Dame tenure. The Irish have come a long way from scouring three-star recruits to flip in January for the 2017 class.

"It's all about the new coaches: Mike Elko, (offensive coordinator) Chip Long and (recruiting coordinator) Brian Polian. They've done well,” Lemming said. “It shows you what an influx of new talent, new direction and new enthusiasm can do for a program. Plus, I think Kelly re-upped when it came to recruiting and did his part. That has a lot to do with it.”


Listen: Eric Hansen highlights Notre Dame's five biggest signing day storylines below.


Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Cornerback Kyler Gordon (1), a 2018 recruit, reported a Notre Dame offer on Feb. 23, 2017. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)