Counting down the top recruits of the Brian Kelly Era at Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

If everything goes according to plan — perhaps the six most dubious words in the college football recruiting vernacular — Brian Kelly will be smiling Wednesday … without forcing it.

It’s not a matter of if the ninth-year Notre Dame head football coach will add to a 2018 recruiting class that netted 21 prospects during the new early signing window in December, but how many. The first signature among Wednesday’s signees will be the milestone 200th of the Kelly Era.

That does count some players who never suited up for the Irish — such as defensive linemen Eddie Vanderdoes (UCLA), Bo Wallace (Arizona State) and Nile Sykes (Indiana) — but doesn’t include seven transfers in, and a handful of transcendent walk-ons — linebacker and 2014 MVP Joe Schmidt and current wide receiver/punt returner Chris Finke, among them.

The following is a sweet 16 of the most significant Kelly Era recruits. It’s not all about star ratings. Geographical significance, impact on program perception, need, timing, how the player developed, and team success are all part of this big picture.

16. Nyles Morgan (Crete, Ill.): The end of the Bob Diaco run as defensive coordinator, the dawning of Brian VanGorder’s regime and the short void in between all contributed to a 2014 Irish class that comprised 10 three-star prospects among the 13 defensive signees.

Middle linebacker Morgan was one of the exceptions, and a late one at that, who didn’t even have ND in his initial cut to a final five list of schools. ND’s suddenly low inventory of both bodies and potential star power at the inside linebacker position heightened his importance.

VanGorder’s complicated scheme delayed and mitigated Morgan’s overall impact on the program.

15. Derrik Allen (Marietta, Ga.): In time, this four-star safety in the current 2018 class could climb up this list as he develops at ND, but Allen already delivers a considerable perceptual punch.

Offered by each of 2017’s four playoff teams and other powers coast to coast, Allen, who committed in February of 2017, was an early buy-in that the 4-8 season in 2016 was an outlier and not the beginning of the end for Kelly at ND.

He also addressed the position of most dire need in the 2018 class and provided an inroad to talent-rich Georgia, with friend and fellow Georgian, cornerback K.J. Wallace, recently committing to the Irish in the 2019 class.

14. Will Fuller (Philadelphia): The lithe wide receiver was a buoyant force on a 2015 team that stayed in the national playoff picture until the last week of the regular season, despite a barrage of injuries to key players around him.

Fuller was a three-star/non-top 250 prospect for much of his recruiting cycle until the all-star circuit helped him surge to a still-modest No. 176 overall, per His recruitment showed both strong evaluative powers of the coaching staff and the ability to pull a player out of another class, in this case Penn State’s.

In fact, he’s one of six players on this list who spent time in another school’s recruiting class.

Had he remained at ND for his senior season, Fuller had a shot at breaking many of Michael Floyd’s career receiving records. Instead he was an early draft entry. Since Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown was selected sixth overall by the (then-L.A.) Raiders in 1988, only Floyd (13th in 2012) was drafted higher than Fuller (21st in 2016) among Irish wide receivers.

13. Ronnie Stanley (Las Vegas): Five-star quarterback Gunner Kiel was supposed to be the jewel of the smallest (17) and lowest-rated class of the Kelly Era (20th). Instead the most-impacting player in that 2012 class turned out to be Stanley, the No.176 player overall.

Although Stanley didn’t cash in a medical redshirt option from his freshman season, the left offensive tackle did push his NFL dreams back a year after the 2014 season and ended up anchoring a line in 2015 that made the cut to seven for the inaugural Joe Moore Award.

And though Kelly coached four players at ND that evolved into first-round draft picks before him, Stanley was the first that Kelly, not predecessor Charlie Weis, had recruited himself. Stanley came off the board as the No. 6 pick overall in the 2016 draft, 10 spots ahead of Ohio State’s Taylor Decker, an offensive tackle who exited the Irish class shortly after then-O-Line coach Ed Warinner bolted for OSU.

12. Daelin Hayes (Ann Arbor, Mich.): This wasn’t just a five-star prospect at a position of desperate need (pass rusher), but one poached out of arch-rival USC’s 2016 recruiting class and out of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s back yard.

The junior-to-be defensive end earned the lofty ranking, despite a high school career limited to fewer than 10 actual games over his final three seasons in the prep ranks. That was because of transfers, brought on by a custody battle, and injuries.

A high school outside linebacker, Hayes continues to grow into his new role and appears to have the work ethic, the intelligence and athletic ability for his production to eventually catch up with his potential.

11. Mike McGlinchey (Philadelphia): The eventual consensus All-America offensive tackle and impending 2018 NFL Draft first-round pick was a testament to Kelly’s player development mantra and then-offensive line coach Harry Hiestand’s eye for overlooked talent.

The raw athlete, who developed bad habits while playing small-school football, wasn’t a top 250 national prospect coming out of high school and, in fact, was deemed only the fourth-best among the five offensive linemen the Irish signed in its 2013 class (behind Steve Elmer, John Montelus and Hunter Bivin).

His impact for the Irish was accentuated by his decision to return to ND for the 2017 season, even though he received a first-round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Board. In staying, he became one of the central figures in ND’s turnaround from a 4-8 team in 2016 to a 10-3 squad that finished 11th in the final AP poll.

10. Jerry Tillery (Shreveport, La.): The senior-to-be nose guard is one of four true juniors who strongly considered early entry into the 2018 NFL Draft and one of two who elected to return to Notre Dame.

His ability to fill a position of seemingly perpetual need, and his unselfishness in turning away a promising future as an offensive tackle to do so, bolsters Tillery’s standing on this list. His decision to return to ND could transform him from a middle-round draft pick to a first-rounder if his improvement in 2018 is anything like it was in 2017.

The very first commitment of a 2015 class, since ravaged by attrition (nine actual or impending transfers so far), Tillery ended a recruiting drought in talent-rich Louisiana that dated all the way back to the 1999 class under coach Bob Davie, in the form of defensive back Albert Poree.

9. Aaron Lynch (Cape Coral, Fla.): A high-four-star rating, his location (the state of Florida), his potential as an elite pass-rusher and a soap opera-like battle with Florida State all factor into the inclusion on this list of a player who bolted for the University of South Florida in the spring after his freshman All-America season.

The defensive end first committed to ND in July of 2010, wavered in September, decommitted in October, committed to Florida State in November, wavered AND decommitted from FSU AND enrolled early at ND — all in January of 2011.

He and five-star front-seven prospects Stephon Tuitt and Ishaq Williams were celebrated as the stars of a defensive class that could make ND a player for the national title eventually. That indeed happened their sophomore seasons, but only Tuitt factored into that run.

Yet Lynch is one of only two Kelly Era transfers — defensive tackle Vanderdoes the other — who have played so much as a down in the NFL.

8. Quenton Nelson (Holmdel, N.J.): Like Tillery, Nelson was a player whose unselfishness to shift positions, from left offensive tackle, paid off big for both the player and the team. He enters the 2018 draft considered one of the top offensive guard prospects of his generation and is considered by several analysts as one of the top five prospects regardless of position.

Similarly to McGlinchey, Nelson’s decision to pocket his projected second-round draft grade last winter and return for the 2017 season was a two-fold win for the Irish: Nelson becoming a unanimous All-American on a line that won the Joe Moore Award, and him evolving into a fierce leader who helped coax a turnaround season for the Irish in 2017.

Only the third offensive lineman in the past 97 seasons to win ND’s team MVP award, the 6-foot-5, 330-pound Nelson is a rare five-star prospect who actually exceeded expectations in college.

7. DeShone Kizer (Toledo, Ohio): There was not unanimity among the Irish coaches in pursuing the three-sport star and non-top 250 prospect as Plan B once the Irish lost five-star QB Kyle Allen to Texas A&M. But despite Kizer’s flawed baseball-like throwing mechanics, Kelly fell in love with Kizer’s passion and potential.

He is by far statistically the most successful quarterback of the Kelly Era at ND, the only one to get drafted (as an early entry in round 2, no less) and the only one to play in an NFL game, from a list that includes two five-stars (Dayne Crist and Kiel).

In fact, Kizer’s 150.0 pass-efficiency rating in 2015 and 145.6 with a diluted returning cast in 2016 represent among the best marks in school history for a first-year and second-year starting QB, respectively. As for Allen, he left Texas A&M after two inconsistent seasons, was benched in his only season at Houston (2017), then left a year early for the 2018 NFL Draft.

6. Jaylon Smith (Fort Wayne, Ind.): Based on pure talent and strong intangibles to match, you could make a case for the consensus All-America linebacker to be No. 1 on this list. But Smith was clearly a victim of circumstance, that being having to spend his final two college seasons in the system of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.

Before suffering an NFL career-threatening knee injury in his final college game, Smith never played for an Irish defense in his three-year ND career that finished higher than 70th in rushing defense. And those in the two VanGorder years garnered modest national standings of No. 71 and 45 in total defense.

In a flawed scheme, Smith was largely relegated to being an eraser for his teammate’s mental mistakes, most of which were brought on by unneeded schematic complexities. And VanGorder’s indifference to recruiting kept ND from fully capitalizing on Smith as a centerpiece in their recruiting pitches.

5. KeiVarae Russell (Everett, Wash.): The nation’s No. 124 prospect overall in the 2012 class was supposed to be good, just not at his college position — cornerback.

Russell was recruited as a running back, spent his first summer in South Bend working as a slot receiver, then was told in August he had 27 days in training camp to learn to play cornerback — a position he last played part-time as a sophomore at Mariner High and essentially against his will.

The Irish lost prized cornerback recruit Ronald Darby late in the same cycle to Florida State, swung and missed at a handful of others, lost promising early enrollee Tee Shepard to an academic snag and projected starter Lo Wood to a season-ending injury.

Russell was the last resort, but his willingness and ability to start at an unfamiliar position as a true freshman was an important piece to ND’s run to the BCS National Championship Game at the end of the 2012 season.

He was one of many successful position switches engineered by Kelly, something much more common in the earlier part of the Kelly Era. In fact, of the 96 players Kelly signed between 2010 and 2014 who didn’t eventually transfer as underclassmen or were dismissed from school, 40 percent of them made at least one position switch.

4. Everett Golson (Myrtle Beach, S.C.): Self-inflicted wounds — an academic misconduct incident that wiped out 2013, a late-season implosion in 2014, the transfer to Florida State and eventual demotion there — admittedly take away from Golson’s legacy.

But timing and his ability to execute his complementary role on the defense-dominant 2012 Irish team as a redshirt freshman elevate his argument to land in the top 5.

Kelly needed to show off his offense with a quarterback recruited to run it, not the square pegs he supposedly inherited. Golson was the first QB Kelly landed at ND with a full recruiting cycle. He was plucked out of North Carolina’s class after the Irish missed on Kansas prep standout Bubba Starling.

Starling eventually signed with Nebraska in 2011, but never played a down there. Instead he opted for baseball, labored in the minors and almost quit the game last season. A midseason turnaround has him on the verge of making the Kansas City Royals' big-league roster.

3. Louis Nix (Jacksonville, Fla.): The nose guard was the top prospect (85th nationally) in Kelly’s first recruiting class, a combination of players landed by ousted head coach Charlie Weis and the incoming/scrambling Kelly in 2010.

The mythology is that Nix committed during the interlude between coaches, and publicly that’s true. But the eventual third-round NFL Draft pick actually gave Weis a clandestine commitment weeks before anyone else knew, keeping it quiet largely because of vehement pressure from his high school coaches to attend Miami (Fla.).

Nix was one of a Kelly Era-High eight commitment flips in the 2010 Irish class, having decommitted from Miami. After redshirting in 2010, when Ian Williams deftly handled the nose guard position, Nix made then-coordinator Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme work and made the players around him better. That was especially true in 2012, when Nix played to an All-America standard but didn’t garner that recognition.

Nix was a graduate of Raines High School, a school with plenty of success stories elsewhere but had never previously sent a student to ND before Nix. His ability to adapt academically and on the football field encouraged Kelly to recruit more players from schools that were “out of profile” — such as Tuitt and Lynch in the next class — with mixed results.

2. Phil Jurkovec (Gibsonia, Pa.): Fairly or not, Jurkovec is the player most likely to define the final chapters of the Kelly Era — whenever that comes — with the 56-year-olds's latest contract paying him through the 2021 season.

There are so many perceptual assets to his long-standing commitment and eventual signing this past December as both the first and most-pivotal member of the 2018 class.

Many of those who have seen the four-star prospect excel at both football and basketball for Pine-Richland High School believe Jurkovec eventually will be the best quarterback to play in the Kelly Era at ND. Part of his perceptual charm is that he gives the Irish a safety net at the very least at the QB position in 2018.

More tangibly in the world of perception, Jurkovec’s commitment in May of 2016, that never wavered through ND’s ensuing 4-8 season, sent a clear message to not only the members of his 2018 class, but those in the 2017 class as well.

He tolerated a change of both his quarterbacks coach and his offensive coordinator, continued a revival in Western Pennsylvania recruiting, and was an active recruiter himself in helping attract other players to the 2018 class.

1. Stephon Tuitt (Monroe, Ga.): Kelly, in his first full recruiting cycle (2011), was able to do something Weis couldn’t do in five of them — land a five-star defensive lineman. Weis, in fact, didn’t land a five-star recruit on the defensive side of the ball until the very last defensive verbal commitment of his era — linebacker Manti Te’o.

Together Tuitt and Te’o were the faces of a defense that would put up historical numbers throughout the 2012 season and coax ND to the No. 1 spot in the AP poll for the first time in roughly two decades until it all came apart in the title game against Alabama.

Prior to coming to ND, Kelly had landed only two players higher than three stars in his six cycles as an FBS coach, at Cincinnati and Central Michigan, and the biggest question about his adaptability to ND was whether he could take that step up and attract premier recruits.

Tuitt, Kelly’s first of an eventual nine five-star prospects in nine cycles, came from SEC country, sweetening the recruiting victory. The signing didn’t come without drama. After committing in September of 2010, Tuitt took a visit to Auburn, then in mid-January to Georgia Tech.

And then he committed to the home-state Yellow Jackets. A day later he decommitted from Tech and was back in ND’s class and on a trajectory that would land him All-America honors after his sophomore season and early entry into the NFL Draft after his junior year.

Defensive end Stephon Tuitt, a key figure in Notre Dame's 2012 run to the BCS National Championship Game, is the top recruit of the Brian Kelly Era at ND. (Tribune photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)