Analysis: Will the stars align again for Notre Dame to assemble an elite D-Line class?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

While the names sounded vaguely familiar, their connection and context was a little more of a struggle for Hunter Spears.

Stephon Tuitt, Aaron Lynch, Ishaq Williams.

“Tuitt, definitely, is the one I’ve heard about the most,” said Spears, a 17-year-old Texan and the fourth and newest member of Notre Dame football’s 2019 recruiting class.

Until Notre Dame started recruiting the 6-foot-4, 267-pound four-star defensive lineman, his reference point for all things Notre Dame was, predictably, the movie “Rudy.”

Now the 2011 ND recruiting class, loaded with defensive line prospects and headlined by former All-America end Tuitt, is growing in relevance for the junior at Sachse High in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex.

Once Tuitt got Georgia Tech off his mind and Lynch U-turned back into the Irish class from Florida State’s and Williams was intercepted before taking an official visit to Penn State, the three of them talked to each other about dreams. Big dreams.

And they also talked about reality, and how there might be very little difference between the two, when it came to a national title run, if their work ethic matched their immense potential.

Seven years later, it’s happening again. The talk at least, and maybe a run of elite defensive linemen to go with it.

This time it’s Spears, who committed Tuesday, and Kentucky defensive line prospect Jacob Lacey, another four-star player who has been in the class since last July, as well as a gaggle of top end/tackle prospects who have Notre Dame solidly in the mix for their eventual landing spot.

“Jake Lacey and I have a pretty good relationship,” Spears said Tuesday night after celebrating his verbal commitment with family members by devouring something called a cookie cake.

“Jake and I talk a lot, and one of the things we talk about is, ‘Let’s make this the best D-line class.’ I definitely feel like a national championship is in the future if we bring in the right players.”

It’s not just wishful thinking at this stage, at least the elite D-line class part.

“I’ve been all over the country and Notre Dame definitely has a lot of momentum with its defensive line recruiting in this cycle,” said Tom Lemming, CBS Sports recruiting analyst.

“I credit a lot of that to (defensive line coach) Mike Elston. I think he’s taken a page from Harry Hiestand. The D-line coach brings all the guys in at once (for a recruiting visit) and kind of galvanizes all the guys together, having them talk to each other, work on each other.”

Hiestand was Notre Dame’s offensive line coach from 2012-17 before moving on to a position with the NFL’s Chicago Bears last month. He not only recruited at a high level, but developed with equally high efficiency.

On April 26, left guard Quenton Nelson and left tackle Mike McGlinchey are expected to be the third and fourth offensive linemen Hiestand has helped evolve into first-round draft choices since the 2014 draft. From 2000-13, ND had one offensive lineman selected in the first round of a draft — center Jeff Faine, in 2003.

On the other side of the line of scrimmage, you’d have to go back to 1997 for the most recent Notre Dame defensive lineman to be plucked in the first round, Renaldo Wynn by Jacksonville. The closest since then was Tuitt in 2014, as a second-rounder and No. 46 pick overall to Pittsburgh.

"I think having elite defensive linemen is the most important thing in college football,” Lemming said. “I know Nick Saban and Urban Meyer believe that, too. Difference-makers on the defensive line make the secondary better. Overall, it improves the whole defense.

“You can't say that with great secondary players. If you don't have great defensive linemen, even great secondaries get picked apart."

And run defenses get gashed.

One of the common statistical threads among national champions is strong run defense. Of the past 40 titlists, dating back to Notre Dame’s 1988 champs, the lowest national ranking in rush defense has been 40th (Miami, 2001).

Thirty-seven of those 40 have ranked 25th or better. Nineteen have been in the top 10, including the 1988 Irish. Reigning national champion Alabama finished first in rush defense.

With that said, Notre Dame has only been intermittently successful in recruiting to that model.

Of the 90 Top 100 players (as rated by Lemming) who signed with Notre Dame from 1998 up until the Tuitt/Lynch/Williams class in 2011, only 27 of them were projected as defensive players coming out of high school and 11 of those were defensive backs.

“There were different factors at different times that led to the droughts,” Lemming said. “(Former defensive coordinator) Brian VanGorder was a poor recruiter and evaluator and didn’t take charge, for instance.

“You’re still Notre Dame. You should be able to attract elite defensive linemen.

“It’s always tough to attract guys with grades at that position, but they’re there. How come Harry Hiestand could always find O-Linemen? And how come (former head coach) Charlie Weis could always find quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers? Because he’s an offensive guy.

“I think you need to have a defensive mentality in your meeting room. I think Mike Elko brought a sense of that to coaching and recruiting. Hopefully, the new guy has it too.”

The new guy is Clark Lea, who succeeded Elko as defensive coordinator in January after Elko left for Texas A&M.

Even the want-to isn’t enough in and of itself to build defensive line success. Evaluation is a big part of the equation.

The fact that three of the four first-team defensive linemen on the 2017 AP All-America team were three-star prospects coming out of high school and that 11 of NFL Draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr.’s top 20 defensive tackles and ends were three-stars or lower hints at how tricky that process can be.

So does the vaunted 2011 class. Tuitt, No. 2 on ND’s career sacks list, was the only one of them who was a factor on defense in an undefeated regular season in 2012 and a berth in the BCS National Championship Game.

Lynch transferred the spring before that season. Williams chronically underachieved. Troy Niklas got moved to tight end. Chase Hounshell was a later bloomer who eventually moved to offense.

Ben Councell, Anthony Rabasa, Tony Springmann and Brad Carrico (who moved to offense) never really bloomed due to injuries and other factors.

“I think defensive line is the most difficult position group to evaluate,” Lemming said, “because you have to do so much projecting. Are guys going to grow into their bodies? Are they going to slow down when they do? Are they committed to getting stronger?”

Lemming likes what he sees in Spears, who’s coming off an ACL tear to his left knee that wiped out his junior year completely.

“It was a one-on-one drill in a camp,” said Spears, who will give up baseball and basketball as he gears up for his final high school season of football. “I really started to feel like myself again about a month and a half ago. I’m 100 percent.”

“He’s relentless,” Lemming said of Spears play prior to the injury. “He’s a Jim Flanigan type of guy (former Irish defensive lineman). He could play inside or at end. And he’s only going to get better.”

He also plans to get an early start — on school and spring practice (enrolling in January of 2019) and on recruiting. Spears plans on being at the Blue-Gold Game, the conclusion of spring practice, April 21 at Notre Dame Stadium.

Keep in mind this is the first year prospects can take official visits between April and June. Previously, the earliest they could do so was September.

“You’ve got to be selective with your spring visits,” Elston said. “It’s crucial that you’re picking the right guys to come, because if a guy’s going to wait until January or February to make his decision, a visit in April is not going to do well for you.

“Now if he’s an early enrollee or if he says, ‘Hey coach I’m going to make my decision in the summer’ and you feel good that he’ll potentially stick with the decision, then maybe you bring him in in the spring.”

And when that happens, Spears is determined to make his own recruiting pitch.

“There’s a long way to go to signing day,” he said, “and this is just the start of something special.”

Notre Dame defensive line coach Mike Elston has put together a strong start to the 2019 defensive line class, with latest commit being Hunter Spears of Sachse,Texas. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)