Hansen: The top 10 surprise players of the Brian Kelly Era of Notre Dame football

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

It was Mike Elston, then Notre Dame's recruiting coordinator, who ultimately gave Brian Kelly a needed push to get a little dictatorial when it came to filling out his 2014 Irish football recruiting class.

Over a prospect with no clear position.

Maybe he'd turn out to be a running back or a linebacker, where he excelled in high school, but more likely a safety. Definitely not a defensive lineman, the position which Elston now coaches.

So Kelly, then in his fifth recruiting cycle as ND’s head coach, proceeded to pound the table for Fort Wayne (Ind.) Carroll three-star recruit Drue Tranquill like he hasn’t for any player before or since, by Kelly’s own admission.

The Irish, who had seen Tranquill perform in their own football camp the previous summer, then plucked him out of Purdue’s class and added him to theirs.

“We weren't looking for his position at the time, because we were really full, and he was playing safety,” Kelly said back on 2014’s National Signing Day, Feb. 5 of that year.

“But he kept jumping out at us. This kid was making plays, and coach (Elston) kept banging me about ‘Hey, listen, watch this kid.’

“And we kept looking at him, and he'd keep making plays during camp. And so he was always on our radar, but we were not ready to offer a scholarship at that particular position.”

Three positions (safety, rover, inside linebacker), two season-ending knee surgeries, five years and an NFL Draft call later, Tranquill was the answer when Kelly was asked, ‘Which Kelly Era recruit changed everything?’”

And that’s one of the many reasons why the current Los Angeles Chargers linebacker tops the list of Surprise Players of the Kelly Era at Notre Dame.

Surprise to whom? In some cases, to Kelly himself. In some, to the recruiting analyst industry. In some, to the media, fan base, teammates, or some combination thereof — but rarely to the player himself.

“From a player who impacted the program a lot, you could talk about a guy like Drue Tranquill in terms of his impact,” Kelly said last June in a one-on-one interview for the 2019 ND Insider Football Preview Magazine. “Very believable in the sense he impacted culture.”

Tranquill, a two-time captain, evolved into a 2019 fourth-round NFL Draft pick.

Here’s a look at the rest of the top 10 surprise players:

2. KeiVarae Russell, cornerback

Cornerback KeiVarae Russell (6) hugs his family on Senior day, Nov. 14, 2015, at Notre Dame Stadium.

Russell was a coveted running back/wide receiver prospect in the 2012 recruiting class and spent the summer on ND's campus before the 2012 season preparing to do just that.

“When we recruited him, the model we were looking at was Theo Riddick,” Kelly said of ND’s former standout hybrid running back/slot receiver. “We thought (Russell) had outstanding ball skills. He had toughness. He wasn’t a blazer, but he’s developed his speed to the point where he has elite speed.

“All we did was turn him around and had him backpedal.”

But the move to cornerback, prompted by severe attrition at the position over the offseason, came just 27 days before the Irish were to open the 2012 season.

What made Russell’s transition more remarkable was that he never played the position in high school, and detested the thought of doing it so much that he admitted to tanking in cornerback drills at Mariner High in Everett, Wash., to discourage such a move.

At Notre Dame, though, he was all in. And, as a freshman starter, Russell was part of a Irish defense in 2012 that put up historic numbers until running into eventual national champ Alabama in the title game that season.

The end of his career was equally impressive, returning to Notre Dame to start in 2015 after missing the 2014 season because of allegations of academic misconduct on the part of Russell and four other teammates.

His draft position — third round, 74th overall in 2016 — remains the highest by an Irish cornerback since All-American Bobby Taylor in 1995.

3. C.J. Prosise, running back

An afterthought at safety, the three-star prospect flipped first to wide receiver, then — out of desperation — to running back in 2015.

Running back C.J. Prosise (20) carries the ball for the Irish during their victory over Temple, Oct. 31, 2015, at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.

The result, despite working through some injuries, was Notre Dame’s first 1,000-yard rusher in a season (1,032) since Darius Walker in 2006. And his 11 rushing TDs were the most by an Irish player since Autry Denson’s 15 in 1998.

“I think we probably should have pulled the trigger earlier on C.J. Prosise,” Kelly said of the switch from wide receiver to running back. “I think if he had another year from an instinct standpoint, I think it would have benefited him greatly.”

4. Drew White, linebacker 

The first current player to show up on the list, White went from deep afterthought as a freshman and sophomore to Notre Dame’s co-leader in tackles as a junior in 2019 (80) and its starting middle linebacker.

Linebacker Drew White works out along the sidelines at the Culver Academies on Aug. 3, 2018, as the Notre Dame football team began practices for the 2018 season.

Despite a standout career at national prep power St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., White was a two-star recruit per when he verbally committed to ND.

Injuries have worked against him, but not defeated him, since enrolling. Yet it was an injury to Drue Tranquill midway through the 2018 season against Navy that first allowed him to catch the coaches’ eyes.

“I’m really proud of players that persevere within the program when at times it looks like their place has not been defined,” Kelly said after the six-tackle performance in relief by White.

5. Tommy Rees, quarterback 

The lowest-rated QB recruit of the Kelly Era per Rivals had to step in for injured former five-star QB prospect Dayne Crist to start the final four games of the 2010 season.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly talks to QB Tommy Rees during the ND-USC game on Oct. 19, 2013, at Notre Dame Stadium.

The Irish were 4-5 at the time when Rees faced, in succession, a ranked Utah team, Army in Yankee Stadium. USC on the road, and Miami (Fla.) in the Sun Bowl. ND not only went 4-0 in those games, Rees ended up with a slightly better season pass-efficiency rating than Crist (132.0 to 129.3).

The next year he overtook Crist on the depth chart without an injury occurring, during a lightning delay in the 2011 season opener against South Florida.

As a reliever to starter Everett Golson in 2012 and a starter again in 2013, Rees helped the Irish go 21-5 during that stretch and showed off the cerebral qualities that so many teammates believe will make him an outstanding offensive coordinator for the Irish in 2020.

6. Joe Schmidt, linebacker

From walk-on to 2014 team MVP, the only regrettable facet of Schmidt’s career might have been how often he was asked by visiting media what it felt like to be “the next Rudy.”

Notre Dame linebacker Joe Schmidt signs a football for a young fan after a 42-30 win against Pittsburgh, Nov. 7, 2015, at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

Schmidt played his final season physically compromised in 2015, but still finished second on the team in tackles to All-America linebacker Jaylon Smith.

7. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, rover

The second member of the current Irish team to land on the list is one who could move up considerably after the 2020 season if he can build upon a remarkable 2019 run.

The senior-to-be amassed zero tackles — or any other stat of any kind — after redshirting as a freshman and then having his sophomore season truncated by injury in game 2 of 2018.

Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (6) celebrates after making a tackle during the ND-Navy game, Nov. 16, 2019, at Notre Dame Stadium.

But the first player recruited by Notre Dame specifically to play the rover position finally looked the part midway through 2019 spring practice. The momentum continued to build during his junior season in which Owusu-Koramoah led the Irish in tackles for loss (13.5) and tied for the team lead in tackles overall (80).

What didn’t show up in the stats was his versatility in pass coverage, with the ability to play nickel when Shaun Crawford missed some games because of injury.

8. Greer Martini, linebacker

The flip side of the Tranquill story is Martini’s, a player others on the ND coaching staff were high on during recruiting but Kelly was slow to warm up to.

Linebacker Greer Martini celebrates forcing a fumble during Notre Dame’s 38-18 rout of Michigan State, Sept. 23, 2017, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich.

“I was hesitant,” Kelly said of the 2014 three-star prospect. “(Then-defensive coordinator) Bob Diaco really liked him. He didn’t show anything to me, even with my time with him, but man he really impacted our program in a positive way.”

Martini got on the field early in his career as a triple-option defensive specialist but eventually evolved into a linebacker who could play every down and at multiple positions.

9. Matthias Farley, safety

Farley, a one-time high school soccer star, had just two years of organized football on his résumé when he enrolled at ND in the summer of 2011. And the projected wide receiver had gone through plenty of growing pains along the way.

An official approaches Notre Dame safety Matthias Farley (41) as he celebrates a stop during the ND-Navy game, Nov. 1, 2014, at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.

"The good thing is I haven't played long enough to develop any bad habits," Farley said, days before first enrolling. "But let me tell you, when I first went out for football, I was terrible.

“When I went out for a pass, it looked like I was swimming every time I'd go into a break, so everybody knew what I was going to do. My arms looked like I was landing jets."

Kelly ended up flipping Farley to defense, where he became an emergency starter at safety early during the 2012 run to the national title game, prompted by an injury to Jamoris Slaughter.

He made only three starts in his final season, 2015, and never seemed to be fully used or appreciated during his two seasons under defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.

Yet Farley has gone on to play four seasons in the NFL.

10. Robby Toma, wide receiver

Toma and Punahou School teammate Manti Te’o were the final two verbal commitments of the Charlie Weis Era, with both making their decisions on National Signing Day of 2009.

Toma, with only two other scholarship offers beyond ND’s, was perceived to be little more than a security blanket for the five-star linebacker Te’o to feel comfortable so far away from Hawaii.

He turned out to be much more than that, though ND’s sports info department referred to him as “Roby” during his entire freshman year.

Roby/Robby ended up combining for 60 career catches for 667 yards and a TD, including 24 receptions for 252 yards during ND’s 12-1 season in 2012.

Media surround Notre Dame’s Robby Toma as the ND football team arrives at the Ft.Lauderdale-Hollywood International Jet Center on Jan. 3, 2013, to play in the BCS National Championship Game.

Honorable mention

OG/C Mike Golic Jr., WR Chris Finke, K Jonathan Doerer, S Alohi Gilman, DE Ade Ogundeji.

Linebacker Drue Tranquill celebrates after Notre Dame’s 24-17 victory over USC on Nov. 24, 2018 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.