Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Foundation Of The Program

When Notre Dame first hired Charlie Weis, the cupboard did not include all the necessary ingredients to win big. Notre Dame fans, at least ones that follow recruiting objectively, knew that Notre Dame recruiting lacked the punch to place the Irish amongst the nation's elite, i.e. Texas, Southern California, Louisiana State, Ohio State, and so on.

This fall will mark the last of the previous coaching staff's recruiting classes being a part of the Irish roster, with the fifth-year seniors and part of the traditional seniors recruited by the old staff. Nothing against the players from both groups, as some of them have developed well on and off the gridiron, and other players simply developing into productive young men looking forward to moving on into mainstream society after earning a degree from Notre Dame (Notre Dame actually requires it student-athletes to go to class – gasp!), but it is hard to defeat the Trojans without superior talent in the senior classes. Let us be honest, Notre Dame still has a ways to go to compete with Southern California in terms of raw talent. That's just bottom line.

With all of that said, Notre Dame recruiting should be described as efficient over the past two years, with some good ol' Dixie speed helping to stir the elixir of an Irish revival. Here's a closer look at several of the 2007 recruits that Notre Dame fan will become more familiar with during the next three to four years:

Class of 2007: The Irish needed impact players, and did so by signing several big names. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen, wide receivers Duval Kamara and Golden Tate, and tailback Robert Hughes each contributed last season after being highly coveted recruits. Offensive tackle Matt Romine (redshirted last year) was also an offensive headliner, but defense was the key component as the Irish defense needed an overhaul. Unlike the offensive talent that was brought in, Notre Dame found the majority of its defensive prowess from down South.

A name that Irish fans should become accustomed to watching would be cornerback Gary Gray from Columbia, S.C. (Richland Northeast). A special "we're sorry," to coach Spurrier, because Gray committed to the Gamecocks before changing his commitment to Notre Dame and signing with the Irish. Gray is expected to make a contribution this fall after redshirting in 2007. Notre Dame's depth chart at cornerback is finally complete. Now that is some good news.

One of three key Floridians taken in the 2007 class was defensive end/defensive tackle Emeka Nwankwo from Miramar, Fla. Nwankwo will be in the rotation at DE/DT (depending on which front ND uses on a particular play, 3-4 or 4-3) this fall and has four years of eligibility after redshirting last year. Nwankwo played offensive line more than defensive line during his high school career at Chaminade Prep. Therefore, he is currently learning the nuances of playing along the defensive line. His ceiling is high, but sometimes so is his technique (yes, pun intended). While not a defensive player, the second 2007 Florida recruit was Armando Allen, the tailback from Opa-Locka (Miami Lakes). His speed will be a big asset to the Irish for the next three seasons.

The third member of the Irish 2007 recruiting class from the Sunshine State was Ian Williams, from Altamonte Springs, Fla., (Lyman). Williams started the final two games of the 2007 season and made a major impact during those two games, against Duke and Stanford respectively. It is hard to find 290+ pound defensive lineman that physically possess the ability to play Division I College Football as a true freshman, but Williams did just that. Williams will be a fan favorite at Notre Dame Stadium for the next three years.

The state of North Carolina is far from synonymous with Notre Dame Football Recruiting. Just do not tell outside linebacker/defensive end (again, depending on a particular play) Kerry Neal that…The Bunn, N.C. native became the first Irish commitment of the 2007 class and made an impact for the Irish defense last season. Neal fought his way into the opposition's backfield on a consistent basis, and will be one of the few select Notre Dame players that can say he started at Notre Dame as a true freshman.

He may not be from Dixie, but wooooweeee, should Notre Dame fans be happy that Irish defensive coordinator Corwin Brown decided to offer Brian Smith after he took over as defensive coordinator. Smith, from Overland Park, Kan., (St. Thomas Aquinas), was committed to Iowa before eventually signing with the Irish and bringing is a jack-of-all-trades outside and inside linebacker talent to South Bend. Plus, Smith is a good pass rush specialist during obvious passing downs. And like Neal, Smith started as a freshman at Notre Dame.

Recruiting in Dixie can be treacherous, but taking a player directly out of Knoxville, Tenn.? Get out of Dodge, err, Knoxville, man! Harrison Smith, from Catholic HS in Knoxville, not to be out done by Brian Smith, developed into a jack-of-all-trades defensive player this spring. Thought to be a college safety, Smith played linebacker during the annual Blue-Gold game, intercepting a Clausen pass and returning it for a touchdown. Smith could end up back at safety at some point during his career, but his physical and athletic play will add needed talent to the Irish front seven this season. And to think, Smith redshirted in 2007. He has four years of eligibility remaining!

Notre Dame will not lack for offensive talent as long as coach Weis leads the Irish on Saturdays. For Notre Dame to defeat the upper echelon of College Football's elite teams, however, the 2007 recruiting class was the beginning of the revival that will not conclude until after the 2009 recruiting class becomes complete. Up next, a closer look at the 2008 recruiting class.

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