Below is a look at four positions of need, each under the "Skill" recruiting profile, the main target of Kelly and his staff in the 2012 recruiting season.
Wide ReceiverWith Michael Floyd graduating and Theo Riddick likely moving back to running back, the 2012 Irish receiving corps boasts just three players who've recorded a collegiate reception. No position on the Irish roster was in greater need of available talent – at least for 2012-13, than wide receiver.
Incoming: Landed a pair of true pass-catchers in Hanahan, S.C.-product Chris Brown (6'2" 175 pounds), and Justin Ferguson (6'2" 205) from Pembroke Pines, Fla. Four-star running back prospect Keivarae Russell (6'0" 177) is also slated for duties in the receiving game, likely as a part-time slot competitor.
Disappointment: Five-star gem Deontay Greenberry – a verbal pledge since late May 2011 – signed with Houston instead of the Irish. Greenberry ranked as our No. 1 immediate impact player among the expected crop. The loss of a much-needed third wide receiver hurts; the loss of a potential star playmaker exacerbates the defection.
Was the need adequately addressed? Not the immediate need, though both Brown and Ferguson show promise for future seasons. Notre Dame's 2012 receivers unit was in desperate need of a player that could compete for a starting role next fall, and more than one that could threaten its supposed six-man game day rotation (they've never reached that number in the 26-game Kelly era). They missed on the former with the loss of Greenberry. Brown is a tremendous big play prospect; Ferguson is a rugged, winning football player. Neither is likely to resemble a top tier target in 2012.
Defensive BackThree-fourths of the team's starting secondary was lost to graduation including both cornerbacks. Of the remaining nine possible competitors, only three played significant scrimmage time last fall. The team's three-year talent drain on the corner – Darrin Walls, Robert Blanton, and Gary Gray played nearly every snap since Kelly arrived – left a gaping hole on the perimeter.
Incoming: Four potential safeties: Elijah Shumate (6'1" 205), Nick Baratti (6'2" 200), John Turner (6'0" 206), and C.J. Prosise (6'0" 205) enter the fray. So too does one of the nation's top cornerback prospects in January enrollee Tee Shepard (6'1" 175). Each member of the safety quartet could be considered as a "nickel defender" competitor; the hybrid Dog LB/nickel DB role in which Blanton and Jamoris Slaughter excelled over the last two seasons. Shumate and Prosise are considered 4-star prospects by Scout.com while Baratti and Turner received 3-star designation, though Scout rated Baratti as a middle linebacker prospect, a position he's unlikely to occupy.
Disappointment: None on signing day, but 5-star CB prospect Ronald Darby de-committed from the class in early January.
Was the need adequately addressed? At safety? without a doubt. At cornerback? no way. Kelly referred to Shepard as "the best in the nation" but Notre Dame needed two cornerbacks that could compete for a two-deep depth chart spot as true freshmen and probably three cornerback prospects overall. Shepard instead enters competition with two juniors, a sophomore, and a redshirt-freshman: three among that lot must play at a high level for the defense to reach its potential in 2012.
With the expected return of Slaughter, the potential return of 5th-year prospect Danny McCarthy, and the addition of 2010 recruit Chris Badger, Notre Dame has 10 safeties on its 2012 roster (the trio above, the four freshmen listed, junior Austin Collinsworth, 2011 freshman Eilar Hardy who was injured last August, and returning starter Zeke Motta). Look for a position switch (Collinsworth to WR? Hardy to CB?) to alleviate the glut of practice week safeties.
Running BackSenior star Jonas Gray ranks as the position's biggest lost since Darius Walker's NFL-based defection following the 2006 season. Gray was the third running back to exit the program since Kelly took over (long-time contributors Armando Allen and Robert Hughes graduated following 2010).
Incoming: Two 4-star prospects joined the squad: Will Mahone (6'0" 210) and the aforementioned Keivarae Russell (6'0" 177). Mahone was lauded by Kelly on signing day for his do-it-all skill set: "pick up blitzing linebackers, catch the ball, lineup as a wide receiver, run the ball between tackles, get it out on the perimeter…" while Russell was deemed a player that fit the position's profile going forward, that of a versatile athlete that can move from the backfield to the slot and also help in the return game.
USC freshman transfer Amir Carlisle, a former Irish target and 2011 4-star runner per Scout.com, enrolled at Notre Dame in January. While he'll participate in team activities, Carlisle is expected to begin his onfield career in South Bend in the 2013 season per NCAA transfer rules.
Disappointment: None on signing day, but 5-star prospect and Scout.com's No. 1 prospect at the position, Keith Marshall, chose home-state Georgia over Notre Dame and the rest of the universe.
Was the need adequately addressed? Yes, though this will be better explained in our forthcoming column detailing Kelly's two-season recruiting efforts. The addition of Mahone and Russell give the Irish six running back competitors for 2012, five of the group could return in 2013 with four certainties (plus Carlisle). Four of the six for 2012 (Theo Riddick, George Atkinson, Cam McDaniel, and Russell) could compete part-time in the slot, as could Carlisle, during their college careers. If a move is made to that end, and senior Cierre Wood forgoes a potential 5th-year in 2013, Notre Dame would need another runner in the mold of Mahone for the 2013 class.
QuarterbackTo borrow a phrase from a friend and colleague, Notre Dame experienced some "inefficiencies at the position" last season. Senior Dayne Crist transferred to Kansas rather than pursuing a 5th-year at the school leaving a trio of competitors: Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix, and untested freshman Everett Golson.
Incoming: The nation's No. 1 prospect enrolled at Notre Dame in January: Gunner Kiel (6'4" 220).
Disappointment: None, Notre Dame brought in the best player at the position and had they signed another, a transfer would have ensued from the current ranks within the next nine months. One still could, but that eventuality is unlikely until after the 2013 season.
Was the need adequately addressed? Yes, they signed the best player available and a January arrival will give Kiel a chance to compete for a two-deep spot in his first season. Incumbent starter Tommy Rees joined Notre Dame's program in January 2010, a move that gave him a leg up in terms of understanding the offense…one that remains in comparison to technical classmate Andrew Hendrix (Hendrix red-shirted in 2010 to help tier the QB depth chart).
Kelly enters 2012 with a junior (2 years of eligibility), a redshirt-sophomore (3 years of eligibility), a redshirt-freshman (4 years of eligibility), and a true freshman (4/5 years). The junior has started 16 games; the redshirt-sophomore made a recent mark, and the two youngsters are the highest ranked out of high school among the quartet. Theoretically, it doesn't get much better than that.
Top additions for the 2012 season:
- Tee Shepard
- Elijah Shumate
- Gunner Kiel
- Chris Brown
- Will Mahone