Strength Without Numbers

Smallish recruiting classes inevitably impact a football program. Notre Dame's incoming freshmen and outgoing seniors will serve as two pertinent case studies.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly's 2013 recruiting focus allows for flexibility. Or should I say the 2012 class required it?

After an initial recruiting cycle ('11) that focused on the Power profile (8 off/def linemen), and last years smaller 2012 class that brought in ample skill athletes (11 of the original 17), Kelly noted on last February's National Signing Day that the Big Skill profile would be paramount to the present crop. The Irish have received pledges from five such athletes with more on the way.

But also key to the present cycle is flexibility, and not just in terms of the talent of its incoming prospects. Because it was hit with de-commits and defections last year, Kelly & Co. must allow for overload at any position (outside of quarterback) as it attempts to fully stock its roster.

Because Notre Dame signed just 17 players to its 2012 recruiting class (16 remain), a well-deserved scholarship to former walk-on Chris Salvi brought the team's scholarship count to a paltry 82, three fewer than allotted. Consider that 32 of the roster's 82 players have yet to see the field (not including those who've played sparingly) and the numbers game becomes paramount for the program's future.

"When we're crunching the numbers we're looking at, for us now moving forward, getting to that 85 (limit)," said Kelly in February. "Where if there was a great position player we would shy away from that (if the team was at its scholarship limit), but now maybe we can take that great player, or maybe have that luxury as part of our philosophy next year."

Two-year cycles

Kelly and his staff should be able to compensate for a dangerously small haul last February with bookended classes that hit 23 or more. His previous group (2011) holds strong with 24 players including a transfer in and transfer out, and the present class has 16 pledges in July. We've forecasted seven more with wiggle room for at least another. Such a high numbered class could help render last year's total moot.

But what Kelly, his staff, and Irish fans see now is the result of two such smallish recruiting hauls, one at both ends of the roster. A low total class, even one replete with quality among its ranks, puts great strain on future recruiting cycles and a program's roster as a whole. Consider the current seniors remaining from the once 18, now 15-player class of 2009:

There are two legitimate college stars (Manti Te'o and Tyler Eifert).

There are three other legitimate multi-year starters that would fill that role for approximately 120 of 124 college football teams (Cierre Wood, Zack Martin, Chris Watt).

Five players are invaluable players for the program and former/current starters. Their career arcs have differed, but each has made a mark or should as a senior (Theo Riddick, Zeke Motta, Dan Fox, Robby Toma, Carlo Calabrese).

Three others are specialists (starters) while just two failed to make an impact entering their final seasons.

If every recruiting class included the notations above, especially with just two recruits failing to see ample playing time, its program would be on solid ground, often contending for BCS bowls.

Except that in this case, the middle ground, the quintet of players deemed "solid," is too small in number. With 22-25 recruits in a class rather than 18, the "solid" category naturally expands. (So too does the number of players that don't make an impact, but that's immaterial.)

Notre Dame's 2009 seniors have developed at an admirable level. There's just too few of them.

Future Impact

Transfers, generally more than one, are a reality for every recruiting class. In fact, every recruiting class on campus including the current freshmen has already experienced at least one transfer. (No Notre Dame class is without transfer in my research dating back, and stopping at, 30 seasons.)

But when a trio of four-star prospects leave a class already short in number as was the 18-player haul of 2009, their absence is more likely to be felt on a depth chart.

Notre Dame lost three from its '09 ranks: Shaquelle Evans, E.J. Banks, and Alex Bullard. Those athletes play wide receiver, cornerback, and (now) center, respectively. Particularly vexing is that perceived early weaknesses for the 2012 Irish include wide receiver and cornerback, and for 2013, center. (Bullard would be a 5th-year player in 2013 after sitting out 2009 along with classmates Zack Martin and Chris Watt.)

Unique to the '09 class is that three of the original 18 were specialists. Coupled with the aforementioned transfers, that's 1/3 of the class that had/will have no impact from scrimmage at the school. Add to that two seniors who've yet to do so and its possible eight of 18 players from 2009 will have never made a play (or precious few) on offense or defense for Notre Dame.

Thankfully for the Irish, the remaining 10 from '09 are stars, starters, or regulars.

Because of redshirts, especially along the offensive line, a staff can make up for a low number class (16-18 commits) with a subsequent, relatively high total the following February.

But any low quantity haul better be of high quality (as is the '09 group) because few successful Irish teams failed to receive heavy contributions from its seniors.

The '09 group is guaranteed impact from its senior leaders. With only 16 among them and four seasons of attrition ahead, the incoming freshmen must be developed in an equally impressive manner.


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