Grading on a Curve: Linebacker

Brian Kelly's third full Irish recruiting class is complete, with 24 members joining between September 2011 and National Signing Day 2013. presents its grades for the class, position-by-position, with an eye toward last year's 17-player haul and the team's needs for the upcoming 2014 cycle. Our seventh position unit graded: Linebacker.

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Linebackers, 2012-13, and Beyond...

Five-star prospect and national high school Butkus Award winner Jaylon Smith (6'3" 220), plus a pair of promising three-stars in Michael Deeb (6'2" 235 pounds) and Doug Randolph (6'3" 230) comprised the haul, one that was five deep entering the season but then felt the sting of defection, notably when five-star inside 'backer Alex Anzalone chose Florida in January over his previous pledge to the Irish.

The class's crown jewel is Smith, the nation's top prospect at OLB and also its most versatile. In some capacity, and blessed with good health, Smith will play a major role next fall. Deeb is certain for inside action while Randolph appears best-suited on the edge though a dearth of depth inside could force his initial evaluation from the perimeter play into heavy traffic areas.

Regardless, he's a good bet to one day end up outside and as an edge rusher down the line.

2013 Grade -- A-

I believe the group needed a fourth member to receive a no-doubt "A" grade, and the loss of Anzalone and eventual parting of ways with Danny Mattingly (a four-star Cat prospect with the frame to grow into a DE) suggests the staff at one point knew it needed more the a trio of 'backers to join this cycle.

I previously had the linebacker haul rated an A+ (the proverbial and rarely attained "Triple A+++ was its actual ranking). The loss of the Anzalone/Mattingly pair, with no 'backer taken in their stead drops the grade.

Quote to Note: "One thing that we do a very good job of is that we play a lot of guys, and we don't just say there's 11 guys.  As you saw this year, we played a lot of guys.  But I will tell you this:  We're also going to put the best 11 on the field.  And if Danny Spond is the best 11, he's playing.  If Jaylon Smith is the best 11, he's playing.  We recognize the fact that everybody has a value to what we're doing, but we're also going to play the best players." -- Kelly on Smith's chance to start somewhere this fall.

2013 Grade Coupled with 2012 -- C+

Kelly and his staff landed just one in 2012, Romeo Okwara, a player that could grow into a defensive end but for the purpose of these grades, Okwara was a "Big Skill" profile recruit (LB, TE, bigger RB and S) and operated as a 'backer in his rookie season.

Totaling four 'backers in two seasons -- just one a true inside player -- puts a strain on future season's two-deep depth charts and special teams.

Irish fans can take solace in the overall talent level of the quartet, with Smith among the nation's best over the two season, Okwara a 17-year-old player who pushed enough to earn a monogram and play every week for a 12-win team, and both Randolph and Deeb well-suited for their expected tasks, with Randolph rated a touch higher by other recruiting services than he was by FOX Sports NEXT.

Necessary additions for 2014 as a result: Also a result of the recruiting and development from 2010 and 2011, but Notre Dame needs at least three linebackers in its next cycle, and if all of them are inside or capable of playing inside, that's okay, too.

The staff can pass on both a Dog and a Cat player, though one such rangy athlete will likely be included in every recruiting cycle.

Consider the target number to be three, with four linebackers not out of the question in what should be a 17 to 20-player class, assuming one of that quartet has the ability to play multiple positions, and perhaps on both sides of scrimmage.

Were needs filled at LB over the last two seasons?

No. The Irish brought in a Cat (Okwara) the prototype Dog (Smith), a player that fits best at Cat or Dog (Randolph) and a true inside player (Deeb). That's at least two 'backers short of comfort level for development throughout the varsity depth chart and quality special teams contributions.

Of Notre Dame's three 'backers landed in the 2011 cycle, none have started a game, though one (Jarrett Grace) is expected to win the job at Mike (middle) and another, Ben Councell, was the two-deep Dog 'backer last fall.

The Irish should effort to land at least three linebackers in 2014, with two, even all three as inside prospects. Top Stories