After a 2012 cycle that included just two offensive line signees and a 2011 class in which two of the signed five never saw the playing field, the five-man haul became wholly necessary. For depth, for the future…for practice.
"We were probably we're in the red line in terms of critical need," said Kelly of his 2012 roster up front. "Next year it won't be quite in the red line of critical need. It'll move into 'still a need.' For us, the next step in our program is to continue to build on the O-line."
Exactly three months into the 2014 recruiting cycle, Kelly and his staff are off to an enviable start, landing a trio of four-star prospects with OT/OG Jimmy Byrne, OG/C Sam Mustipher, and most recently, OG/OT Quenton Nelson (Red Bank, N.J.) Catholic High.
Nelson is the ninth consecutive four-star the Irish staff has landed dating back to the mid-December 2011 pledge of offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley as part of the 2012 class.
Said Nelson to Irisheyes.com's Brian Dohn of his pledge: "(Kelly) asked where I was in the process and I said I just need a little more time, and we started talking about football," Nelson said. "He said, ‘Take all the time you want. You can commit to us in February. We want you.' That really sealed the deal for me. Just knowing I was wanted by them and they would wait for me that long, that did it."
Kelly's last comment is telling, because it will likely apply to Lineman No. 5 -- the first potential "luxury item" along the Irish offensive front in recent memory.
A fourth pledge is inevitable. Notre Dame needs it, and according to Irisheyes.com recruiting reporter Anna Hickey, the Irish are heavily in the running for offensive tackle Alex Bars (Nashville), offensive tackle Braden Smith (Olathe, Kan.), offensive tackle/guard Damien Mama (Bellflower, Calif.), and recent USC de-commit Casey Tucker, an offensive tackler from Chandler, Ariz.
Any one of the four will likely grab the fourth mandatory offensive line spot in Notre Dame's 2014 class (Bars is expected to be the first to announce). Another member of that quartet -- or another player to be named later -- will likely be courted by the Irish up to National Signing Day (February 5, 2014) as Notre Dame round outs what should be about a 22-pledge class.
Nelson, like fellow '14 pledges Byrne and Mustipher, will likely benefit from the recent influx of offensive line talent at the program. In this case, the "benefit" is hitting the playing field when he's physically and mentally prepared, not necessarily just able.
"That's what you'd like to do, traditionally, historically, is get (three seasons), that amount of time to develop strength," said offensive line coach Harry Hiestand of his current junior trio Nick Martin, Conor Hanratty, and Matt Hegarty, all of whom are challenging for starting spots for the first time. "You can definitely see that helping those guys."
Re-stocked and ReadyThere's a reason only a handful of true freshmen offensive linemen played in their first seasons at Notre Dame. Though not an exhaustive list, the first is likely Tim Foley (1976), followed by Tim Huffman (1977), who both played sparingly. Nearly two decades later, Mishawaka (Ind.) Penn High School product Mike Rosenthal (1995) became the first to start for the Irish. He was followed by Parade All-America Brad Williams (1996) who later switched to the defensive line, then Ryan Harris (2003), Sam Young (2007), Trevor Robinson (2008), and Ronnie Stanley (2012).
And there's a reason there's a glut of early participants in the last decade: Notre Dame hasn't been a dominant football team.
On the heels of a BCS Championship Game appearance, Kelly is building the program back to that status, and the offensive and defensive lines continue to be the focal points to that end.
"I think the O-line and D-line will be an area that we'll continue to work towards," Kelly said on Signing Day 2013. "And then I think you look at who your guys are in '13 to start to match your depth needs. But I still think this is going to be centered in 2014 on the O-line and D-line."
Three of four, possibly five offensive linemen are in tow. Two of a projected four defensive linemen have pledged in Jay Hayes and Andrew Trumbetti. The final three (or four) pieces up front will serve as the foundation of the 2014 class, and, in congress with Kelly's 2013 crucial pieces Eddie Vanderdoes, Jaylon Smith, and Malik Zaire, the crux of the coach's next five seasons in South Bend.
O'Malley's look at interior offensive line prospect Sam Mustipher, the 2014 class's sixth pledge, can be found here.