Crossing The Lines

NOTRE DAME, Ind. – National Signing Day wasn’t a destination for Notre Dame this year. It was an off-season step for Brian Kelly as he tries to put the Irish into the College Football Playoff.

Notre Dame didn’t waste any time updating the signage inside the Gug.

Staring at Brian Kelly every time he walks the stairs from the top of Notre Dame’s football auditorium to the bottom is this season’s slate, 12 games with the College Football Playoff dates tacked onto the end.

The messages are clear.

Don’t make plans for New Year’s Eve.

Don’t settle for anything less than the postseason that matters.

National Signing Day was its usual oxygen sucking self, a few breathless hours of Twitter updates, message board posts and soaring hype. It was also something much healthier. For the first time under Kelly, signing day was more about complementary parts than prospects Notre Dame needs to save a season still eight months away.

Sure, the Irish needed another Stephon Tuitt or Aaron Lynch. But short of five-star tight end Alize Jones, the most talented offensive class Kelly has signed could go next season without making a Saturday impact. The best linebacker haul in years could be relegated to special teams. This is a class of talent. It’s also a class of Next Men In.

Notre Dame had the material to make a College Football Playoff run before Wednesday. Nothing changed there. The Irish did better assembling talent than they did meeting needs this cycle, but with Ronnie Stanley and Sheldon Day back, this haul was more about reinforcements than impact.

We’re talking about a haul where the freshman MVP should be the kicker.

“If you go out there and you don’t act like a freshman and you go out there and compete, if you wanna go out there and play, then go play,” Kelly said. “It’s really up to them. If they’re physically able and they mentally want to compete, let’s go compete.”

Notre Dame played freshmen unable to hold up physically last year. The Irish played freshmen who didn’t have it mentally. Kelly didn’t have a choice. And it crashed the season in November when the defense imploded.

Not next year.

The best part of Notre Dame’s class is the fact we probably won’t hear much from it next season because Notre Dame’s program is at peak health under Kelly. The head coach has a good problem on his hands, trying to cut down a roster swollen beyond the 85-man limit.

“We really have until the first day of classes to get to 85,” Kelly said. “We’re gonna need every one of those days.”

That’s a refreshing problem after off-seasons of transfers, suspensions and retirements. Last season Notre Dame took the field against Rice with fewer than 70 healthy scholarship players. One-third of those were true freshmen. Even if Notre Dame goes through another round of off-season drama, the program is finally reinforced enough to handle it.

It’s taken six recruiting cycles for Kelly to get here, significant for a head coach who’s built a career on fixing broken programs and winning big at places that haven’t. When the Irish open fall camp, presumably with KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams and maybe with an incoming fifth-year senior transfer, Notre Dame will have as close to a full deck as is institutionally possible.

“We are starting to build depth for the program,” Kelly said.  “It seems like for the first time … we want to try to get long in positions. I think that's where we want to get to.”

Notre Dame is finally there.

This program doesn’t have the raw talent of Alabama or USC. When those schools are hot in recruiting the Irish won’t touch them on National Signing Day player-to-player. But Notre Dame has more than enough material to hang with just about everybody else.

Depending on where you get your team rankings, this class ranked anywhere from the Top 10 to the mid-teens. Kelly made the contractually obligated critique of recruiting rankings during his signing day presser, although he didn’t have to. The job he’s done in previous cycles has been good enough to make it that way.

To put this in past recruiting terms, if the Irish had signed Sam Young, Manti Te’o, Jaylon Smith, Michael Floyd, KeiVarae Russell or Jimmy Clausen this cycle they wouldn’t have been locks for playing time.  And that group averaged more than 10 starts per player as true freshmen.

“When we recruit, we don’t recruit it through anybody else’s lenses but our own,” Kelly said. “I hear what they say, 15th-rated or the 18th-rated class, I don’t know what they’re saying about it. These are guys we believe can help us win a championship. That’s how we recruit.

“We’re at the point now where every player that we bring in now is at that point where we’re at that level of competing with anybody in the country and beating them with the players that we have.”

From Alize Jones to Brandon Wimbush to Shaun Crawford to Jerry Tillery to Dexter Williams to Tristen Hoge to Josh Barajas to Asmar Bilal and beyond, Notre Dame’s class is talented enough to help the Irish get into the College Football Playoff.

The bigger news is the Irish won’t need their help to get there.


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