Notre Dame's 2014-15 recruiting classes currently include a combined 46 competitors, 20 on the offensive side of scrimmage. Below is a review of the players tasked with putting points on the board over the next four to five seasons in South Bend.
At no position is annual need more apparent, due both to the likelihood of transfer and reality that a "miss" greatly damages the on field product. Kelly hasn't concluded a recruiting campaign without a quarterback (inherited two in 2010, then one through each of his ensuing five full cycles including 2015.
-- 2014-15 By the Numbers (2): Four-star prospects DeShone Kizer (2014) and Brandon Wimbush (2015), plus 2014 preferred walk-on turned scholarship-bearer Montgomery VanGorder.
-- Projected 2015 Impact: Ideally it'll be minimal, but that's directly related to a pending, likely post-spring decision by fifth-year senior Everett Golson. Golson's likely presence at spring ball might preclude Kizer from cementing his spot as a trusted backup entering August camp, but the former starter's inclusion on the 2015 roster would doubtless make the squad better.
Kelly's last five quarterback signees have redshirted as freshmen. Ideally, Wimbush will follow suit, but the recruitment of both ensures Notre Dame's offense could remain viable if Golson transfers and Zaire were to be injured.
-- Realistic Long-Term Potential: 2013 pledge Malik Zaire has three seasons of eligibility remaining and it's hard to believe he won't be the triggerman for 2016, potentially for 2015. The Irish are well-stocked with Kizer (4) and Wimbush (4/5) seasons of eligibility thereafter, though history suggests that one of the three mentioned in this section will not remain Irish for the duration.
If Golson returns, the key to the presumed Kizer/Wimbush competition will be spring ball 2016 rather than the upcoming fall. With all four in the fold, the challenge for Kelly will be keeping Wimbush from full-time scout team duties, something he's strived to do with Kizer, Zaire, and Gunner Kiel before them.
-- Need for 2016? Always one. Forever, evermore.
-- Overall Grade: A-minus. And that could easily apply to a five-year recruitment grade with Golson, Kiel, Zaire, Kizer, and Wimbush in succession. Development is, to date, somewhere well south of an "A" but you can't argue with the recruiting efforts -- both have ample time to grow and develop, at least by modern college standards.
Considering that six sure-fire rotation members are expected to return for 2015 -- only two of which exhaust eligibility at season's end -- the Irish likely "over-signed" a touch between the last two cycles.
Said Kelly of the position, "When you look at your board…you're always trying to look at how you run your practices and how we do things offensively. And…we are probably plus one in our numbers as the wide receiver board looks. We were at a point now where you look at the guys we have, we think we have a guy in there that's a specialist, too. So we don't feel like we're heavy there as much as we have one guy in particular that can do a lot of jobs for us."
-- 2014-15 By the Numbers (6): Four-star pledges Justin Brent and Corey Holmes (2014), plus four-stars Miles Boykin, Jalen Guyton, C.J. Sanders, and Equanimous St. Brown for 2015.
-- Projected 2015 Impact: Will Fuller, Corey Robinson, Chris Brown, C.J. Prosise, Amir Carlisle, Torii Hunter, Jr. -- go ahead, you choose: which one cedes time to a freshmen or sophomore? Brent appears to have the best chance to change Notre Dame's six-man game day crew to a healthy seven, and what a seven it could be: speed, size, experience, quickness, even undervalued blocking from a group that performed well above expectations in 2014.
Sanders is the player Kelly was referencing as a potential "specialist" above -- that is, he'll compete from the outset for punt return and perhaps kick return duties. In most seasons, Boykin and Brown would easily forge roles due to their size/athleticism -- 2015 isn't most seasons.
-- Realistic Long-Term Potential: Off the charts. Notre Dame loses only Brown and potential 2015 fifth-year Carlisle at season's end. The No. 1 receiving corps in the nation might reside in South Bend in 2016 (perhaps 2015, I might add), and 2017-18 is looking bright as well.
Expect a position switch or transfer down the road from this collection of talent, but ample production by those that remain is guaranteed.
-- Need for 2016? One, perhaps two if the second player is an athlete that can play multiple positions on both sides of scrimmage. The goal should be to aim high (top of the charts prospect) plus an "athlete."
"Need" is technically zero, but like quarterback, wide receiver is a volatile position, with three, Shaq Evans, Davonte Neal, and Justin Ferguson exiting during the Kelly era, plus another making himself unavailable (DaVaris Daniels).
-- Overall Grade: A. Too early to tell if there's a miss, but it's likely at least three from the six-player haul of 2014-15 will develop into future starters in South Bend. The clear presence of size, speed, quickness, fluidity, and ball skills is distributed well among the sextet.
The Irish ended the two-season cycle one runner short, Elijah Hood's defection during the 2014 cycle the chief reason. But if blessed with good health from the junior pair of Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant, it won't manifest as an issue on the field next fall.
-- 2014-15 By the Numbers (2): 2015 four-star pledges Josh Adams and plus Signing Day addition Dexter Williams.
-- Projected 2015 Impact: One from this pair is going to play, likely both, because nicks and bruises, plus in-game minor injuries are inevitable. As noted in our "Instant Impact" column published Wednesday, Kelly's No. 3 runner has compiled 299 carries, 1,645 yards and 14 touchdowns over five years. That's nearly 60 carries, 530 yards and three scores per season.
It's more likely than not that one of these two freshmen will impact a competitive contest in 2015. (Not necessarily more than one game, of course.)
-- Realistic Long-Term Potential: The Folston/Bryant combo appears more talented on the surface than the current incoming pair, but the 2015 duo's disparate talents make for an interesting combination. Success at the collegiate level is based more on toughness, vision, and the knack for yards after contact than it is dazzling open-field skills. A runner's heart and disregard for his own well-being between the whistles is nearly as important as his feet.
But it's also true that a 2016 pledge could surpass the Williams/Adams pairing in future seasons. That was an unlikely scenario regarding Bryant and Folston.
-- Need for 2016? Two would be ideal. If only one runner is signed, two would then be mandatory in 2017. (And if it's "one" in 2016, he better be a potential sophomore starter, because Bryant is likely gone along with Folston following '16 graduation.)
-- Overall Grade: C-minus. Injury is inevitable at the position (Adams has already suffered a major knee injury). Couple that with the outside chance that Folston could exit early for the NFL (running backs don't have a long professional shelf life), and a basic dearth of numbers over the two-season span negates a higher grade.
The talents of Williams and Adams notwithstanding, a program needs five running backs, ideally with one member in each class included. The Irish are missing a game ready No. 3, and whomever it is, he'll have to emerge after four weeks of college practices.
The nation's best football teams feature more than one runner. The best Notre Dame teams in both distant and recent history have followed suit -- proving that runners can thrive in South Bend might help with 2016 recruiting efforts.
Tight End U keeps rolling along, but a hiccup in the 2011/2012 (explained below) raises a few questions for the upcoming season.
-- By the Numbers (3): Three joined, and disparate talents define the trio: 2015 five-star prospect Alize Jones, plus 2014 four-star Nic Weishar and three-star pledge Tyler Luatua.
-- Projected 2015 Impact: Higher than any position group covered in this column. For the first time since Kyle Rudolph's freshman season of 2008, the Notre Dame program does not return a proven tight end talent, though junior (redshirt-sophomore) is expected to take a major leap forward in his third season after getting his first taste of playing time last fall.
Jones is likely to contribute from the outset, though his chief competition as a rookie might be the impressive collection of pass-catchers assembled at wideout. Can Jones forge a role ahead of the myriad playmakers Kelly has collected for 2015?
Luatua is the most likely to earn consistent playing time -- or the least likely. If Notre Dame favors a power look with two tight ends, Luatua will be heavily involved. If it's more of a three-wide, spread attack, he'll not be needed from scrimmage. Weishar is the unknown: can he hold up physically enough to augment his pass-catching ability?
-- Realistic Long-Term Potential: With modern passing grades, Jones is as close to a sure thing as a five-star can be -- there's no reason he won't produce downfield. Luatua appears to be more of a niche player -- but it's a valuable, underrated niche -- while Weishar's future likely includes a pending head-to-head battle with similarly skilled junior (redshirt-sophomore) Mike Heuerman.
-- Need for 2016? Never pass on a tight end. It happened in 2012, thus, there's no senior or redshirt-junior on the 2015 roster. Special teams, short-yardage, third-down chain movers, matchup problems created by their presence…the list goes on in terms of value added by quality tight end competitors. A physical presence might be in order for the upcoming cycle because it's unlikely a top tier pass-catcher is going to follow Jones one year later.
Five tight ends currently populate the Irish roster and none of them are out of eligibility until 2017. It's thus a virtual guarantee one of those five won't be around for 2016. One pledge in the upcoming cycle is therefore prudent.
-- Overall Grade: A. Jones' inclusion means the nation's best playmaking weapon found his way to South Bend, while Luatua and Weishar make for a nice combo. Ben Koyack's monogram as a true freshman in 2011 (no redshirt) coupled with the lack of a tight end in the 2012 class is the only reason the 2015 roster has questions at the position.
Not including defensive line prospect Jerry Tillery (originally recruited as an offensive tackle), the 2015 Irish will likely have 15 offensive linemen on the roster, with just two out of eligibility at season's end, though another, Ronnie Stanley, won't return barring injury. (Stanley can receive a medical redshirt for 2012.)
-- By the Numbers (7): We'll call it seven, with Tillery obviously capable of playing along the offensive front. Four-star center Tristen Hoge, four-star tackle Jerry Tillery, three-star guard Trevor Ruhland (2015), plus a quartet of four-star pledges from 2014: Sam Mustipher (C/G), Quenton Nelson (G/T), Alex Bars (T), and Jimmy Byrne (G/T).
-- Projected 2015 Impact: Only two from the group should play, with Bars likely challenging 2013 pledge Mike McGlinchey this spring at right tackle and Nelson as the first guard off the bench (assuming both starters Nick Martin and Matt Hegarty return for their fifth seasons).
Bars and Nelson are an intriguing pair for 2016 -- it's likely better for the program if both serve as valuable sixth and seventh-men -- the first guard and first tackles off the bench -- in rotational roles as redshirt freshmen.
-- Realistic Long-Term Potential: Could three from this group start in 2016? (Bars, Nelson, and Hoge). It's not unlikely, and it seems inevitable that Bars and Nelson will start two years from now, while Hoge's main competition at center will be the underrated Mustipher.
Ruhland will redshirt this fall and likely need the standard third season pecking order (2017) to compete for a two-deep role considering the talent recruited prior to him. Byrne is a likely two-deep competitor in 2016 if not 2015 pending transfers/medical situations, and his improvement (I was high on Byrne as an intense competitor in 2014 film reviews.)
-- Need for 2016? Three, and ideally it'll be two tackles and a guard. Center seems covered with Mustipher and Hoge -- another center candidate can be pursued in 2017. The move of Tillery to the defensive line, assuming it's permanent, necessitates a three-player haul for 2016.
Without transfer/serious injury, depth for 2016 (not 2015) will resemble the following:
-- Offensive tackles: McGlinchey (2017 eligible), Bars (2018), perhaps Nelson (2018), Hunter Bivin (2017) -- and perhaps Tillery (2018-19)
-- Offensive guards: Steve Elmer (2016), Nelson, Byrne (2018), Colin McGovern (2017), John Montelus (2017), Ruhland (2018-19)
-- Centers: Mustipher (2017), Hoge (2018-19), potential 5th-year Mark Harrell (2016)
Regarding the above competitors: Transfer and injury are inevitable.
-- Overall Grade: B+ not including Tillery (A-minus with). The two-year cycle will produce three starters by 2016 and it might include five by 2017.
Note: Defensive grades for the combined 2014-15 classes are forthcoming.