Recruiting battles don’t get fiercer than when they’re fixed on elite defensive linemen.
Brian Kelly and recruiting coordinator Mike Elston experienced it in pulling together their first full class at Notre Dame. The backbone of that haul was a trio of five-star defensive linemen — Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt and Ishaq Williams.
Lynch committed to Notre Dame the summer before his senior season. Then a saga ensued. Eventually the Irish had to flip him back from Florida State and hold off the Seminoles late to get Lynch enrolled early.
Elston helped land Tuitt during the season then pulled him back when Georgia Tech convinced the in-state prospect to flip.
Former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco famously camped out in front of Williams’ house at 4 a.m. to make a last-minute pitch to the family. Williams ended up enrolling early along with Lynch, quarterback Everett Golson and a few others.
Elite defensive linemen are at such a premium that those are the hoops Notre Dame must jump through to sign them. Keith Gilmore, in his first year coaching the position in South Bend but a veteran, has theories on why that’s become the case.
“Everything starts up front whether it’s O-linemen or D-linemen,” Gilmore said. “That’s the deal. Everything starts up front. I think in the pro game, it’s a defensive linemen and a quarterback’s game. I think the guys that have aspirations of the next level they want to have the opportunity to grow and be a great player on the defensive line. That’s probably the reason it’s a great premium. Those guys go on to make a lot of money.”
It’s no surprise that Notre Dame’s best defensive line under Kelly accompanied his best team.
Kapron Lewis-Moore served as a veteran anchor in 2012 for a group that featured Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt and Sheldon Day as it bolted to a national championship game appearance. Williams, Romeo Okwara and Prince Shembo rushed the passer from outside linebacker spots.
Lynch transferred to South Florida before the season started.
Notre Dame followed up the Lynch-Tuitt-Williams haul by landing Day, a five-star prospect in the Scout.com rankings but perhaps more fairly judged in the four-star range with a ranking at No. 50 overall. Jarron Jones also came in the Class of 2012.
Otherwise, recruiting on the defensive line hasn’t reached those heights again.
“It’s a tough position to recruit and that hasn’t changed in a long time,” Gilmore said. “But like coach Kelly always says, we kinda shop in a different aisle. It can’t be just based on talent. You’ve got to be able to put the whole person together as a student, character-wise and those sort of things. The right fit for Notre Dame. While it’s still tough, there’s a limited number of guys we kinda go after and we have to make sure we do a great job with those guys.
“It’s not gonna be an appealing place to every kid and not every kid is appealing to us. Finding that fine line is kinda tough. But if you get the right guys, we’ll be fine here.”
Notre Dame signed 13 defensive linemen from 2013-15. Seven of them achieved four-star status: Isaac Rochell, Jacob Matuska, Jay Hayes, Andrew Trumbetti, Grant Blankenship, Daniel Cage and Elijah Taylor.
Jerry Tillery had been a four-star offensive tackle prospect before a move to defense upon arrival in South Bend.
Defending national champion Ohio State landed 14 defensive linemen over the same time frame with nine listed at four stars or better. The jewel of those hauls remains five-star prospect Joey Bosa, a likely first round pick next spring.
Alabama signed 15 defensive linemen from 2013-2015 with 13 registering at four stars or better. They brought in at least one five-star defensive lineman in each class and four total.
Right now the Irish have three commitments along the defensive line in the Class of 2016: Four-star defensive end Julian Okwara, three-star Ade Ogundeji and three-star Jamir Jones, who is ranked as an outside linebacker.
Okwara and Jones are both younger brothers of current players Romeo Okwara and Jarron Jones, respectively. Jones camped with Gilmore in June and earned an offer. Same goes for Ogundeji.
“First of all, I like high motor guys,” Gilmore said. “Guys that have the ability to run. I’m looking for pass rushers, guys with those traits. Good length and high motors are the No. 1 thing you look for and trying to find guys that know how to play with their hands. A lot of young high school players are not real effective playing with their hands. They play with their forearms or their elbows. If you can find that, I think you’ve got something.”
Gilmore continues to chase a few more defensive linemen.
Four-star Carlo Kemp has an official visit scheduled. Four-star Texas product Justin Madubuike has kept the Irish in play. Five-star defensive tackle Rashan Gary insisted all summer he would visit South Bend but never did.
More than likely, that list will expand during the season as Gilmore continues to evaluate and search for pass rushing talent.
“You focus on a kid that has some different traits and different characteristics and qualities to be able to come here and handle the academic load at Notre Dame and that sort of thing,” Gilmore said. ‘But I've been very well received and it’s a great product, great school to sell.”