There’s always a No. 1 because every Irish recruiting cycle has a top-ranked prospect.
How much does that position guarantee success? Irish Illustrated backtracked through the Brian Kelly era to find out. Being the best on National Signing Day hasn’t been much of a predictor of success in South Bend. We ranked the top overall prospect in every Kelly haul based on how they produced for Notre Dame.
7.) Gunner Kiel (2012)
Scout ranking: 38
Notre Dame stats: N/A
Turns out all the drama in this recruitment wasn’t worth the trouble for Notre Dame.
Kiel delivered plenty of headlines as a recruit by committing to Indiana and LSU before enrolling at Notre Dame for the 2012 spring semester. He redshirted during the ensuing season then transferred to Cincinnati in the spring of 2013.
Things have gone well in the Queen City — Kiel has thrown for more than 6,000 yards in 23 games the last two seasons with 50 touchdowns against 24 interceptions while completing 62 percent of his attempts.
Cincinnati went without Kiel for its bowl game thanks to “personal reasons,” but he’s since rejoined the team and is the presumptive starter.
Looking for a couple drama-free recruitments that turned out well for Notre Dame in this class? Ronnie Stanley, Sheldon Day, C.J. Prosise and KeiVarae Russell come to mind. But overall it was a small, volatile class that included Tee Shepard, Davonte Neal and a signing day flip by Deontay Greenberry.
6.) Tommy Kraemer (2016)
Scout ranking: 37
College stats: N/A
Kraemer feels like a safe bet to move his way up this list eventually.
Harry Hiestand continues to mold Notre Dame offensive linemen into surefire NFL talent. Zack Martin, Nick Martin, Chris Watt and Ronnie Stanley are a testament to this in recent years. Zack Martin and Stanley as both went in the first round.
Mike McGlinchey figures to be next in line. Few will be shocked if Kraemer follows a similar path. He’s as talented as any of Hiestand’s pupils.
5.) Alize Jones (2015)
Scout ranking: 32
Notre Dame stats: 13 games, 13 receptions, 190 yards
Skill position players don’t take redshirts under Kelly, and Jones is a perfect example. Durham Smythe played just three games in 2015, leaving a void at tight end that resulted in a lot of mixing and matching.
Tyler Luatua and Chase Hounshell did their share of blocking. Nic Weishar and Jones featured more as pass catching options.
Jones was an elite prospect by any measure coming out of Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas. More of a hybrid tight end, now it’s a question if he’ll be a receiver this fall. Either way, Jones will look to build on a freshman season that offered flashes of his talent.
4.) Aaron Lynch (2011)
Scout ranking: 10
Notre Dame stats: 12 games played, 33 tackles (19 solo), 7 tackles-for-loss, 5.5 sacks
Oh, what might’ve been. Kelly hasn’t signed another prospect with Lynch’s pass rush ability since landing this five-star. In fact, he hasn’t come close.
Lynch was the diamond in a deep class that included Ishaq Williams, Ben Koyack, Stephon Tuitt, Troy Niklas, Matt Hegarty, DaVaris Daniels, Everett Golson and several others. In a lot of ways, it would be the backbone of a team that played for the national championship.
But Lynch wasn’t around for all that.
He showed flashes of brilliance as a true freshman with six starts in 12 games played. Lynch made 33 total tackles with seven tackles-for-loss and 5.5 sacks while proving a volatile personality off the field. For being one-and-done, Lynch made that one count.
Lynch transferred to South Florida, where he sat one season and played another before entering the 2014 NFL Draft. San Francisco selected him in the fifth round and he’s started to flourish there, making 13 starts last season with 38 total tackles and 6.5 sacks.
3.) Nyles Morgan (2014)
Scout ranking: 34
Notre Dame stats: 25 games, 64 tackles (32 solo), 3.5 tackles-for-loss, 0.5 sack, 1 forced fumble
Consider the resumes for Morgan and the other young players listed wildly incomplete. They’re still worth considering as we look ahead to the future.
Morgan came to Notre Dame as a decorated and productive high school linebacker from nearby Crete, Ill. Freshman year (2014) brought opportunity: Morgan played in 12 games, starting four after Joe Schmidt suffered a season-ending injury. Morgan piled up 47 tackles, 3.5 tackles-for-loss and a half sack while trying to quickly assimilate to live action.
Schmidt rebounded from that injury to start all 13 games in 2015, leaving Morgan as a seldom-used reserve and specials teams player. He made just 17 total tackles and forced a fumble in 13 games with zero starts.
Now it’s Morgan’s time. He looked ready during spring ball.
2.) Christian Lombard (2010)
Scout ranking: 62
Notre Dame stats: 21 total starts
Lombard headlined Kelly’s first class in South Bend, a transition group that included plenty of players who originally committed to Charlie Weis. Defensive tackle Louis Nix, offensive tackle Matt James, tight end Alex Welch, wide receiver TJ Jones and defensive tackle Kona Schwenke were some other top prospects in that class.
Some would be more highly regarded later (Nix) while others (Tommy Rees) would go on to very productive careers. Lombard made an impact through consistency and versatility.
After a redshirt in 2010, he played in all 13 games the next season as a reserve lineman and special teams player. Lombard then settled in for 13 starts at right tackle during the BCS National Championship Game run before injuries took their toll.
Suffering a back injury cost him most of the 2013 season after making seven starts at right guard. Lombard returned as a graduate student in 2014 to make 11 starts at guard and tackle before another back injury cost him the Music City Bowl and a potential NFL career. Lombard retired from football after that season.
1.) Jaylon Smith (2013)
Scout ranking: 3
Notre Dame stats: 39 games, 296 tackles (175 solo), 24.5 tackles-for-loss, 4.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles
Simply put, they don't get much better than Jaylon Smith. Just look at the numbers he posted in three fantastic seasons by starting every game.
Smith remains the highest-ranked player Kelly has signed and lived up to the billing as a Butkus Award winner at the high school and college levels. He was the jewel of a recruiting class that featured 17 players ranked in the Scout 300. Will Fuller, Steve Elmer, Mike McGlinchey, Isaac Rochell, Cole Luke, Tarean Folston and James Onwualu were among them.
During his time at Notre Dame, Smith grew from a gifted freshman into a veteran captain. He posted more than 100 tackles as a sophomore and junior. The only question about his production were the 4.5 career sacks.
Regardless, Smith is a talent we’re unlikely to see at Notre Dame any time soon, which made it more difficult to stomach his gnarly Fiesta Bowl injury. Dallas gambled on Smith’s successful return by selecting him early in the second round.