Like offense Notre Dame return most of its starters form the 2005 squad. For the most part freshman won't play a significant role, but there certainly be an opportunity for some freshman to help solidfy the Irish defense.
The Irish did a great job of landing their top guys at defensive end. They targeted Jamie Cumbie, Eddie Jones, Kallen Wade and John Ryan. Jones is the top defensive end prospect in the country, but he selected the home-state Texas Longhorns very early. Cumbie came down to Notre Dame and Clemson, before he picked his childhood favorite.
John Ryan (6-5, 240-pound) is a player previous staffs would have bypassed that would have come back to haunt the Irish. Ryan is probably similar to Chris Frome, he's a strong active defender that bring the hard hat to the field. Ryan prides himself on playing hard every play. He has very good instincts and finds himself around the ball. Like teammate Robby Parris, Ryan was injured in the middle of his season so his numbers suffered. With the depth Notre Dame has at defensive end, John could be used to add depth at defensive tackle.
Kallen Wade (6-5, 220-pound), like Ryan is a player the Irish offered very early in the recruiting process. Wade is a very athletic player that will likely be used to come off the edge. He's a little raw, but he has the size and speed to be a disruptive force.
Notre Dame not signing one defensive tackle prospect is truly a disappointment, because it is a position that Notre Dame needs players and playmakers. Notre Dame only offered a handful of defensive tackles. The Irish lost out on Ben Alexander early, and they distanced themselves from Jason Kates, but going into to September they were in very good shape with their top prospects, Lawrence Marsh, Butch Lewis and Gerald McCoy.
The misstep for the Irish staff wasn't that they didn't target enough defensive tackles, it was that they calculated the risks, and went for Gerald McCoy over both Marsh and Lewis. Marsh picked Florida in late November, and Lewis picked USC in early January. Shortly after the U.S. Army All-American bowl McCoy eliminated the Irish, which meant Notre Dame did not sign a player they had targeted for defensive tackle.
The Irish aren't out of options. Paddy Mullen (6-5, 262-pound) has the size and ability to play defensive tackle, and he will likely start out at there when he reports in June. John Ryan could also add some size and slide down from defensive end. Defensive line coach Jappy Oliver will have options, but the reality of the situation is that Notre Dame gambled, and lost.
It's tough grading the success of the linebacker position, because Notre Dame only had one major need and that was to get a true middle linebacker. They got the man they offered very early on, so you have to consider this position a big success. The Irish liked Brandon Graham, but he committed early to Michigan. Notre Dame only offered a couple other linebackers, Dustin Ernest, Mike Morgan, and Anthony Lewis. Micah Johnson is a great player the Irish offered, but I think he'll end up at a position other than linebacker.
Toryan Smith (6-1, 235-pounds) was one of the first players Notre Dame offered so that indicates that the Irish staff is very high on him. Smith is a true middle linebacker; he's big, thick and he plays with a mean streak. There is a question about his foot speed and his lateral movement, but he has outstanding instincts and he makes plays.
Morrice Richardson (6-2, 225-pounds) is a very interesting prospect. He played defensive end in high school, but was recruited mostly as a Will linebacker. Richardson was name the Georgia Gatorade player of the year. He has good quickness, long arms and he likes to put his nose in the pile. Richardson looks much slimmer in person than he does no film. He's been working with a professional trainer to prepare himself for the transition to college. Morrice could be the type of player that grows into a rush defensive end, but the Irish will start him at linebacker.
Notre Dame needed to hit a homerun here and they did. I'm not sure if I can remember Notre Dame ever landing their top targets at cornerback and both of these players have a chance to play early. What is more impressive is that they were underdogs when they starting recruiting both players. Darrin Walls was considered a virtual lock to pick Michigan, and Raeshon McNeil hadn't heard much about Notre Dame being from the Southeast, an area the Irish have traditionally struggled. Notre Dame really only recruited one other cornerback, Asher Allen, who is the cousin of Morrice Richardson.
Darrin Walls (6-1, 180-pounds) was the top rated cornerback in the country, but a shoulder injury during the season affected his play and eventually his overall ranking. The same injury forced Darrin to miss the U.S. Army All-American game. Walls is a tall corner that has fantastic athletic ability. He's both quick and fast, and makes smooth transition while in coverage. He's such a tremendous athlete that he could play several positions, but he'll be a corner at Notre Dame.
Raeshon McNeil (6-0, 175-pound) was tabbed by Bill Lewis very early in the recruiting process as a guy that was a priority. McNeil didn't get a lot of national attention until he went to the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. During the practice sessions, McNeil blanketed the top receivers in the country including Percy Harvin and Vidal Hazelton. He was tested often during the bowl game and did an outstanding job turning the West squad away. McNeil was named the defensive MVP for the East squad. Raeshon doesn't have blazing speed, but he has superior instincts, outstanding feet and very loose hips, which allow him to transition smoothly in coverage.
Safety is a position defensive backs coach Bill Lewis obviously had as a priority. Last season the Irish signed safeties Kyle McCarthy, David Bruton and Ray Herring. By signing an additional three players at safety, Notre Dame is almost assured of getting a starting pair out of the past two classes.
The best safety in the country, in my opinion, is Antwine Perez. Notre Dame took a quick look at him, but he would have had issues with admissions and ended up at USC. The Irish offered and lost out on several other safety prospects, Taylor Mays, Myron Rolle and Steve Brown were the main prospects that they were recruiting.
Leonard Gordon (5-11, 195-pound) is the best of safeties. He's more of a strong safety. He has a nose for the ball carrier, and he delivers when he gets there. Leonard was asked to play quarterback for the first time in his life this past season, which speaks to his athletic ability and intelligence. He reminds me a little of Ray Herring.
Jashaad Gaines (6-0, 205-pounds) is another player that projects to strong safety. He grew up a big fan of Michigan and likely would have ended up there is the Wolverines would have offered earlier in the recruiting process. In the end he'll join his sister Tulyah in South Bend, who is a sophomore on the women's basketball team.
Sergio Brown (6-2, 190-pounds) is a player that I saw ply a lot during the fall. He didn't play against the best competition, which meant that he was always the best player on the field every weekend. He's the free safety type player in this class. He's tall and rangy, he has long arms and he's a flyer. Sergio has huge hands and can catch very well, but he isn't a wide receiver prospect. He certainly has room to add some bulk, but he's well put together and naturally muscular. His biggest adjustment at Notre Dame will be learning to play every down, and pushing himself to the whistle.
Signees: Ryan Burkhart
Initially the Irish staff offered Kai Forbath of Notre Dame high school (Sherman Oaks, Calif.). Forbath is very much a West Coast kid and he had UCLA as the early favorite. He's is an outstanding player but Weis had a decision to make; roll the dice and hope you can lure Forbath or offer another player. Weis saw Burkhart, and decided the Irish could win with the local kid. Burkhart was offered and he accepted on the spot.
Ryan Burkhart (5-11, 185-pound) has the opportunity to step in and kick right away, and he might be expected to earn the job. Notre Dame does have a couple walk-ons, and they are capable, but they don't have overly strong legs. If Burkhart can fight off the pressure of being put in the spot light as a freshman, he will likely be kicking September 2 at Georgia Tech. Burkhart is a capable punter, but that certainly isn't his strength.