It was an emotional roller coaster for Irish fans with the late commitment of Illinois running back Robert Hughes bringing immense joy, while the last second change of heart by New Jersey defensive end Justin Trattou bringing on just as much agony. Imagine what the Notre Dame coaching staff was going through while pounding the pavement in putting together a second-straight top-10 class.
Hughes and company will fax in their letter-of-intent to attend Notre Dame early Wednesday morning, making everything official. Now it's time to wonder where these 20 kids, the Irish freshman class, fits in on the 2007 football team.
Head coach Charlie Weis has overhauled the offense the past two years, bringing in maybe the best high school quarterback since John Elway, a bunch of mean and talented offensive lineman, and skill players that compliment each other.
There is one reason why this year's spring game will be the most attended one in program history. That reason is quarterback Jimmy Clausen. Will the heralded freshman beat out junior Evan Sharpley, and sophomores Zach Frazer and Demetrius Jones for the starting job? After watching him in practice in preparation for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio, if Clausen stays healthy through the spring and summer, this writer says yes.
In Texas, Clausen was a human jug-ball machine. Every pass was on the money. Over the middle, deep balls, out routes, you name hit, he can sling it. Clausen also adjusted very quickly to the speed of the game, has good pocket awareness and a live arm. Weis and quarterbacks coach Ron Powlus won't have to do any work on the mechanics of this polished passer. It will come down to Clausen's ability to grasp and lead Weis's offense.
Last year's class had two running backs, James Aldridge, the workhorse grinder, and Munir Prince, the speedy homerun threat. Same thing this year with the 5-foot-11, 228-pound Hughes, who's physical presence is that of a guy that plays in the NFL, and the speedy Armando Allen. All four of these guys will push fifth-year senior Travis Thomas for game-day carries.
At the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, Hughes looked like a bigger, more powerful Darius Walker when carrying the ball. He was quick to find the hole in practice, hit the line hard, was shifty enough to make people miss, and a load to take down once he got in the secondary. He could catch the ball out of the backfield, and was the first one to jump in line when they needed a running back for something in practice. Hughes doesn't look like a guy that can get you 80 yards on one carry, but he'll get that yardage in 10 carries.
The 5-foot-10, 185-pound Allen, and his 4.35 speed in the 40-yard dash will give him the opportunity to impact in several situations. There is obviously the return game, where the Irish have lacked a homerun threat on kickoffs since Vontez Duff graduated. Being an early enrollee like Clausen, Allen should have a firm grasp of the playbook coming into August and the season. If Allen proves durable enough, he could become the first Irish back able to change the tune of a game in one play since Julius Jones. Imagine the gadget plays Weis could implement into the game plan if Allen earns playing time.
The receivers, Greg Little, Duval Kamara and Golden Tate bring different things to the table. Little and Tate bring immediate impact. Kamara could be a year away with the logjam at the position (four brought in last year), and him coming from a running offense in high school.
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Little looks bigger than that in person. He is comparable to Keyshawn Johnson with his style of play. Little uses his body well, he's quick, runs routes well and has good hands. He was arguably the most impressive receiver at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. He will be right there in the mix for one of Weis's regular three receiver spots.
Is Tate going to be the receiver that gives the Irish a deep threat they've been kind of lacking the last couple seasons? Irish commit Andrew Nuss said that Tate was tearing it up during practice at the Offense-Defense All-American Bowl in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. If he can come in and do that, he will see the field.
Weis and his coaches have brought in another outstanding group of offensive lineman. Not sure if there is a Sam Young caliber player in the group, as far as coming in and starting from day one, but Taylor Dever, Matt Romine and Chris Little are three good ones that provide immediate depth. The 6-foot-5, 340-pound Little is ready to go when it comes to run blocking, he just needs some work in protecting the passer. It sounds like Emeka Nwankwo and Nuss will get there first opportunity to impress in an Irish uniform at defensive tackle.
On that note, Ian Williams could be the most important player in this recruiting class. The 6-foot-1, 290 pound defensive tackle could be the key cog in defensive coordinator Corwin Brown's 3-4 defense. Williams won't have to come in and save the day as a freshman with senior Trevor Laws around for one more season, but Williams has the inside track to be a three-year starter. He will push Pat Kuntz and Paddy Mullen for playing time this fall.
When talking to high school coaches in North Carolina about current juniors, every one of them has brought up Kerry Neal, and how good a get he is for Notre Dame. The defensive end will have a great opportunity to play right away, with none of the current guys on the roster showing a great ability to get to the quarterback.
Linebacker was a huge need with this class, and even though the Irish didn't land Lorenzo Edwards, Malcolm Smith or Chris Donald, they brought in three guys who could play themselves into the mix right away.
In San Antonio, I thought Aaron Nagel was every bit as impressive as Donald, if not better. He brings safety speed to the position, a rock-hard body and a blue-collar work ethic. He looked good running sideline to sideline. With Nagel, he is learning the position after making the move from the secondary, but will eventually be able to play inside or outside linebacker with his speed and durability.
Brian Smith and sophomore-to-be Morrice Richardson could give Brown the type of linebackers that can come up to the line of scrimmage and put their hands down. The Irish defense should be able to give a lot of different looks with the flexibility those two bring. Steve Paskorz, like Nagel, has the abilities to play either inside or outside linebacker on the next level. Paskorz was his high school team's tailback, and will use that speed to benefit the Irish defense.
The Irish secondary has been accustomed to taking a lot of heat the last few years. It appears that the front seven will garner that negative attention now, as the secondary appears to be a lot more athletic than in years past. Cornerback Gary Gray, who is already on campus as an early enrollee and safety Harrison Smith add to that. They are just caught up in a numbers game. In San Antonio, injured ankle and all, Gray still had the best feet and hips of all the cornerbacks. There is no doubt he can cover, but is his 5-foot-11, 165-pound frame too small to have an immediate impact on the next level. The same thing was true with blue-chip corners Darrin Walls and Raeshon McNeil this past season. Gray has until August to add muscle. If he does, he will be tough to keep off the field.
With Brandon Walker, if he walks in and consistently puts the ball through the uprights, he has a job from day one. Obviously, none of the Irish kickers did that last season.
Like Gray and Smith in the secondary, talented tight end Mike Ragone could get caught up in a numbers game at his position with All-American John Carlson and heralded sophomores Will Yeatman and Konrad Reuland also manning the position.