"I always try to temper my enthusiasm," said Willingham. "But from our perspective, we believe it's a very solid class and I say that from A to Z with Abiamiri or Zbikowski, whomever you work in between. I think it's a good class. I love the way it came together."
Willingham's class includes 22 recruits, and this class should place Notre Dame very high among the rankings by most experts. Willingham was quick to point out this means – in his mind – nothing ("It's comical, in fact, the way people judge these kids," he said). But his normal poker face was not to be found on this day. The coach was clearly thrilled with his work and the efforts of his entire coaching staff.
"I think we'd be honest if we say at this stage, on this day we have accomplished what we set out to do which was bring some young players into our system that we think have potential. Now the real work begins. Now that you have them we have to do a great job of developing these players and hopefully in the next two to three years we will able to determine how solid a class this is and how much this helps us become a great football team."
Using a total of 33 official visits – an exceptionally low number in a year where the Irish could, by rule, host as many as 56 prospects – Notre Dame landed a high percentage of their visitors with 22 total commitments and Willingham felt confident his recruiting strategy would work. "I was confident we could get a high percentage to sign. I believe our young men understood clearly what Notre Dame is about and I think we communicated that well to them in the recruiting process with our coaches and we felt like we targeted the right young people for Notre Dame."
The Irish signed two offensive linemen in this class in John Sullivan and Ryan Harris. The two players are considered some of the very top players in the country at their positions. Willingham talked about both players and what they bring to the football program. "We are extremely excited about the two. We think both of them add some very special things to our program. I will not say whether that will be tomorrow or it will be a year from now, but we do believe they will have an impact in our program. They have great intensity, great drive and great desire." But did the Irish need more than two in this class? "We had others on our list and I think they way things shaped out we're very happy."
Notre Dame has had a string of bad luck with defensive ends recently with the late losses of Shaun Cody and D.J. Johnson in previous year but they were finally able to land one prized recruit in Victor Abiamiri. Abiamiri brings size and great quickness to the defensive end spot and but Willingham was careful not to single out any one player as a jewel in this class. "I'm awful careful not to overstep my boundaries on any one player, that the focus is always the team. But without the individual players bringing their individual skills, it's very difficult to get the team you want. We are excited about what Victor brings to our football team. We think he has what I will label them as very Justin Tuck like qualities. Some of that explosiveness that you're looking for in terms of a pass rusher and hope that at some point in his future he will be able to add to our team in that category."
One player many consider the top player in this class is Greg Olsen. Olsen is the brother of current Notre Dame player and quarterback Chris Olsen. Willingham spoke about going back into the Olsen home and selling his program once again to Greg and his family. "To be able to go into a house for the second time is special. If they're willing to entrust their young man to you, that means you are doing something right the first time and we feel very privileged to have him in our program and believe it says all the right things. What I like about Greg, I like one, his intensity. I think when he plays; he plays with a great deal or a high level of intensity. The other thing that I like is he is a coach's son. You can hear in that in the conversation. You can hear his mind turning as a coaches mind would turn and hopefully that adds something to his play and also to his maturity."
The Irish didn't appear to land what some would consider a top running back prospect. Irish fans were hoping to sign a top prospect to compete for immediate playing time. Willingham was asked if he thought he had a running back in this class that could compete for playing time next year. "I don't know. That's a question that the young men will answer. We as coaches don't want to determine who plays. We believe that should be left up to our players. Players do that by showing themselves on the football field. If Travis (Thomas) or any of our other guys come in and show themselves to be the best back, better than Ryan Grant, Marcus Wilson etc. then they should play and that will help us be a stronger football team."
The lack of what many consider a great running back in this class could be offset with the return of Julius Jones next fall. Coach Willingham also addressed that issue at his press conference. When asked if he was saving a few scholarships for a possible transfer or possibly Julius Jones, Willingham had this to say. "It could potentially include Julius Jones." When asked if when he would know for sure. "When he goes through all the University procedures" he said.
From a needs standpoint, the Irish appear to have addressed almost all of their needs in this class. The 2003 class should rank very high in recruiting rankings but Willingham made his feelings known on these rankings. "How hard would you like me to laugh? It is comical because when you look at the NFL, the NFL spends a great deal of money on their draft picks and they miss a great percentage of time. How many of those first-rounders really turn out to be all that they claim they will be? They spend an amazing amount of money in terms of research, development so for us to believe that this or that class is the best ever is kind of difficult to do."
With the departure of Rex Hogan, the Irish will have to do some restructuring of the recruiting process. Hogan was instrumental in the organization of the recruiting effort and his absence will need to be addressed. When asked about a replacement for Rex Hogan, Willingham had this to say. "We will probably restructure the position and do something in that area within the near future and near future could be near or far."