Football Recruiting: Cavalry arrives
Chris Khorey | Thursday, February 7, 2008
On the field, Notre Dame’s 2007 season was a disaster. But experts say Charlie Weis’ recruiting haul, which was finalized Wednesday, was a major success.
Twenty-three players faxed their national letters of intent to Weis Wednesday morning – 11 on offense and 12 on defense.
The Irish filled holes in their depth chart, especially at defensive line, linebacker and tight end, and took another step toward replenishing a roster that, until two years ago, had been decimated by sub-par recruiting and attrition.
“These guys really understood or bought into Notre Dame and what Notre Dame is all about, what we were representing and what we’re trying to get done,” Weis said at his press conference Wednesday to announce the class.
Weis hit the recruiting trail hard last spring. By August, he had 18 recruits verbally committed. Seventeen of those players signed with the Irish Wednesday.
“I think that you’ve got to give a lot of credit to these young men for the intestinal fortitude that they’ve showed, because as we know, our performance on the field this year was far below expectations and far below average,” Weis said. “And try being those guys that are walking into their school and walking into the grocery stores in their hometowns, and everyone says, ‘You’re going to Notre Dame? Why are you going to Notre Dame?'”
Notre Dame signed at least one player in every major offensive and defensive category, but it did not sign any kickers.
With rising sophomore Jimmy Clausen and rising senior Evan Sharpley on the roster with starting experience, quarterback was not a major position of need for the Irish. But Weis still went after one of the nation’s best, signing Dayne Crist out of Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, Calif.
In his senior season, Crist threw for more than 2,100 yards and 16 touchdowns with just one interception.
But Weis said the best thing about Crist was his intangibles.
“One of the biggest things is that special leadership that he can show on or off the field,” the coach said.
Weis said Crist was one of the main reasons the recruiting class held together despite the bad season. Before even setting foot on campus, the players rallied around their quarterback.
“He did a great job of keeping everyone else along for the ride,” Weis said.
Running back is one of Notre Dame’s deepest positions right now, with three backs – rising sophomore Robert Hughes, rising sophomore Armando Allen and rising junior James Aldridge – with starting experience from last season.
Weis signed one more back to go with this trio: Jonas Gray out of Detroit Country Day High School in Beverly Hills, Mich.
Gray rushed for more than 2,600 yards in his senior season at Country Day.
“They kept feeding it to him and he’d keep on producing,” Weis said.
Notre Dame lacked big plays from its wide receiver corps in 2007. Its longest pass play of the season was just 25 yards. To remedy this, Weis brought in three wide receivers in the 2008 class.
The coach compared John Goodman, out of Bishop Dwenger High School in Fort Wayne, Ind., to former Irish All-American wide receiver Jeff Samardzija.
“He has a lot of the same mannerisms,” Weis said.
Michael Floyd, out of Cretin-Durham Hall High School in Saint Paul, Minn., is already a budding Notre Dame star after catching a long touchdown pass from Crist in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl all-star game in San Antonio, Texas.
In the ensuing celebration, Floyd and Crist yelled “Notre Dame baby! Get used to it!” into NBC’s cameras.
Deion Walker, from the Christchurch School in Christchurch, Va., was rumored to be having trouble deciding between Notre Dame and Penn State as recently as Tuesday night. But he faxed in his letter of intent Wednesday morning as planned.
With the suspension of rising junior Will Yeatman, Notre Dame is extremely thin at the tight end position. Rising sophomore Mike Ragone is the only scholarship player left at this position.
Into the void step two new players from the 2008 recruiting class: Kyle Rudolph of Elder High School in Cincinnati and Steve Fauria of Crespi Carmelite High School in Encinco, Calif.
Rudolph is ranked the No. 1 tight end in the country by Scout.com. He had 37 catches for 673 yards and 11 touchdowns his senior season.
Fauria is the nephew of NFL tight end Christian Fauria, who played for Weis with the New England Patriots. The younger Fauria stands 6-foot-7 and weighs 250 pounds.
“This is one big muchacho,” Weis said.
Notre Dame returns all five offensive line starters from its wins over Duke and Stanford to end last season, but the front wall performed poorly for much of last year. To bolster this unit, Weis signed four players.
Mike Golic Jr. the son of former Irish defensive lineman and current ESPN personality Mike Golic, was the first player to commit to the 2008 class. At 6-foot-5, 265 pounds, he will have to gain weight to contribute as a full-time lineman, but his long-snapping skills will give him an opportunity to start on special teams immediately.
Braxston Cave, from Penn High School in Mishawaka, Ind., is rated the No. 1 center prospect in the country by Scout.com. Like Crist, the 6-foot-3, 292-pounder was influential in keeping the class together through the 3-9 season.
Cave, who grew up just minutes from Notre Dame, repeatedly hosted other recruits at his home.
“His mom, I don’t know how many pasta dinners she’s made, but it seems like every time everyone comes in town, they’re all hanging at Braxston’s house,” Weis said. “His parents have been great. They’ve opened their doors.”
Weis said that Lane Clelland, out of McDonough High School in Owings Mills, Md., is slated as an offensive tackle. Clelland is currently undersized at 6-foot-5, 270 pounds, but Weis said weight gain should not be a problem.
“He has to stay under 275 pounds because over 275 they don’t let you wrestle, so it’s kind of kept his weight down,” Weis said. “I don’t think you have to worry about him being a big man, because he will be.”
Trevor Robinson, out of Elkhorn High School in Elkhorn, Neb., has already enrolled at Notre Dame. At 6-foot-5, 304 pounds, he has the size to contribute right away.
“He’s a big man when you see him,” Weis said. “He doesn’t look like a freshman when you see him walking around.”
The defensive line was Weis’ No. 1 priority in recruiting this year. Even though defensive coordinator Corwin Brown’s system only calls for three defensive linemen on the field at a time, Notre Dame will struggle to field even that many for the spring game. That will all change next fall, when five highly regarded freshmen suit up.
Although Ethan Johnson, of Lincoln High School in Portland, Ore., missed most of his senior year with an injury, he was still rated a 5-star prospect by Scout.com.
Kapron Lewis-Moore, out of Weatherford High School in Weatherford, Texas, was the last player to commit to Weis and the Irish. Most sources had him headed to Texas A&M, but Wednesday morning he officially switched to Notre Dame and sent in his letter of intent.
At the defensive end position, Notre Dame signed three players. Sean Cwynar, out of Marian Central Catholic High School in Woodstock, Ill., was named Mr. Football in his home state his senior year.
“He’s really a versatile player who I see who can play as an inside player because he’s big enough,” Weis said. “He’s also an outside player, because he’s strong enough and athletic enough.”
Hafis Williams, of Elizabeth High School in Elizabeth, N.J., and Brandon Newman of Pleasure Ridge Park High School in Louisville, Ky., will fill a position that Notre Dame is in desperate need of – nose guard.
When Notre Dame switched to the 3-4 at the beginning of the 2007 season, it only had one true nose guard on the roster, freshman Ian Williams.
Junior Pat Kuntz filled the position despite a less-than-ideal weight, but his status for next year is uncertain, making Williams and Newman even more important.
Linebacker was another position of need for Notre Dame in this class. The Irish signed four – two middle linebackers, one outside linebacker, and one who could play either.
Anthony McDonald, a high school teammate of Crist’s, and David Posluszny, of Hopewell High School in Aliquippa, Penn., will play in the middle.
Weis managed to pull both of them away from family favorites. Posluszny’s older brother, Paul, was a standout at Penn State, while McDonald’s father played at Southern California.
Darius Fleming, of Saint Rita High School in Chicago, will play on the outside in Brown’s 3-4. In addition to football, Fleming was a varsity bowler in high school and once bowled a 300 game, Weis said.
Steve Filer, of Mount Carmel High School in Chicago, could play either inside or out, Weis said.
“This was one of the guys we earmarked back when he was a sophomore, and we’ve been working on this for quite some time, and we’re happy to have him,” the coach said.
Notre Dame’s pass defense was one of the few bright spots last season, but Weis still targeted several defensive backs, landing three.
Robert Blanton, of Butler High School in Matthews, N.C., and Jamoris Slaughter, of Tucker High School in Tucker, Ga., can play either cornerback or safety, versatility that Weis said he was looking for in this year’s secondary recruits.
“We were looking for some safety types that had that corner cover ability,” Weis said.
Dan McCarthy, of Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown, Ohio, is a pure safety prospect. He is the brother of Irish rising senior safety Kyle McCarthy.
Weis said he would have no qualms about playing the brothers together if necessary.
“As I told him, there’s two guys that play safety so there’s no rule that says we couldn’t have you out there at the same time,” Weis said.