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NSD may actually hold an influence

Douglas Farmer | Thursday, February 3, 2011

I traditionally ridicule National Signing Day. Watching football players barely three years younger than me play with baseball caps — or even a sweatered bulldog this year — seems inherently pointless.

Yet this past season I confronted a very difficult realization: Freshmen really do affect the direction of a program.

My biggest quarrel with this day of teenage glorification has always focused on the vast inaccuracy of most recruiting rankings and projections. A 22-year-old’s physical and mental characteristics often bear no resemblance to his appearance four years prior.

Yet today’s descriptions of Everett Golson and George Atkinson, of Ishaq Williams and Aaron Lynch will still be very much accurate in September. And, as hard as this is for me to admit, freshmen matter.

A year ago, few Notre Dame fans were overjoyed at Tommy Rees’ early enrollment. TJ Jones slid beneath most people’s radar as well. Yet it is nearly impossible to imagine this past season, or even the Sun Bowl victory, without those two contributors.

Freshmen matter.

Thus, Wednesday’s recruiting haul, 23 recruits full, brings great promise for Notre Dame fans for the next four years, beginning in seven short months.

Last February, Irish coach Brian Kelly only had weeks to piece together his first Notre Dame recruiting class. Given the circumstances, Kelly and his staff did pretty well, but they all knew there was room for improvement.

With a full year under their belt, the Irish coaches showed how much room for improvement there was.

Kelly received 18 faxes with signatures on them Wednesday. Combine those with the five recruits who have already enrolled in classes this semester, and the class of 23 recruits includes: six of ESPN’s final top-100 recruits, headlined by No. 15 Aaron Lynch, a four-star defensive end. ESPN rates the Irish class as No. 12 in the country, but those rankings are often skewed by over-signing and sketchy handlings by other programs — another set of reasons I have always despised this college football holiday.

But Kelly and his staff did not resort to any of those illegitimate tactics in racking up this talented class. Instead, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco boarded a red-eye flight to Brooklyn, N.Y., to arrive at Ishaq Williams’ doorstep at 4:30 a.m. Upon Diaco’s arrival, Williams — the seventh-ranked defensive end in the country — cancelled a planned official visit to Penn State and committed to Notre Dame. Four days later Williams took his first classes on campus, opting to enroll for the current semester and gain a few extra months under Diaco’s tutelage.

Williams and Lynch are only the head-liners of a group of defensive linemen that will most likely define this recruiting class. Lynch, who did waffle back-and-forth concerning Notre Dame before eventually joining Williams as an early enrollee, will likely line-up opposite Stephon Tuitt, hailing from Georgia, at many points in his career.

Tuitt briefly decommitted from Notre Dame to turn his eyes toward Georgia Tech in January. Some schools would have shrugged their shoulders and signed three more defensive ends. Some schools would have bad-mouthed Tech to Tuitt. Notre Dame did neither. Instead, Kelly, Diaco and a few other coaches boarded a plane the next day on a trip to the Peach State to remind Tuitt why he ever looked to the Golden Dome in the first place. Their success led to his Tech commitment only lasting a brief period.

Tony Springmann, Chase Hounshell and Brad Carrico complete the grouping of defensive linemen, though at least one of them — most likely Williams — will eventually move to an outside linebacker position, a la junior Darius Fleming.

Irish fans have not seen a position-in-need so quickly stocked with depth since the early days of Lou Holtz. Yet those six linemen simply show the true strengths of Kelly’s recruiting. In Diaco’s 3-4 defense, only three defensive linemen are on the field at a time, yet he and Kelly managed to convince six of these players to come in at the same time. Whatever the Notre Dame coaching staff is selling these days, these recruits bought.

As did dual-threat, four-star quarterback Everett Golson, who switched his commitment to the Irish from North Carolina in December, both Josh and George Atkinson — heralded twins from Oregon — and four-star wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, who so badly wanted to come to Notre Dame he essentially put his recruiting process on hold while he raised his grades and test scores.

Next season these freshmen will have a chance to positively or negatively affect the Irish season. Given the descriptions of them today, it seems they will affect that season positively.

Hence, maybe National Signing Day isn’t all that bad, at least when it benefits Notre Dame.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily The Observer.

Contact Douglas Farmer at dfarmer1@nd.edu