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Prister: Despite all the talk, it’s too early to judge (Feb. 2)

Eric Prister | Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Disappointing? Yes. But a disappointment? Absolutely not.

Notre Dame’s recruiting class of 2012 was not all it could have been, but it should certainly not be considered a failure.

Judging the pending success or failure of a player as he moves from college football to the NFL is difficult enough. Judging the same as a player moves from high school to college is intelligent guesswork at best.

That is not to say National Signing Day is not important. Recruiting is an invaluable part of the college football process and should be treated as such. But to claim Notre Dame failed because it did not rank higher on an analyst’s list of top classes is ludicrous.

The Irish missed out on a few opportunities, losing receiver Deontay Greenberry in the eleventh hour to Houston and highly touted defensive back Ronald Darby a few weeks earlier. But to claim these losses signal a downward spiral for the state of the football program is absurd.

Last season, Notre Dame hit a home run, signing defensive lineman Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt, along with linebacker Ishaq Williams, who at the time was considered to be on their level. Irish coach Brian Kelly went into the recruiting process knowing he needed to solidify his defensive front, and he did just that.

But the impact of Tuitt and Lynch was not just on the field. Certainly they played well this season, but they provided much-needed depth on the defensive line, and that was their greatest contribution this year.

Kelly did not hit that same home run this year. He said at last year’s National Signing Day press conference that after recruiting well on the defensive interior, this year’s focus would be the exterior. The home run would have been signing corners Tee Shepard, Darby and Brian Poole. On signing day, only Shepard belongs to the Irish. But the class of 2012 includes five players who will enter camp as defensive backs, and that depth is what is important.

And while defensive back was highlighted as the position to watch as early as last February, the most immediate concern for most Irish fans is the quarterback position, and the Irish nabbed one of the best. Gunner Kiel fits in perfectly with Kelly’s system and should complete for the starting job immediately as an early enrollee.

But it is very difficult to judge players at this stage. According to Rivals.com, Notre Dame signed just two players in the top-100. According to ESPN, they signed three. But what does this mean?

Arguably the best quarterback in recent memory at Notre Dame, Brady Quinn, was a three-star prospect coming out of high school, nowhere near the top-100. Tyler Eifert was also a three-star recruit. Jeff Samardzija was as well.

Rankings are meaningless until a coach gets his hands on the players. Receiver recruit Justin Ferguson is rated the 14th-best receiver by ESPN and the 58th-best receiver by Rivals.com. Which is right, or is either? Only time will tell.

Kelly said Wednesday that Notre Dame did exactly what it set out to do this year, and for now, there is no reason to doubt him. Certainly there were some slip-ups, and things did not go exactly according to plan. But to judge the success or failure of a coaching hire based on the whims of one or two 18-year-olds is bordering on certifiable insanity.

Notre Dame football is moving in the right direction. It may not be going there as quickly as some would like, and Kelly’s third year probably will not bring a national championship.

There certainly have been setbacks, the loss of Greenberry potentially being one of them, just as the loss to South Florida at the beginning of last season undoubtedly was.

But Brian Kelly has a plan, and if he says things are moving according to it, who’s to say he’s wrong?

Contact Eric Prister at eprister@nd.edu

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