Irish sign 21 recruits during early signing period
Benjamin Padanilam | Saturday, December 23, 2017
Notre Dame has not had a top-10 recruiting class since 2013.
But at the conclusion of the college football’s first-ever early signing period, the Irish found themselves in a position to have just that with its 2018 group. From Wednesday to Friday, Notre Dame saw 21 recruits sign their national letters of intent and join what is currently the sixth-ranked class in the country, according to Rivals.
On Wednesday, 20 athletes — including 10 four-star prospects — signed with Notre Dame on the first day they were eligible to, a number which had Irish head coach Brian Kelly confident in the strength of his class.
“[You would] be hard pressed to find a college football program that signed 20 players today, and so my estimation is this is probably the No. 1 recruiting class in the country if you talk about signed players,” Kelly said Wednesday. “You guys can do the research. I’m sure you will dig in deep and look, but we’re really excited about it, obviously, to have 20 signed.”
Then, the Irish added a 21st player Friday in Braden Lenzy, a four-star athlete out of Portland, Oregon, to close out the early signing period.
Effect of early signing period
The early signing period was a new addition to college football’s recruiting landscape this year, giving high school athletes the opportunity to sign their letters of intent between Dec. 20-Dec. 22 rather than wait until National Signing Day in February. While balancing recruiting with preparation for the team’s bowl game was difficult, Kelly said the period worked out the way he thought it would.
“Well, it certainly was a challenge. We had to balance a lot of things,” Kelly said. “First couple of practices where we were in reading days and exams … we didn’t have a full staff of coaches at a practice because we had guys on the road. So it was a coordinated effort that we had to go into this process, knowing that we had to prepare our football team for a bowl game as well as continue to recruit. … There was a balancing act that we had to certainly put together. … We had to be really smart in putting a plan together.”
One effect of the period Kelly was particularly pleased with was the way in which it allowed him and his staff to pinpoint targets in recruiting who, should they commit to the Irish at this point, would sign upon that commitment. And that came to fruition, with each of Notre Dame’s 21 commitments signing their letters of intent.
“It’s put the commitment back in commitment and really what that means. No more soft commitments,” Kelly said Wednesday. “The charge that I gave to our assistant coaches is that if a player has given us his commitment, we have been committed to them that they’re going to sign with us. If not, that’s fine, but we’re going to keep recruiting that position.
“So it’s really put back into the definition of commitment. If you’re committed, there are no, ‘Hey, I’m committed, but I’m going to take other visits.’ It really truly means a commitment to one university. We have a commitment to you, and we’re going to honor that commitment. That’s what it’s meant to us here at Notre Dame.”
One prospect who Kelly is particularly excited about is dual-threat quarterback Phil Jurkovec, who was a four-star recruit ranked 55th in the country, per Rivals.
“I think he’s the best quarterback in the country,” Kelly said of Jurkovec. “He’s somebody that I could put up against any quarterback that I’ve ever seen.”
Kelly said Jurkovec was first put on his radar because of the leadership which he displayed as a sophomore at Pine Richland High School in Gibsonia, Pennsylvania. Then, once Kelly and his staff spent more time watching him progress as a junior and senior, they were only more impressed.
“The ball comes out quickly with accuracy. Great arm strength,” Kelly said. “This year, [Pine Richland] spread the field with massive splits, and the ball was going all the way out to the numbers with great access and speed. So, what we saw in this past year was just a really quick release. Then, we saw the ability to run the offense at the line of scrimmage, get into the right plays, run the football, just a complete control of what was going on out there, really a clinic at times.”
And once Jurkovec makes his way to campus next year, Kelly said he wants to see the incoming freshman challenge incumbent starter and junior Brandon Wimbush for the starting quarterback job, even if the job would be Wimbush’s to lose.
“I want him to challenge,” Kelly said of Jurkovec. “I want Brandon to feel competition, and I’m sure Brandon wants to be challenged. Any great competitor wants that feeling that somebody is pushing him every day, and not that [sophomore] Ian Book doesn’t, but let’s bring in another really good quarterback, a great quarterback. That’s our job here at Notre Dame. I’m not doing a good enough job if I don’t bring in a great quarterback to challenge the incumbent quarterback. If that threatens Brandon, then he’s not the guy I think he is. I’m pretty certain he’s going to be excited about Phil being here and the competition.”
On the defensive side of the field, the Irish landed perhaps some of their best recruits during the early signing period. And many of them will be on campus early, as four of Notre Dame’s seven early enrollees in its 2018 class — linebackers Bo Bauer, Jack Lamb and Ovie Oghoufo as well as cornerback Houston Griffith, with the other early enrollees being wide receiver Micah Jones, tight end George Takacs and running back Jahmir Smith — come on that side of the field.
Griffith is perhaps Notre Dame’s best recruit, ranked No. 35 among all prospects per Rivals. While some project Griffith as a safety, Kelly said the Bradenton, Florida, native could also play cornerback for the Irish.
“I think Houston has the natural ability to play corner for us,” Kelly said. “But look, we are going to bring in young men that have the athletic ability to play at corner, but we’re going to develop them and as they progress in our program. We never close the door on where they can be best suited as they move through the program and look toward a career at the next level. He could be a corner, he could be — he may play nickel for us, could be a safety at the next level, but he certainly has the skill set to play corner for us.”
Derrik Allen — a four-star safety out of Marietta, Georgia — is another one of Notre Dame’s top recruits in the secondary, as he was ranked the No. 66 overall prospect per Rivals. Kelly said Allen was the type of player Notre Dame desperately needed in its 2018 class.
“He was the first guy that we saw that had the ability to cover man-to-man, play the ball in the air and get the ball down on the ground with his size,” Kelly said of Allen. “That was the trait that we had to have in this class. It was a must, must, must. It was underlined like five times. We have to find this player. So it was all in on that type of player, and when we saw that trait, it was just — in terms of our efforts, they all had to be focused in that direction. When we saw those traits, coupled with great student, great character, all the other intangibles, it was a home run for us.”
And a third player who the Irish recruited to play in its secondary, three-star athlete Tariq Bracy, might be one of the class’ most underrated players, Kelly said.
“Tariq Bracy is a young man that I think if he’s in a metro area, his recruitment probably blows up, but he’s in an area that doesn’t get quite the attention,” Kelly said. “[He] won a state championship, and a lot of people still didn’t know who he was. So everybody probably knows his name, but he didn’t do a lot of the camp circuit … but is an outstanding player.”
And while the secondary was one area the Irish sought to address in this class, the other was its linebacker group, which will lose both Greer Martini and Nyles Morgan as senior captains at the conclusion of the season. But Kelly feels the Irish found multiple players who could fill those spots in the future in three four-star prospects — Lamb, Bauer and Shayne Simon — as well as the three-star rated Oghoufo. Kelly said the athleticism his staff found at the linebacker spot is a trait that will give the team flexibility with those players down the road.
“They can play outside the box. They are guys that are extremely athletic,” Kelly said. “We would rather take them and then begin to hone in on where they can best fit in that defensive structure rather than saying, ‘He’s a box player, that’s all he can play.’ These guys give us flexibility to see how they’re going to fill out and develop.”