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Holding their breath

Pat Leonard | Wednesday, February 4, 2004

Head coach Tyrone Willingham and the Notre Dame coaching staff will present an official, final product of their recruiting efforts today at a press conference at 3:30 p.m.On the eve of National Signing Day, the Irish had 16 verbal commitments from high school prospects, five less than the 21 players who signed last February. The most recent players to commit are defensive end Justin Baker and defensive back Leo Ferrine. Both players committed over a week ago on Jan. 25.In the past week, the Irish have been unable to secure additional commitments in large part because of the lack of remaining players.Last year, coaches closed recruiting season with a strong push and finished with a top-five recruiting class.This year, the players who remained for Willingham to snag as signing day neared were disappointments for the Irish.Offensive guard Allen Smith of Tucson, Arizona is the 12th-rated guard according to ESPN recruiting analyst Tom Lemming. Lemming and other analysts such as IrishEyes columnist Mike Frank believed Smith would commit to Notre Dame as early as Jan. 28.Smith surprised everyone with a commitment to Stanford.Lemming had Chicago safety prospect Nate Lyles ranked 23rd at his position, but chose the University of Virginia over Notre Dame.Wide receiver Bobby McCoy canceled his Jan. 30 visit to South Bend and committed to Arizona.Unranked defensive back Darcel McBath chose Texas Tech.Players have slipped through the fingers of Willingham and his staff throughout the recruiting process. Rival teams such as Southern California and other programs have cleaned up, while the Irish struggle to attract more top talent.Still, Lemming has the Irish class ranked 27th among Division-I recruiting classes. He believes they could sneak into the top 25 if they secure their three remaining targets: Ell Ash, Terrail Lambert and Christopher Vaughn.”Last year’s class was outstanding, one of the best in the country,” Lemming said. “Notre Dame learned a lot of lessons this year. They learned they must recruit early and become more aggressive at the end of the year.”Ash, a six-foot-five, 258-pound offensive lineman, was the only player to visit on the final weekend for recruiting visits. He will choose between North Carolina State, Tennessee and Notre Dame, though a report from one recruiting Web site, Irishtoday.com, quotes Ash’s high school coach as confirming that Ash enjoyed his Notre Dame visit but will not commit to the school.On Tuesday night, ESPN and IrishEyes were not been able to confirm the report.Lambert is a top-rated cornerback who Lemming rated 3rd among defensive backs and 75th in his top-100 prospects. The cousin of Florida State running back Lorenzo Booker, Lambert stands at 5-foot-11 and weighs 187 pounds and draws comparisons from Frank of present Irish defensive back Freddie Parish. Ohio State, Oregon St., USC and Washington St. all expressed interest in Lambert, though he will decide between Florida State and the Irish this afternoon.Booker was famous for shocking Notre Dame by taking off an Irish hat and donning a Florida State cap two years ago during a live press conference televised by ESPN.The top of the remaining prospects, however, may be the wide receiver Vaughn.Willingham visited Vaughn in Oakdale, Conn. Saturday to help solidify the Irish chances, though Vaughn still sees Iowa as a legitimate possibility.”If [Notre Dame] gets him, Chris Vaughn might be the best player in their class,” Lemming said. “He’s big, fast, physical, strong and productive. He has all the tools to be a very productive receiver.”As of right now, Lemming shares the belief with experts like Frank that Georgia running back Darius Walker is the prime prospect of the Irish class.