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Hartnett: Pondering the ‘what ifs’ of class of 2011 recruits

| Thursday, November 20, 2014

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Irish head coach Brian Kelly spoke Tuesday about the “fine line” that exists in college football, one that has his team either seven points away from a 9-1 record or 10 points away from a 5-5 record, depending on how you view the proverbial glass.

Kelly’s statement about how the fine line makes college football such a high-stakes game also translates to recruiting classes, which can turn from a group brimming with potential and the hope of being the team’s next leaders to an unremarkable unit, with just a few injuries, defections or struggles on the field.

Of course, Kelly also said such scenarios can be mitigated by consistency in recruiting across all classes. And for the most part, the Irish have done that — their recruiting classes during Kelly’s tenure have been ranked Nos. 18, 9, 18, 5 and 11, respectively, according to 247 Sports.

But the high school class of 2011, made up of 13 team members who will celebrate their Senior Day on Saturday, doesn’t bear much resemblance to the ninth-ranked, 23-member class that was widely seen as a good haul — Kelly’s first full-scale recruiting class since he was hired near the tail end of the recruiting cycle for the class of 2010.

The class of 2011 in many ways illustrates Kelly’s point about the fine line that exists in big-time college football.

Granted, the class has had plenty of successes. Three of its members — Stephon Tuitt, Troy Niklas and George Atkinson III — are currently in the NFL, Tuitt with the Steelers, Niklas with the Cardinals and Atkinson with the Raiders. Their college careers didn’t necessarily go according to plan — Niklas transitioned from outside linebacker to tight end before his sophomore year and Atkinson bounced around from running back to receiver to kick returner, never really finding a true home, but they for the most part lived up to expectations.

Then there are the current team contributors — Everett Golson, Kyle Brindza, Matthias Farley, Ben Koyack and Matt Hegarty come to mind. This group also includes two team captains in Nick Martin and Cam McDaniel. And it must be noted that one of the biggest influences in the class is a guy who wasn’t awarded a scholarship upon high school graduation — Joe Schmidt, who was a preferred walk-on, if you haven’t already heard.

While many in this group have been beset by injury, turnovers or struggles recently, they still form the backbone of the class, players who stayed the course and will most likely leave Notre Dame with a degree in hand and a wealth of football memories and experiences.

And these experiences have been important to the Irish because so many others in the class did not fully get to complete the path that these players have.

Aaron Lynch, the highest-rated Notre Dame commitment in the class of 2011 per 247 Sports, left for South Florida after his freshman year and now plays for the 49ers.

DaVaris Daniels, Ishaq Williams and Eilar Hardy were held out following an investigation into “suspected academic dishonesty” earlier this year — Hardy has returned to the team, but the other two players will not play this season and the future of their Notre Dame careers is still up in the air.

The injury bug heavily bit some players from the class — injuries forced Brad Carrico to retire even before stepping on the field and caused Tony Springmann to hang up his cleats after his sophomore season.

Likewise, injuries have been a constantly recurring theme in the college careers of players like Jarrett Grace, Ben Counsell and Chase Hounshell.

And for varying reasons, some due to depth, others due to scheme, some players just haven’t found their particular niche within the class and have struggled to see the field — Josh Atkinson, Jalen Brown and Anthony Rabasa come to mind.

In short, Notre Dame’s high school class of 2011 is probably what fans of a major college football program should expect to see — I’m sure the senior classes at Alabama or Ohio State have also been hit hard by players leaving early, injuries and some underperformance.

But it also is interesting to play the “what-if” game and wonder what the stakes could have been Saturday had guys like Lynch and Tuitt stayed all four years or Daniels and Williams played this season or Springmann and Grace remained healthy.

Those few factors might have been enough to put Notre Dame on the right side of that fine line, the one between legitimate championship contender and playoff also-ran.

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

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About Brian Hartnett

Brian Hartnett is a senior marketing major and journalism, ethics and democracy minor. The Carroll Hall resident hails from Clark, New Jersey and covers Notre Dame football, as well as other University topics.

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