Irish to keep strengthening deep 2017 class
Zach Klonsinski | Friday, September 2, 2016
Notre Dame enters the 2016 season with a staggering 17 commitments — the most in Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s tenure by the beginning of September — already verbally agreeing to play football for the Irish in 2017.
While the overall number isn’t a drastic increase from the last few classes at this point in the season, the class is much more talented already than in previous years, according to Blue and Gold Illustrated’s football analyst Bryan Driskell.
“The fact that [the Irish] have added so much skill to the class is really what is different,” Driskell said. “They’ve started off with linebackers, tight ends, offensive linemen, but they were really able to add a lot more impact type athleticism in the class.”
What is unusual about this class so far, Driskell added, is that Notre Dame has already landed prospects from the South, like Rivals.com four-star offensive lineman Robert Hainsey from Bradenton, Florida, and four-star defensive tackle Darnell Ewell out of Norfolk, Virginia.
“They’ve kind of hit in some areas that usually take them a little longer for them to hit, like landing Darnell Ewell from Norfolk, Virginia,” Driskell said. “They usually don’t get an impact, top-150 type defensive tackle this early. … The fact that [the Irish] have been able to add some impact players at defensive tackle, the fact that they’ve already landed two Southern wide receivers, normally those guys jump on board later in the process.”
At the same time, Driskell noted the classes for both 2017 and 2018 are heavy on northern talent, which the Irish have historically been able to recruit very well. He pointed to four-star running back C.J. Holmes from Hamden, Connecticut.
“Connecticut doesn’t produce a lot of top-250 running backs,” Driskell said. “A private school in Connecticut is a place where Notre Dame’s going to do well. Well usually they’re getting offensive linemen from Connecticut, but the fact that they could get a Rivals 250 running back from Connecticut really helped a lot.”
Driskell also pointed to Notre Dame commits like four-star linebacker David Adams and three-star defensive tackle Kurt Hinish, who both hail from Pittsburgh — as well as four-star offensive lineman Joshua Lugg out of Wexburg, Pennsylvania, a suburb of the Steel City — as products of this talent surge.
“I think No. 1 is winning. Winning helps,” Driskell said when asked about what has drawn the talent to Notre Dame this class. “ … When [Notre Dame played Alabama in 2012], a lot of these kids were eighth graders or freshmen. Since then Notre Dame went 9-4 the next year and then 8-5, and it just kind of fell apart at the end of the 2014 season, and that’s kind of what kids saw. So that shine from the 2012 season had faded a little bit.
“ … I think kids are looking for a reason to go to Notre Dame. They are. … But at the end of the day, elite football players want to go somewhere and win. And so I think that’s the biggest thing that’s helped [the Irish].”
With the large commitment numbers, Notre Dame is now freer to target high-caliber prospects, who Driskell described as the type of recruits who will take Notre Dame’s current recruiting class to the top three or five in college football as opposed to the top 10 or 15 classes they’ve been for the last few years.
Here are some of the top prospects on Notre Dame’s big board Driskell said Irish fans should keep their eye on moving forward. Rankings are from Rivals.com.
Foster Sarell; Graham, Wash.; No. 3 overall; No. 1 offensive tackle
Driskell said while many analysts predict the five-star Sarell will stay out west, he thinks the Irish have a very strong chance at landing the 6-foot-6, 315 pounder.
“He’s a big time player,” Driskell said. “He’s a guy that’s going to visit for the Stanford game. It’s basically Stanford, Notre Dame and Washington for him.”
Driskell added that while adding a top-five national prospect would certainly boost where the class is ranked nationally, offensive line is also a position of need for Notre Dame moving forward.
Trey Smith; Jackson, Tenn.; No. 20 overall; No. 4 offensive tackle
“I actually have [five-star] Trey Smith ranked higher than Foster Sarell on my particular big board at Blue and Gold Illustrated,” Driskell said of the 6-foot-5, 305-pound Volunteer State product. “Moral of the story, they’re both outstanding players. If [Notre Dame] can add one of those two guys to go along with [four-star commit] Joshua Lugg at offensive tackle, that’s going to give them the two book-end tackles they need.”
Hezekiah Jones; Stafford, Texas; No. 128 overall; No. 17 receiver
Tarik Black; Cheshire, Conn.; No. 99 overall; No. 14 receiver
While the 5-foot-11 Jones has already given a verbal commitment to Texas A&M, Driskell said he thinks both four-star receivers are still very much open for the Irish to land on signing day.
“If they could land or even both of those guys, I think that would have a big impact and I think they have a legitimate opportunity with both of those guys,” Driskell said.
Driskell also pointed out the Irish also have an inside track with Black, whose teammate, running back C.J. Holmes, is already committed to Notre Dame.
Donovan Jeter; Beaver Falls, Penn.; No. 14 defensive tackle
Driskell said the 6-foot-5, 255-pound defensive lineman out of Pennsylvania looks like a guy Notre Dame fans have grown to love over the last few years: Isaac Rochell.
“[Jeter]’s a little better athlete, maybe not quite as strong,” Driskell said. “Guy that can play strongside end, can play three-technique, can do a lot of different things for you. I think that’s why he reminds me of Rochell.”
Jeter, a four-star prospect, has scheduled a visit to Notre Dame on Michigan State weekend, which Driskell said just shows how seriously he’s considering a school that didn’t even originally appear in his top five.
“He was at some sort of preseason event with Kurt Hinish, who’s committed to Notre Dame, and the whole time Kurt Hinish was in his ear, ‘Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Notre Dame’ and the kid was like, ‘Why isn’t Notre Dame in my top group?’ So he added them and made it a top six.”
Jacob Phillips; Nashville, Tenn.; No. 37 overall; No. 2 inside linebacker
“Very physical player. Can play inside linebacker, can play outside linebacker,” Driskell said of the four-star recruit. “I actually think his best position down the road might be as an edge rusher. And so he could be that guy that gives [Notre Dame] that edge rusher from linebacker or be a hybrid defensive end guy.”
Notre Dame has already made Phillips’ final five, along with Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma and Oregon. The Tennessee product is also scheduled to visit for the Michigan State game.
Thomas Graham; Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.; No. 68 overall; No. 7 cornerback
“He visited in March with his dad,” Driskell said. “His parents are big time into academics. That’s going to be a big part of his decision. He was previously committed to USC because his sister goes there, but his family really wanted him to blaze his own trail.”
Driskell said the Irish are in a recruiting battle with UCLA and Arizona, but he added that Notre Dame has what Graham and his family are looking for.
“He’s going to come back for another visit, and I think Notre Dame’s got a really good shot with him, especially because his parents really like Notre Dame,” Driskell said. “I wouldn’t say they’re pushing Notre Dame, but they really like Notre Dame and that’s always going to give you a chance.”