Sunday, February 6, 2011

ND Recruiting: A Ten Year Recap (Part I)

National Signing Day is without a doubt one of the most backwards days in American sports. It's an all-day event when teenagers hold press conferences, college coaches that make millions hold their breath, and middle aged men take off work to watch and scream and yell at the television depending on which hat the 18-year old decided to put on his head.

The dust has settled from 2011's edition of this bizarre ritual and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have emerged from the roller coaster as one of the clear winners of the day.

In Survivor-esque fashion, Coach Brian Kelly and his staff outwitted, outlasted, and outplayed schools like Florida State, Penn State, and Georgia Tech to land a haul for the ages along the defensive line. Whether it was defensive coordinator Bob Diaco meeting with Ishaq Williams at 4:30am the morning he was supposed to head to Penn State or assistant Tony Alford patiently waiting out Aaron Lynch in the hotel at the Army All-American Bowl, the staff went above and beyond to ensure the bedrock of an Irish Revival was put in place.

The accolades from this class are rolling in and nearly every scouting service has Notre Dame placed squarely in the Top 10 classes in the country. Irish fans are ecstatic and of course the superlatives have begun to fly when describing the haul.

Greatest ever? Greatest of the past decade? It's time to put it in some context in regards to recent history.

In this exercise we're going to look back at every Notre Dame recruiting class since Ty Willingham took over in the 2002 off-season. It's nearly impossible to rank truly rank the more recent classes because some are still only rising sophomores and juniors and haven't been presented with the opportunity to contribute yet.

Still, what I've attempted to do is create some semblance of objectivity by devising a point system to compare the hype of the class coming in against the reality of production and contribution once they arrived on campus. When you look back at the classes and how they panned out it offers very clear evidence as to why the bottom dropped out in '07 and why Charlie just couldn't quite get over the hump in '08 and '09.

Here's the breakdown of the point system:

The Hype...This is what the classes perceived value was when they signed on NSD. I've assigned point values to each player of the class based on their Rivals rating.

5-star = 4 Points
4-star = 3 Points
3-star = 2 Points
2-star = 1 Point

The Reality...This is what the class actually contributed while at Notre Dame. Each player is individually assigned a point value on a scale of 4 to -1.

4 Points - Superstar (One of the best players of the decade for ND)
3 Points - Major Contributor (Solid multi-year starter or someone who made an undeniably large impact)
2 Points - Contributor (Someone who played a relatively significant role but was unspectacular)
1 Point - Played with No Impact or Was a Liability (Pretty self-explanatory)
-1 Point - Transferred or Never Played (Once again, self-explanatory)

Instead of subjecting everyone to about 10,000 words all at once we're going to break down this analysis into five installments of two classes each over the course of this week. Let's get to it!

Class of 2002

Rivals Ranking: #24
Number of Recruits: 18
5-Stars: 0
4-Stars: 12
3-Stars: 4
2-Stars: 2
Arrival Score: 46 (#7 since 2002)

Superstars: 3
Major Contributors: 2
Contributors: 4
Non-Descript/Liability: 2
Transfers/Never Played: 7
Contribution Pct.: 50%
Exit Score: 21

Category 1 – Stovall, McKnight, Fasano
Category 2 – Morton, Landri
Category 3 – Richardson, Santucci, Frome, Freeman
Category 4 – Leitko, Jenkins
Category 5 – Bonelli, Carney, Mattes, Olsen, Raridon, Ryan, Schiccatano

Willingham's first effort on the short recruiting cycle wasn't a bad one at all. The headliners of the group were clearly the highly-rated receiving tandem of Maurice Stovall and Rhema McKnight, two gamebreakers that he snatched up late in the process. The way he picked up the pieces and reeled in two explosive offensive athletes while picking up the pieces of Davie's class gave Irish fans hope that he would find a way to bring the talent on the offensive side of the ball that Davie had failed to do.

It's amazing that a class with that had 12 4-stars rated as only the 24th best class on Rivals, but you have to remember that's right when the website was getting its start. If you look at that year's ratings they tended to hand out 5-stars with reckless abandon. Rivals really tightened up their system the following year.

In any case, this class proved to have a few big hits and a lot of big whiffs.

Stovall and McKnight emerged as big threats once Charlie Weis came to town while Bob Morton turned into a four year starter. The biggest surprise was probably Mike Richardson stepping up and becoming a starter after being the lowest rated recruit in the class.

Unfortunately though, the contributions of the Class of 2002 were counteracted by the fact that half never made any sort of significant contribution on the field during their four years (in fact, seven literally never saw it in any meaningful capacity). Even if a class isn't full of star it needs to provide quality depth when the recruits mature as upperclassmen. The fact that it didn't happen here shows how the drop-off between starter and backup became so steep in the middle of the decade.

Class of 2003

Rivals Ranking: #12
Number of Recruits: 21
5-Stars: 1
4-Stars: 6
3-Stars: 13
2-Stars: 2
Arrival Score: 49 (T-#5 since 2002)

Superstars: 8
Major Contributors: 2
Contributors: 5
Non-Descript/Liability: 2
Transfers/Never Played: 5
Contribution Pct.: 71%
Exit Score: 45

Cat 1 – Quinn, Samardzija, Harris, Abiamiri, Laws, Carlson, Zbikowski, Ndukwe
Cat 2 – T. Thomas, Sullivan
Cat 3 – Price, Wooden, Brockington
Cat 4 – Anastasio, McConnell, M. Thomas
Cat 5 – Borseti, Gardner, Hedgemon, Parish, Stephenson

This might have been called "The Year of Irish Fools Gold, presented by Ty Willingham." After a season that saw Notre Dame ascend to the top five in the country despite having an offense that relied on the golden right foot of Nick Setta, Willingham inked the best of his three classes while in South Bend.

As the Irish Faithful soon found out, the successes on the field and on the recruiting trail were nothing more than mirages.

A late surge (and some compliance issues with the Maryland coaching staff) plopped highly touted recruits Victor Abiamiri and Ambrose Wooden into Ty's lap very late in the recruiting cycle. It ultimately salvaged what was shaping up to be a mediocre class on the surface.

By the time this group left campus, they'd carved their niche as the most successful since the Lou Holtz Era. Quarterback Brady Quinn shattered just about every Notre Dame passing record in the book. His leadership and charisma captured the attention of the nation and the hearts of Notre Dame fans. Quinn's battery mate Jeff Samardzija was on the receiving end of many of his throws as he did his part to mark his mark in Irish Lore.

Ultimately nine players would go on to play in the NFL and that didn't include Samardzija, who undoubtedly would've been a first day draft pick had he not chosen to sign with the Chicago Cubs instead.

This group won't be remembered as one of the greatest in Irish history for two reasons. First of all, almost 1/3 of the class never made any impact. This largely contributed to the dearth of depth Notre Dame faced in the middle of the decade. Secondly, their cumulative record despite two BCS berths was rather pedestrian.

It doesn't belong at the top of the Pantheon, but it shouldn't diminish just how big an impact this class had and what place it holds in fans' hearts. This was the bedrock class for a pair of BCS seasons which proved to be two of the few true bright spots in a dark, dark decade.


  1. This is a great idea, and a great start. Looking forward to further installments good sir!

  2. Mike Richardson was the man!

  3. according to both scout and rivals, brady quinn was a 4 star

  4. Mitch Thomas gets a category 4 reality rating?

  5. I mean I loved Mitch, he made O'Neill Hall infinitely better (in fact, he'd be a Category 1 Hall of Famer in O'Neill)...but his impact on the field was as close to absolute zero as possible.

  6. 11 players in two classes were "all decade" players for ND? No way. You need a better criteria. In two recruiting classes you've fielded half of an all decade team.

  7. Anonymous -

    You need better reading comprehension skills.

    I didn't say they were all on the All-Decade Team, I said they were "one of the best of the decade" which means they were certainly in the discussion. For example, there's only one QB on the All-Decade Team but I'm sure you would agree with me when I say that Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clasuen were both two of the best players of the decade.

    The point of this exercise isn't to create an All-Deacade Team, but hell, let's break down the 11 I've selected as "worthy for discussion" and see if I "need a better criteria."

    Stovall - Deserves mention, probably doesn't make it although his senior season was phenomenal. Probably second team.
    McKnight - Very productive but probably doesn't make it either. Lands on the second team as Stovall.
    Fasano - Strong argument could be made for him to be the TE of the decade.

    Quinn - Great debate to be had between Clausen and him for QB of the decade.
    Samardzija - No question All-Decade.
    Harris - Probably the best LT of the decade (Jordan Black maybe?).
    Abiamiri - Probably a bookend with Tuck on the All-Decade squad.
    Laws - Absolutely All-Decade. Best season for a D-Lineman since Ross Browner in '07.
    Carlson - In the debate with Fasano and Rudolph for best tight end.
    Zbikowski - Overrated but certainly one of the stars and biggest playmakers of the decade. Probably 2nd team behind Earl/Sapp.
    Ndukwe - Opposite of Zibby but same result; underrated, probably on 2nd team.

    This highlights is why the team peaked in 2005-2006. Most of the best and most productive players of the decade (or, if it makes you feel better, players that would even be in the discussion for the All-Decade Team) fell within a very small window. As you'll see tomorrow the following two classes were the polar opposite.

    Appreciate your snap judgment and incorrect analysis though. It's like having Desmond Howard chime in.

  8. 4 Points - Superstar (One of the best players of the decade for ND)
    Normally, "one of something" means a select few. I guess that's not the case with you. You'll have 50 all decade players. Again, you need a better criteria. QB is ONE position when one is a four year starter the other is a three year starter it's not rocket science in a decade.

  9. Desmond -

    I think I explained myself pretty well so there's not much more I can add. There wouldn't be "50 all decade players" by any stretch; it just so happens that of the maybe 30-35 that would deserve mention in any debate for a 22-man All-Decade Team (11 on each side of the ball...need to keep things simple for a Skunkbear) a lot of them fell within one class.

    Perhaps you didn't watch much ND football in the past ten years, but the Class of 2003 was pretty extraordinary especially when compared to the rest of the decade. Just because one class has 8 players worthy of consideration doesn't mean every class will--in fact, it's quite the opposite.

    I guess maybe that's how you draw your conclusions though, taking one piece of data and just extrapolating it outward assuming it will remain the same. I suppose you're confused when your prediction of a 162 home run season for a player who hits a home run on opening day doesn't come to fruition. It's a learning process, you may get there one day. See if they've got any grad school courses in Ann Arbor that you can audit.

    By the way, best of luck in your upcoming fight with Phil Simms.

  10. I certainly hope that my poking numerous holes in your poorly thought-out, analyzed and stated "best team of the decade" improves in further installments. I don't see how it could get much worse. It's going to be a long seven months to USF. In the meantime, I'll be reading about how great Julius Jones, Ryan Grant, Darius Walker, Robert Hughes (insert RB for the year) was the best of the decade. Again, I'm sure the players later in the decade will all suck now after you've been effusively abused.

    Desmond (and that really is my name)

  11. Desmond -

    Hi, I'm Earth. Have we met?

    To help you pass the time until USF, here's a link to an article from last year on an all-decade team for the defense. I don't want to ruin the surprise, but there may be like 43 people on it (including John Ryan and Justin Brown!).

    Wait, could it be? Yes, there are only 11 players! See, that's an article devoted to creating an all-decade team. Compare and contrast the styles and objectives and wrap your mind around the different formats.

    Take Advil for headaches, Midol for cramps.