Pregame Twelve Pack: A Trojan finale

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We’re already here. The regular season finale is upon us as the Irish prepare to face off with their nemesis, the USC Trojans. As always, here are twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Irish prepare to play USC at the Coliseum in primetime.

1. After two seasons on the shelf, Michael Floyd makes his debut against the Trojans.

Many Irish fans are worried that junior wide receiver Mike Floyd’s career will end after just three seasons, meaning this could be the only time Floyd hits the field against the rival Trojans. The previous two seasons Floyd missed the game, a knee injury holding him out of the 2008 game and a broken collarbone keeping Mike on the sideline last season.

While Floyd says he hasn’t made any decisions on next season, it’s clear this game means something to him.

“I’m really excited,” Floyd said. “My first time playing SC. This is one of the reasons you go to Notre Dame. It’s kind of like starting a whole new tradition. New coaches and stuff like that. Kind of start our own history. We’re all excited. It’s a big rivalry, SC-Notre Dame and we’re up for it.”

If there’s ever a time for Floyd to make a statement in the biggest rivalry game of the season for the Irish, this is it.

2. This is not the Trojan defense of old.

Maybe the best thing on Lane Kiffin’s coaching resume is his father Monte, who followed Kiffin from Tennessee to USC after spending the majority of his career in the NFL as one of the best defensive minds in all of football.

Both the elder Kiffin and defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron run a defense that’s astounding full of star power, with nearly every player in their two-deep having a four-star rating, and those that don’t are almost as likely to have five stars than three.

But the defense is a shell of the ones put together under former coach Pete Carroll, and the Trojans rank an astoundingly mediocre 92nd in total defense in the country. (92nd. Right between Wyoming and Idaho. The Irish rank 55th.)

There are only six teams in the country doing a worse job stopping the pass than USC, most likely a testament to the two healthy scholarship cornerbacks that the Trojans have at their disposal. The Trojan run defense is middle of the road, so there’s very good reason to believe that Notre Dame should be able to move the ball, even with Tommy Rees playing in hostile territory for the first time in his career.

3. Another plus for the Irish? It’s looking less and less likely that Matt Barkley will play.

On Wednesday, Lane Kiffin went on the Dan Patrick show and reported that starting quarterback Matt Barkley has been held out of practice this week with a high ankle sprain, an injury suffered last week that would make playing on Saturday incredibly unlikely.

“Matt didn’t practice yesterday,” Kiffin said. “Mitch Mustain took all the snaps yesterday. We have great confidence in Mitch.”

The news from Wednesday’s practice was even more predictable, with Kiffin calling Mustain’s work in practice “Phenomenal. the best we’ve seen him since he’s been here.”

Meanwhile Barkley still hasn’t practiced, but no longer is in a walking boot.

“It’s improving every day, which is great,” Barkley said. “It’s still a day-to-day thing. I’m definitely above 50 percent.”

Barkley was one of many quarterbacks to have a career day against the Irish last season, but he’s struggled the past few weeks after getting out of the gate quickly. The Irish may get a break if he’s unable to go on Saturday night.

4. That said, Mitch Mustain is no slouch either.

Before there was hotshot, uber-recruit Matt Barkley, there was hotshot, uber-recruit Mitch Mustain, who signed with Arkansas after then head coach Houston Nutt made the nearly unprecedented move of hiring Mustain’s high school coach Gus Malzahn as his offensive coordinator. While Malzahn has become a star at the collegiate ranks, Mustain has fallen flat.

The consensus high school National Player of the Year took the reins of the Arkansas offense immediately, leading the Hogs to a freshman record eight straight wins before losing playing time before the SEC Championship game.

From there, Mustain’s relationship with Nutt and Arkansas soured in bizarre fashion, including Mustain’s family making an open records request for Nutt’s cell phone records that revealed a personal relationship between the head coach and a local female news reporter. With bridges burned in his home state, Mustain transferred to USC, where he has yet to win the starting job.

Now Mustain’s final two games as a Trojan might be two of the biggest starts of the season. And the senior quarterback is ready.

“There was always a chance it would never happen, but I’ve always looked forward to the chance, however slim it may be,” Mustain said this week. “It’s what I’ve been practicing for, and it’s why I stuck around this year. I’m ready to go.”

Mustain always has Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel to look at for inspiration, who spent his career at USC as a backup to Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart before being plucked out of obscurity by the Patriots and signing a monster contract with Kansas City.

5. Time to rise to the occasion, Tommy Rees.

If Notre Dame wants to end their losing streak against the Trojans, it’ll happen because Tommy Rees doesn’t get swept up in the moment.

A lot has been made about Rees’ entrance into college football — games at Notre Dame Stadium, Yankee Stadium and now the Coliseum. But this will be the first time Rees faces anything resembling a hostile crowd, and the freshman will need to keep his composure early for the Irish to have a chance. Kelly’s comments before the Army game likely still apply to Rees’ first true road start.

“We’ll try to give him some more opportunities within what I believe are is strengths,” Kelly said then. “He distributes very well, his ball placement, it’s all now about what he sees and how he reacts.”

Rees spent some of his youth in California, where his father spent fourteen years working in the football department for UCLA and his brother Danny Rees is a senior holder for the Bruins, making Tommy familiar with the crosstown Trojans. While he won’t face a linebacking corp with guys like Clay Matthews, Brian Cushing, and Rey Maualuga, he will face the fastest, most talented unit he’s seen, so keeping turnovers down will be imperative.

6. Can the Irish defense stop USC’s passing game?

At the beginning of the year, would anyone have thought the Irish would’ve given up just one less passing touchdown than Alabama? The Irish rank 8th in the country in limiting passing touchdowns with only nine conceded, only two behind the national leaders and ahead of teams like TCU and Nebraska.

The improvement the passing defense has shown is a testament to the improvement of the defensive backs under secondary coach Chuck Martin and the ability for the Irish to get after the passer better, ranking 29th in the country with 26 sacks, already a six sack improvement over last year’s unit that finished with just 20.

It’s been 11 consecutive quarters for the Irish defense without giving up a touchdown, the longest streak since 1981, and done against three teams that average about five touchdowns a game. The Irish have to come into Saturday’s game feeling very good about their defensive chances.

7. The star-crossed path of Dillon Baxter brings him back to the gridiron on Saturday.

Highly touted running back Dillon Baxter became a YouTube sensation for some fancy running during spring drills last year. Since then, he’s been mostly a headache for Southern Cal.

“It’s been an up-and-down season with him in general,” Lane Kiffin said diplomatically this week.

Baxter was suspended for the season opening game against Hawaii for what was largely reported as a on-campus incident that involved marijuana. He’s suffered injuries that have hurt his ability to push for playing time, and has gotten over 10 carries in a game just twice, gaining 75 yards on 14 carries against lowly Washington State in his best game as a Trojan. Almost surprisingly, Baxter’s longest play from scrimmage has been 17 yards, with a run against Virginia in his first collegiate game matched by a reception against Minnesota the week after.

Baxter sat out last week’s game after he reportedly received an improper benefit from a NFL certified agent — a golf cart ride from a USC student that’s started his own agency.

“I’m sure a lot of people look at this one as something that could happen to anybody and that he wasn’t necessarily in the wrong,” Kiffin said. “But it doesn’t matter. He’s already put himself in position where there isn’t room for any poor judgment.”

Regardless of the headaches, Baxter is a supremely talented player, and Irish fans hope the freshman’s coming out party is delayed another week.

8. Familiar faces roam both sidelines.

A quick look at both rosters reveals just how often the Trojans and the Irish compete for the same recruiting targets. USC is still smarting that they lost out on linebacker Manti Te’o, who just about everybody had pegged as going to USC. But for every Irish recruiting victory, there are Notre Dame targets dressed in Cardinal and Gold.

Starting running back Marc Tyler seemed a near lock for Notre Dame when his high school best friend Jimmy Clausen committed to the Irish with Tyler in attendance. Star freshman Robert Woods had an offer from the Irish before choosing the Trojans, and he’s become one of USC’s best offensive weapons. Names like Kyle Prater, Blake Ayles, Brice Butler (more on him later), Butch Lewis, Malcolm Smith, Chris Galippo, and Jawanza Starling all were targeted by the former Irish coaching staff.

The Irish pulled guys like Dayne Crist, Cierre Wood, and Ethan Johnson out from under the noses of the USC coaching staff so it isn’t exactly one-sided. Look for guys like Wood to play well, with plenty of motivation to show family and friends the progress they’ve made.

9. Former NBC commentator Pat Haden is now openly rooting against Notre Dame.

There wasn’t a week that went by last season where a reader didn’t openly accuse former NBC commentator and former USC quarterback Pat Haden of rooting against Notre Dame from the broadcast booth. While the accusation was always baseless, for the first time in a long while, Haden can openly root against the Irish this Saturday, when his alma mater takes on the Irish, and Haden is the new face of the Trojan athletic department.

Brought in to create a “culture of compliance” after former athletic director Mike Garrett openly scoffed at NCAA regulations, Haden stepped away from his announcing gig and his successful finance career to become athletic director at Southern Cal.

As the Dillon Baxter story shows, every week is a new challenge for the former Rhodes Scholar and first time university administrator. And while Trojan fans think the new emphasis on compliance is overkill, Haden’s take the drastic measures necessary to turn around an athletic department that had fallen far behind in its organizational structure.

“Where we’re at right now, getting so far ahead of things is good,” Haden said. “Although [recent issues have been] extremely minor, you’re finding them before they become major.”

There’s a large facet of Trojan fans that still have their head buried in the sand about the past regimes indiscretions, but there’s no better man than Haden to restore accountability in the athletic department.

10. Roby Toma is proving most of us wrong.

Of all the receivers you’d think quarterback Tommy Rees would develop a rapport with, you’d hardly expect it to be waterbug Roby Toma. But that was Toma making four big catches for 63 yards against Army, picking up first downs on three of them as he was targeted more often than any other Irish receiver on Saturday.

Messageboard legend Hobbs pointed out last week just how impressive Toma has been, especially when you compare him to one of the Irish’s top recruiting targets of the same class, Trojan Brice Butler, a four-star recruit from Georgia that had his pick of schools.

Butler’s only contributed nine catches this season for 112 yards, with a season high of three catches and 49 yards against Arizona State two weeks ago. After not seeing the field in the first six games, Toma has 12 catches for 172 yards, averaging almost 15 yards a catch.

Theo Riddick and TJ Jones are both likely back on Saturday for the Irish, but expect Toma to continue to play a key role in the Irish offense.

11. David Ruffer is kind of a big deal.

I’ve been out front driving the David Ruffer bandwagon and started the official unofficial David Ruffer for the Groza Award campaign a few weeks ago, but it looks like he won’t need our PR anymore.

Ruffer’s great week continued when just days after being named one of the three finalists for the Groza, Ruffer was named a first-team ESPN Academic All-American, making him the 31st Irish football player to be named an Academic All American.

Ruffer carries a 3.9 GPA in Economics, but more importantly for the football team carries a consecutive streak of 20 field goals into the Coliseum, making two kicks at Yankee Stadium from 47 and 39 yards. Is the streak getting to him?

“It is what it is,” Ruffer said. “As long as it’s on me, people are going to ask questions. I try not to pay attention to it.”

Ruffer’s streak started last year against Pitt when Nick Tausch couldn’t answer the bell after a leg injury. If it lasts through this weekend, it’ll be a very good thing for the Irish.

12. Michael Floyd wanted to be a… Trojan?

It’s hard to imagine it, but Michael Floyd tried his best to get the attention of the USC coaching staff when he was a high school star at Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul.

“He wrote us a letter that SC was his dream school and this was where he always wanted to play at the time,” Kiffin said. “He was a dominant player then and still is.”

Kiffin may be practicing a little revisionist history this week, as Floyd’s letters and game tape went largely unnoticed by the coaching staff, who wanted Floyd to camp in Southern California to earn a scholarship offer.

Luckily for Irish fans, Floyd never made the trip to south-central Los Angeles and now Floyd has a chance to feast on a Trojan secondary that has talent, but is incredibly thin.

Floyd celebrates his 21st birthday today and no doubt would consider a victory Saturday night as icing on the birthday cake. Happy birthday wishes to MMF.

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

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Notre Dame will open spring practice in about two weeks. As always, the proceedings will be filled with positive reviews, optimistic outlooks, and an injury or two.

A quick look at each position group should lend a better understanding to those perspectives and effects, beginning with the group lacking many questions — the running backs. The biggest reason there is relative certainty around the running backs is there are just so few of them following the winter dismissals of rising junior Deon McIntosh and rising sophomore C.J. Holmes.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Dexter Williams (pictured above)
Rising junior Tony Jones
Early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith
Rising junior Mick Assaf

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister

No one received more praise last spring practice than Tony Jones. He had a successful 2017, but compared to that hype, it could have been considered under-performing. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
At some point, either Williams or Jones will be named the Irish starter. It is quite possible that will be a distinction without much difference, as the two could certainly complement each other well in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, which already prefers to use multiple running backs.

Human nature, though, dictates is more likely one back receives a majority of the carries.

Biggest Question:
If Williams lines up with the No. 1 offensive unit in the Blue-Gold Game (April 21) to conclude spring practice, that will be the first genuine and tangible evidence he has improved as a pass blocker. Despite his big-play speed and seeming-ease breaking tackles, Williams’ one-dimensional game rendered him as much a liability as an asset in 2017.

Even in the Citrus Bowl victory, Williams followed up back-to-back rushes for a combined 36 yards with a blown pass protection resulting in a 13-yard sack.

“You have to be able to protect the quarterback with all positions,” Long said Feb. 7. “That dictates a whole lot if you’re going to play a lot or just be a situational guy. It’s something you have to embrace, the physicality.

“… That’s really the main thing, other than protecting the ball, that’ll keep a back off the field in our offense.”

The best ability is availability, and both an ankle injury and a balky quad limited Williams in that respect in 2017. Little blame can be cast for the natural bruises of football. Nonetheless, he will need to “embrace the physicality” if he wants to become more than a situational back.

Otherwise, Jones will be the default option. He has already shown a knack for both pass blocking and catching, making him a three-down option. Notre Dame will always prefer that rather than tip its hand to a running play every time Williams enters the game.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Obviously, Josh Adams carried the burden in the running game last season. Behind rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and McIntosh, Williams was only the No. 4 rusher on the roster in yards and touchdowns, while Jones was No. 4 in carries and No. 5 in yards and scores.

Williams: 360 yards on 39 carries, a 9.2 average, with four touchdowns. Two catches for 13 yards and one score.
Jones: 232 yards on 44 carries, a 5.3 average, with three touchdowns. Six catches for 12 yards.
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jahmir Smith
Notre Dame gets the letter: C’Bo Flemister

Monday’s Leftovers: Geography, as much as academics, caps Notre Dame’s recruiting possibilites

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A year ago, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged a practical ceiling on Irish recruiting efforts.

“Since I’ve been here, if you look at the average rankings, we’re anywhere from 5 to 15,” Kelly said on 2017’s National Signing Day, a day on which Notre Dame secured the No. 13 class in the country, per rivals.com. “We’re going to fall somewhere in that range because there’s a line there we can’t get over based upon what our distinctions are here. That line is going to keep us between 5 and 15.

“We know where we’re going to fall. We’re going to continue to recruit the right kind of kids here.”

Sure enough, the Irish once again fall into that spectrum in 2018, finishing No. 11 per rivals. Though Notre Dame has risen above that range once (No. 3 in 2013) and fallen below it once (No. 20 in 2012) during Kelly’s tenure, his overall analysis remains accurate.

The instinct has always been to cite University academic standards as the greatest hurdle to rising into the top five consistently, but another aspect should not be overlooked. In a recent mailbag, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples pondered the factors keeping the Irish from becoming a perennial 10-win team.

“Another major reason is a lack of a local recruiting base,” Staples wrote. “No program has a stronger national reach than Notre Dame, but that still doesn’t make recruiting nationally easy. It’s much easier to have hundreds of quality prospects within driving distances.”

That dynamic is a part of why the Irish are better positioned to reap rewards from high school juniors now being able to take official visits in April, May and June. Those time periods are less hectic for most high schoolers, so a long-distance trip may fit into the calendar with a bit less stress. Obviously, only time will tell the true impact of that new change.

Looking at both this past year’s recruiting rankings and the last nine years of rankings underscores and supports Staples’ point.

Rivals considered 33 prospects to be five-star recruits in 2018. Only seven schools managed to sign multiple such players: Georgia (8), Clemson (6), USC (5), Alabama (3), Ohio State (3), Penn State (2), and Miami (2). To speak more broadly, four schools in the Deep South, two in the Ohio-Pennsylvania corridor and one in California, all talent-rich areas, especially compared to Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.

If combining the total signees of both four- and five-star rankings by rivals, Notre Dame signed 12 such prospects. Only 11 schools signed more, including six of the above seven. (Clemson equaled the Irish haul, though its even split between four- and five-star recruits stands out compared to Notre Dame’s 12 four-stars.) The additional five: Oklahoma, Texas, Florida State, Auburn and Florida. In other words, two schools tapping into Texas, two schools within Florida and one more in the Deep South.

If looking at the last nine years of recruiting, the span of Kelly’s time in South Bend, only eight programs have consistently out-recruited the Irish, all but one mentioned already. LSU finished with the No. 13 recruiting class in 2018, lowering its nine-year average placement to 8.0. The Tigers are one of five SEC teams in that group of eight, joining Florida State, Ohio State and USC.

Sense a theme?

It will always be hard enough for Notre Dame to find high-caliber players likely to succeed at a strong academic institution in the Midwest. That task is even harder knowing how far away those players typically are to start with.

Other programs face a similar challenge, and few handle it as well. Consider the 2018 recruiting classes of Stanford, Michigan and Michigan State, for familiar context.

Stanford finished with 4 four-stars in rivals’ No. 63 class. The Wolverines pulled in 7 four-stars as part of the No. 24 class, while the Spartans signed 5 four-stars in the No. 26 grouping.

The Blue-Chip Ratio
Finishing within Kelly’s range has not stopped Notre Dame from consistently having one of the most-talented rosters in the country. If abiding by rivals rankings for consistency, 45 of the 89 players currently on the Irish roster (including incoming freshmen) were four- or five-star recruits.

A commonly-cited metric of a roster’s talent is the so-called “Blue-Chip Ratio.” Essentially, a national championship caliber team will have at least 50 percent of its roster consisting of former four- or five-star prospects. Entering 2017, Notre Dame was one of only 10 such teams in the country.

As should be expected, the other nine included six programs from the Deep South, Ohio State, USC and, as an ode to Jim Harbaugh’s early recruiting successes, Michigan.

A Presidents Day Reminder
Notre Dame cannot officially claim any POTUS as an alum, but both Josiah Bartlet and James Marshall would like to argue otherwise.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s pending attrition actually intended to improve the roster
NCAA denies Notre Dame’s appeal, vacating 21 wins, including 12-0 in 2012
Notre Dame is right: The NCAA’s terrible precedent matters, but vacating wins does not
‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle
Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

OUTSIDE READING:
NCAA appeals committee upholds vacation of Notre Dame wins
A letter from the President on the NCAA Infractions Case
Irish set high expectations for Jurkovec
Elston ‘recruits’ Tillery, Bonner for one last ride
Giants release defensive end Ishaq Williams with a failed physical designation
Re-ranking the longest FBS coaching tenures from 1-to-230
Hip injury to keep Stanford QB K.J. Costello sidelined for much of spring drills

Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

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Notre Dame used the first early signing period to its advantage, but in many respects, succeeding in that initial foray was by default. The Irish already had strong relationships with the recruiting class of 2018 when the NCAA finally agreed upon setting a 72-hour window for December. No other recruiting changes went into effect in the cycle, so the only shift was getting the paperwork ready and the grades verified six weeks earlier than usual.

“When you are presented with a new rule that gives you — go ahead, sign them early — and you’ve done all that work, that’s kind of a lay-up,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said on National Signing Day, Feb. 7. “The real work now begins with the early visits.”

A bit before finally nailing down the December early signing period, the NCAA also approved official visits for high school juniors in April, May and June. Previously, a recruit could not take an official visit until September of his senior year in high school.

For a program with a national reach in recruiting — pulling in multiple prospects from both coasts in the cycle of 2018, for example — it can be difficult to get a player to visit for a home game amidst his own football season. When it is possible, it is often a rushed trip. The recruit plays a high school game Friday night, flies to South Bend, possibly via Chicago, early Saturday morning and then departs mid-day Sunday to get back home in time for the school week.

Notre Dame can now instead slate that official visit for the summer, perhaps around a camp environment or the Blue-Gold Game (April 21).

In years to come, this expedited timing could have a greater effect on recruiting than the early signing period does.

“How we handle the back end of it, the back end being when are those visits going to start, when do you start them, when do you end them,” Kelly said, “That’s really what we’re trying to figure out at this point relative to tweaking and how that’s going to work.”

Theoretically, earlier visits could lead to earlier commitments, increasing the likelihood of more signings in December than in February, further de-emphasizing the traditional National Signing Day.

Amid all those changes, though, recruits are still allowed only five official visits and only one to each school. Of course, a recruit can make multiple unofficial visits, paying for those out of his and his family’s own pocket, but Notre Dame can pay for only one. As much as getting a recruit on campus earlier in the process should bode well for any program, it becomes a double-edged sword: Is it better to get a player on campus early and make that impression before other schools have the opportunity, or is it better to showcase a primetime game against a rival?

Irish recruiting coordinator Brian Polian suggested allowing two official visits per school, although remaining at only five total, on National Signing Day.

“Why not let a young man make two official visits to one institution? Because if somebody says to us, from far distance, I want to come make a visit to your place in the spring, well, ideally you want them to see a game atmosphere, as well,” Polian said. “There’s nothing like Notre Dame Stadium and this campus on a game weekend.

“Now we’re going to have to get into some strategic decisions about when do we want young men to take visits.”

Perhaps in time the NCAA will consider that adjustment, but it will not be for the cycle of 2019.

While when a player visits may impact the recruitment, Polian does not much care about when they commit, as long as they do. Notre Dame signed five prospects on National Signing Day who had not previously committed publicly, making it appear to be a strong finish to the class. Then again, the Irish also signed 21 players in the early signing period and received a 22nd commitment less than a week afterward.

“If you’ve got a really good class and they’ve been committed for a while, who cares when they said yes?” Polian said. “It’s as though the answers that you get at the end dictate your class.”

‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

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Thanks to signing 21 prospects during December’s early signing period, Notre Dame’s coaching staff began looking ahead to the 2019 recruiting cycle sooner than it usually would. The Irish needed to focus on only a handful of remaining 2018 possibilities, thus taking the time usually spent checking in on verbal commits and devoting it toward the needs of the future.

“[The early signing period] really allows us to accelerate and reach out into ’19, ’20 and beyond,” head coach Brian Kelly said in December. “You always feel in recruiting that you’re a click behind. You’re always trying to get ahead of it. This is the first time you truly feel like you’re about to get ahead of it.”

When Kelly or another coach says something to the effect of being ahead of schedule, they mean in terms of evaluating, communicating and beginning the year-long wooing more than they mean securing verbal commitments. Nonetheless, Notre Dame already has three pledges in the class of 2019.

Consensus four-star quarterback Cade McNamara (Demonte Ranch High School; Reno, Nev.) made it the second-consecutive cycle in which a highly-touted quarterback was the first Irish commitment, following Phil Jurkovec’s lead. Consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.), pictured above, committed shortly after McNamara, both in July, and rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta) made it a trio in late January.

Moving forward, the class’s success or failure may largely be determined by the defensive line commitments joining Lacey, or lack thereof. It is already the driving emphasis, part of that head start provided by the early signing period, and the preliminary responses have Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston optimistic.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said on Feb. 7. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.

“A lot of it is because I’ve been able to put ’18 to bed and get moving on the ’19s, go visit in their schools all throughout January.”

The Irish hosted about 20 juniors for a day in late January, and among them were five of the reasons Elston is so bullish on the defensive line possibilities, including the committed Lacey.

Twitter: @JacobLacey6

Pictured, from left to right: Consensus four-star defensive end/outside linebacker Nana Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Forth Worth, Texas); consensus four-star defensive end Joseph Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.); Elston; consensus four-star defensive tackle Mazi Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.); Lacey; and consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse; Texas).

Obviously, it is early in the cycle, any relative success or failure in the 2018 season could prove to be influential, and the number of other variables is innumerable, but getting such a group on campus a full year before they need to put pen to figurative paper is a big step for any recruiting process.

Notre Dame will also need to focus on finding more running back talent. Pulling in two this class only replaces what was lost in the dismissals of current sophomore Deon McIntosh and current freshman C.J. Holmes. It does not create depth for the future, and with rising senior Dexter Williams entering his final season of eligibility, the Irish will need to find that depth immediately following 2018.

Similarly, one of the 2019 recruits will almost certainly be a punter, with Tyler Newsome entering his fifth and final year with Notre Dame.

Williams will be one of six rising seniors entering their final years of eligibility. Add them to Newsome and the eight other fifth-years on the roster, and that makes for an immediate 15 spots to fill in the class of 2019.

Obviously, 15 recruits would be a small class. The subsequent question is usually, “How many players will Notre Dame be able to sign in 2019?” That is not the question to ask. The question to ask is, “How many players will leave Notre Dame before August of 2019?”

The Irish roster, as it stands now, would have 89 players this fall, four more than the NCAA maximum. Presume the four who depart before this coming August are not rising seniors. (Any such player would be better served to wait a year, get his degree and transfer as a graduate with immediate eligibility.)

After the 2018 season, eight then-seniors would have one more year of eligibility available, but it is unlikely more than three or four are asked to return for a fifth year. In rough order of likelihood: quarterback Brandon Wimbush, cornerback Shaun Crawford, receiver Miles Boykin, offensive lineman Trevor Ruhland, tight end Alizé Mack, linebacker Asmar Bilal, receiver Chris Finke, defensive tackle Micah Dew-Treadway. If only three of those are asked to return, now 20 spots have theoretically opened up for the recruiting class of 2019.

If rising junior Julian Love puts together a third stellar season, he will have an NFL decision to make. His departure would immediately raise the operating figure to 21.

That becomes the floor for the size of the next recruiting class. Next offseason’s natural, and perhaps presumed, attrition can raise that total. Another year of 27 recruits is unlikely, but 24 or 25 would create what could be by then a familiar numbers crunch.