Feb 2, 2011, 10:07 PM EDT
Both Jimmy Johnson and Charlie Weis helped prove that in college football it’s not “the Xs and Os, but the Jimmys and the Joes.” For all the talk of decided schematic advantage, Weis’ offense and football program only succeeded when it had a proper stable of players executing the Xs and the Os.
(Note: This isn’t an argument that skill players win football games, because if there’s anything that the data has shown over the last few years is that they clearly don’t. The Irish have turned into a mediocre program not for lack of playmakers but because a solid foundation of linemen and linebackers was never set.)
But as we’ve paid proper homage to the Big Skill and Power segments of this recruiting class, it’s time to take a look at the players that’ll be filling the box scores for the next four to five seasons. While we’ve learned that the Irish will never become an elite football team without building the core of the football team, it wasn’t too long ago that the Irish struggled to track down elite athletes that could compete with college football’s traditional powers.
If there’s a grouping that doesn’t have recruitniks hopping around, it’s the skill portion of the class. The Irish missed on two high-profile running backs, and while they landed Cam McDaniel they missed on Savon Huggins and Justice Hayes. Bennett Okotcha was set to fill a much needed space in the secondary before he defected last minute to Oklahoma. But the players the Irish did reel in are nothing to sneeze at. Wide receivers George Atkinson III and DaVaris Daniels filled a vacancy that the coaching staff was open and honest about.
“At wide receiver, there was one objective,” offensive coordinator Charley Molnar said. “Let’s get faster and let’s get more athletic. There’s no doubt in our mind that we’ve not only become faster and bigger, but also more athletic.”
Let’s take a look at the skill portion of the 2011 recruiting class, and lump in specialist Kyle Brindza, who plans on giving Ben Turk a run for his money at punter as well as for beach muscles.
George Atkinson III, WR: Remember all those worries Irish fans had when Brian Polian decided to leave South Bend and head to Stanford? Well Mike Denbrock, he of the Ty Willingham era, went into Northern California and pulled out George Atkinson, one of the fastest athletes in the recruiting class, with offers from Alabama, Oregon and USC. Atkinson ran a 10.6 100 meters in the California state track meet and scored 17 touchdowns as a running back, wide receiver and defensive back this season, and will immediately give the Irish another vertical threat at wide receiver, as well as the option for a ball-hawking safety.
Josh Atkinson, DB: Josh may not get the accolades that his brother gets, but he fills an enormous need for the Irish and he’ll likely battle for immediate playing time in a secondary with only three returning scholarship cornerbacks. Josh signed his letter-of-intent in Austin today, as he prepared to represent Team USA as they battled a collection of international “stars.” At 6-foot, 185-pounds, Atkinson has the size coveted by Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco for their 3-4, zone coverage system.
DaVaris Daniels, WR: Daniels supplied some recruiting fireworks back in June when the Chicago Sun-Times scooped a reported press conference where Daniels was going to select the University of Miami as his school of choice, after reportedly being denied admission at Notre Dame.
But neither Daniels nor the Irish quit on each other, and after Daniels’ father, 15-year NFL veteran Phillip Daniels refuted the Sun-Times report, Daniels hunkered down on his school work, committed to the Irish, and gave Notre Dame one of Chicago’s best prep players.
Matthias Farley, DB: If you’re looking for a wildcard in this grouping, it’s Farley. Here’s an elite athlete with premium size at cornerback who started playing football his junior year of high school. That first season, he scored 12 touchdowns at wide receiver, and scholarship offers from places like North Carolina, UCLA and Wisconsin. After listening to Kelly today, one thing is sure, he passes the eyeball test.
“He’s all of six foot and he’s about 195 pounds,” Kelly said. “He looks like a college football player. He has that presence about him. Great young man.”
It might take some time to get Farley up to speed from a football IQ perspective, but with the proper development, Farley has the makings of an elite college defensive back.
Everett Golson, QB: If Golson were three inches taller, he’d have a five-star rating and would be one of the nation’s most sought after recruits. But Golson is six-foot, a slight 170-pounds, yet still has offers from nearly the entire SEC. The Irish pulled Golson out of a long-time commitment to both North Carolina football and basketball after a late season visit to South Bend.
Golson didn’t enroll early to take his time and redshirt behind a crowded quarterback depth chart, and Kelly opened up about the ways he’s considering using the dazzling athlete from Myrtle Beach.
“At the quarterback position, it’s pretty clear that Tommy Rees and Everett Golson are two different quarterbacks relative to style,” Kelly said. “So I think what you’ll see is Tommy Rees and most likely Dayne Crist and the other quarterbacks fit into that category. Then on the other side of the ledger you’ll have Everett Golson. And within our offensive structure, we can go full out spread with Everett Golson.”
Bringing in a quarterback that can bring a running component to the offense the way Zach Collaros did at Cincinnati for Kelly means just another weapon in an offensive that all of a sudden needs to catch up with Bob Diaco’s defense.
Eilar Hardy, DB: If there’s a profile that’s developing for defensive backs that Kelly and company are collecting, Hardy fits into that mold. He’s a sturdy six-foot defensive back that can play corner or safety, tackles well, and more importantly, he’s a productive football player.
While Ohio State never pulled the trigger on an offer, most of the Big Ten did, with Iowa, Michigan State, and Wisconsin all offering the first-team All-State Ohio selection. It’s interesting to consider that most of the defensive backs the Irish have chased share cohorts with a program like Wisconsin, where Kerry Cooks spent time coaching the secondary and where the Badgers do a very good job of putting athletes in a system that works.
Cam McDaniel, RB: McDaniel certainly won’t wow anyone with his physical attributes (not to mention some of the stereotypes that come with being a white running back), but if there’s anyone that’s put up an impressive body of work it’s the Irish’s lone running back recruit, who put up monster numbers as a second team All-State running back in the power conference of Texas high school football.
Earlier today, running backs coach Tim Hinton hoped that McDaniel would become the Irish’s Danny Woodhead, a proposition that has to have Irish fans salivating. Even if he never becomes a pinball like the diminutive Patriots star, he’ll immediately add some competition in the punt return game.
Kyle Brindza, K/P: If Brindza’s highlight tape is any indication of his collegiate success, the Irish may have stumbled upon their own mini-Sebastian Janikowski. Hailed by the coaching staff as the most talented kicker in the country, it’s hard to fathom Brindza’s kickoff exploits, where he routinely knocks the ball out the back of the endzone and sometimes through the uprights. With David Ruffer entrenched at placekicker, the coaching staff thinks Brindza can immediately offer an upgrade on kickoffs and provide competition for Ben Turk at punter.