Jan 30, 2012, 8:00 AM EDT
Part five of our series recapping the recruits ready to sign letters-of-intent with Notre Dame next Wednesday. (Or already on campus.) Previous installments include the running backs, offensive line, wide receivers and quarterbacks.
At his first signing day press conference, Brian Kelly all but announced his intent to rebuild the front seven of the defense via recruiting. Little did people know he planned on doing it in his first full recruiting class.
After watching the Irish swing and miss at defensive line targets for the better part of a decade, Kelly did all but the impossible: target, recruit, and land some of the most impressive front seven talent in the country. After years of missing players like Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt, Ishaq Williams and Troy Niklas, Notre Dame went and landed all of them, bringing in a total of nine players that would immediately plug into the front seven defensive depth chart, transforming a roster in one recruiting cycle.
One year later, with a two deep spilling over along the defensive line and linebackers, the Irish welcome back Manti Te’o to the linebacking corps and Kapron Lewis-Moore to the defensive line. After dying to find defensive tackles comparable to Sean Cwynar, Kelly and his defensive staff were able to say farewell to the double domer poised for business success without worrying about the depth chart behind him.
The Irish didn’t land every target they had in the front seven, missing on two-way athlete Arik Armstead, who committed to Oregon Sunday afternoon after a whirlwind recruitment that saw the blue-chip prospect almost end up at a half dozen different schools. But Notre Dame’s chances to land Armstead dramatically decreased when the Irish couldn’t accept his older brother Armond, a USC transfer immediately eligible to play next season. Multiple sources have told me the elder Armstead wasn’t cleared to participate in football activities for the Irish, the same verdict the USC team doctors reached as well.
We can only wonder what the Irish defense would’ve looked like with those two additions, but the future is still incredibly bright for a unit that’ll likely be the strength of the roster for the next two seasons. Let’s see who the Irish plan on welcoming into the fold this Wednesday:
High School: Warren Central — Indianapolis, Indiana
Measureables: Six-foot-two, 286-pounds
Other major offers: Arkansas, Florida, LSU, Michigan, North Carolina, Penn State, Stanford
Fun Fact: Finished second to fellow Irish early-enrollee Gunner Kiel for Indiana’s Mr. Football.
On choosing Notre Dame: “I’m excited to get here and get started on my classwork and to start the conditioning program with Coach Longo. I really liked meeting the guys during my recruiting process and I’m excited to start workouts with them this winter.”
What he’ll bring to the defense: Any other year, Sheldon Day is the recruit Irish fans are hysterical over. Rarely do the Irish beat out defensive linemen that have options like LSU, Penn State, Florida and Michigan, but Day had a relatively drama-free early enrollment and brings another building block to the defensive line. While he’s projected to be a defensive tackle by most recruiting services, Day might have the versatility to allow him to play along the edge of the defensive line, as a more athletic, but slightly smaller Ethan Johnson. An incredibly productive player at Indianapolis powerhouse Warren Central, Day is an excellent athlete that also happens to play defensive line.
High School: Aquinas Institute — Rochester, New York
Measureables: Six-foot-seven, 307-pounds
Other major offers: Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State
Fun Fact: Named first-team All-State, Jones’ 5-foot-7 teammate, running back Billy Lombardi, was named state player of the year.
On choosing Notre Dame: “It’s perfect for me,” Jones told Irish Illustrated. “Notre Dame is just like my high school, it’s not even a big transition. The small class sizes, just typical high school to college. It’s not going to be an adjustment in atmosphere and it’s going to be something that I’m already used to.”
What he’ll bring to the defense: Jones is another one of those mold-busting recruits that have been attracted to Brian Kelly’s program, joining guys like Tuitt and Niklas as super-sized recruits. Jones might not be as physically ready to dominate as the two previously mentioned, but he won’t need to be. Ultra athletic, Jones could just as easily be a left tackle of the future, but he’ll get his first shot as a jumbo 3-4 defensive end. Another one of those recruits Notre Dame never seemed to land, Jones was initially committed to Penn State before the Irish staff flipped him in August.
High School: Ardrey Kell — Charlotte, North Carolina
Measureables: Six-foot-five, 235-pounds
Other major offers: Clemson, Michigan, Georgia Tech, Miami, North Carolina, N.C. State, Pitt, Virginia, Virginia Tech
Fun Fact: Won’t turn 17-years-old until June 2012, making those 14 sacks and 27 TFLs look mighty impressive.
On choosing Notre Dame: “Coach Kelly and I have a good relationship and getting on campus for a full weekend made me surer that Notre Dame is the perfect place for me,” Okwara told Blue & Gold. “The people were very welcoming and the basketball game was really fun. It showed me that Notre Dame takes pride in all of their sports which is really good.”
What he’ll bring to the defense: At the very least, Okwara is bringing a whole lot of bottled promise to South Bend. With the rare blend of size, speed, and power, the fact that Okwara was able to dominate high school football while playing his senior season at the age of 16 is a pretty impressive feat. Graduating from the same school that brought Notre Dame Prince Shembo, Okwara is an intriguing Cat linebacker prospect with his obvious pass rushing skills, though has the athleticism and speed to also play in space during the passing game. For Okwara’s sake, you almost have to hope he’s redshirted, so he gets a chance to play with kids his own age.