Losing a recruit like Taylor Decker would usually be cause for alarm. Over the last decade, the Irish have struggled to keep proper inventory along the offensive line, and the loss of a six-foot-eight, 300-pound left tackle prospect, three-star recruit or not, would’ve set off more than a few Irish fans. After all, it was misses like Decker that brought seasons like 2007, when a green offensive line turned a high-powered Irish offense into an inept unit that had linemen that looked more fit for roller derby that football.
A slow rise from the abyss followed that rock bottom season, and by the start of the Brian Kelly era, the Irish were playing solid football along the offensive line. Just as important, they were developing a proper depth chart, with veterans like Andrew Nuss and Mike Golic supplying depth instead of not-quite-ready freshman. As the Irish step into 2012 needing to replace seniors Trevor Robinson and Taylor Dever, they’ll look to guys like Tate Nichols and Christian Lombard, players with experience in the program and years in a college weight room.
That’s not to say that the Irish can rest on their laurels. After only landing two linemen in the class of 2012, Notre Dame will look to land a sizable group in their next recruiting haul. While the Irish reached to Las Vegas and Charlotte to reel in Ronnie Stanley and Mark Harrell, Notre Dame will have the opportunity to stay close to home when filling this year’s class with talented offensive linemen.
A quick scan through Notre Dame’s offers and a look at the national rankings for offensive linemen show a talent rich pool in the Midwest. Headlining that group is Michigan’s Steve Elmer, the Irish’s first commitment to the class of 2013. Possibly enrolling for spring semester, Elmer is one of the finest tackles in the country and has the athleticism to run the 100m dash for his high school. Two other relatively local targets that the Irish are already hot after are Chicagoland prospects Kyle Bosch and Ethan Pocic. Both players are already collecting elite offers and the Irish have already been in to visit both and have plans to get both either on or back to campus soon. With Illinois going through a coaching transition with Tim Beckman replacing Ron Zook, Notre Dame should be out in front of the state school in an area where Irish ties are already deep.
Add in players that are already sporting Irish offers like Peoria’s Logan Tuley-Tillman and Indianapolis’ Timothy Gardner, along with regional recruits like Northern Kentucky’s Hunter Bivin and Western Pennsylvania’s Patrick Kugler, and you’re beginning to see a strong base of players that the Irish are chasing, with distances from campus all a reasonable car ride, not usually the case for a school that’s reached wide for its roster.
Whether Notre Dame is chasing players closer to home because that’s how talent evaluation or because they missed on national players like Zack Banner and Arik Armstead is a valid question. While it’s certainly early in the evaluation process for recruiting services, just about every player listed has already been identified as one of the top 250 players in the country by one website or another, meaning the geographical odds might have simply shaken out in Notre Dame’s favor.
If that’s the case, it’s great news for new offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, who had plenty of success with both the Chicago Bears and the Fighting Illini. With offensive coordinator Chuck Martin still covering Chicago for the Irish, and Tony Alford now coordinating the Irish recruiting effort, there’s plenty of advantages to chasing players close to campus. Namely, the Irish can get multiple visits to campus from a prospect, not just take their one shot with a guy like Banner. That geography helped with a highly touted recruit like Gunner Kiel, who made multiple spontaneous visits to South Bend without the need of booking flights and coordinating family travel.
The Irish will likely look to sign four offensive linemen in a class that could approach 20 players. After going coast to coast to find them the past few years, Notre Dame will merely need to protect its own backyard to put this class together. Success isn’t guaranteed, but a home field advantage can’t hurt.