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Where Notre Dame was & is: Quarterbacks

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For a year when there was never any controversy of who should start at quarterback for Notre Dame, it ends with a lot of questions about that exact role.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
After both DeShone Kizer (to the NFL) and Malik Zaire (graduate transfer to Florida) departed in the offseason, each long expected, there was no doubt current junior Brandon Wimbush would lead the Irish offense, even if hee couldn’t claim any genuine experience before the 2017 season, having only seen some mop-up duty during his freshman campaign.

Rather, Wimbush’s touted physical attributes set him apart from sophomore Ian Book and freshman Avery Davis. Both Book and Davis present as serviceable quarterbacks who could lead to strong seasons, but Wimbush’s canon of an arm and dynamic running ability made him the electric possibility for something more.

At least, that was the thinking entering the year.

Unless Wimbush or Book were to suffer a season-altering injury, Davis looked to be headed to preserving a year of eligibility, and as long as Wimbush did not turn over the ball three times a game and rarely find the end zone, his grip on the starting gig seemed secure.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Wimbush was indeed electric, and he found moments to showcase his arm strength. In the season opener, he connected with senior tight end Nic Weishar between two defenders with a laser through only a tight window. Furthermore, Wimbush’s legs were a constant threat.

Yet, he was maddeningly inaccurate. That adjective applies sans harshness due to the moments Wimbush would most often miss his targets. Short crossing patterns, check-downs to the flats and screen passes proved especially difficult for Wimbush. Those should be the simplest passes with the highest rate of success; instead, he would throw to junior tight end Alizé Mack’s rear hip on a designed route to the flat, he would throw to sophomore receiver Chase Claypool’s back shoulder on a screen pass, and he would throw behind junior running back Josh Adams on an open wheel route.

Those are throws designed to establish a quarterback’s rhythm, not to stall a drive.

Wimbush’s reads were not inherently bad, but they were often the easy way out, usually the only target considered. Not only does that lead to repeated interceptions or near-interceptions, but it also sometimes ignored the preferable play.

Wimbush’s running abilities nearly overshadowed these aerial flaws, but the one-dimensional offense could not overcome top-line defenses, no matter how good that dimension was.

Notre Dame sophomore quarterback Ian Book did more than enough in leading the Irish to a victory at North Carolina in the one game junior Brandon Wimbush did not partake in this year due to a grade one right foot strain. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

With Wimbush sidelined for a game due to a right foot strain, Book handled all duties at North Carolina, showing he is far more than competent, but also had a limited ceiling.

During the first of bowl preparations, Irish coach Brian Kelly pointed to Davis as someone excelling with the third-string units.

“He’s efficient with the football,” Kelly said. “Very strong runner. He’s an athlete that can impact each and every time he has the football in his hands. He’s difficult to defend.”

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
In 11 games, Wimbush threw for 1,818 yards on 133-of-267 passing, a 49.8 completion percentage, with 16 touchdowns and six interceptions. He averaged 6.81 yards per attempt.
Wimbush also added 878 yards and 14 touchdowns on 112 rushes for an average of 7.84 yards per carry (sacks adjusted).
Book threw for 292 yards on 32-of-56 passing, a 57.1 completion percentage, with two touchdowns and three interceptions. He averaged 5.21 yards per attempt.

In 2017, Notre Dame threw for 2,110 yards on 165-of-324 passing, a 50.9 completion percentage, with 18 touchdowns and nine interceptions. The Irish averaged 6.51 yards per attempt.
In 2016, Notre Dame threw for 3,051 yards on 224-of-388 passing, a 57.7 completion percentage, with 27 touchdowns and nine interceptions. The Irish averaged 7.86 yards per attempt.

COMING QUESTIONS
Wimbush will be the starter in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 vs. No. 17 LSU. That much is certain. It also seems decently certain he will take the first snap of the 2018 opener against Michigan.

To do so, he will need to improve his mechanics. Kelly insists Wimbush’s mental makeup is fit for the task. Per Kelly, the focus of real competition exposed holes in Wimbush’s fundamentals not necessarily seen when working on the scout team during the 2016 season. There, the onus was on educating the first-team defense on the coming opponent’s schemes and tendencies. It was not to dissect the quarterback’s release point or throwing motion.

If Wimbush makes the necessary adjustments, he will undoubtedly start.

Who will back up Wimbush is a whole other query. Given the hype surrounding consensus four-star quarterback signee Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland High School; Gibsonia, Pa.), it does not seem unreasonable to think either Book or Davis may transfer. It would be unfortunate for the Notre Dame depth chart, but if either sees himself fall to third-string this spring and does not expect to outdo Jurkovec in years to come, then finding a better route to playing time would make sense.

Citing Miami (OH) as a possible transfer destination no longer holds the same merit as it did when former Irish assistant Chuck Martin first arrived there as head coach, but use that as an example. The RedHawks will have two senior quarterbacks with starting experience next season in Gus Ragland and Billy Bahl. Neither will have eligibility afterward. If Book or Davis were to transfer to Oxford, his greatest competition for the QB1 honors in 2019 would be current freshman Jackson Williamson. Miami also does not yet have a quarterback committed in the class of 2018.

Compare that to spending the coming fall behind both Wimbush and the other of this Book or Davis hypothetical, only to then be passed up by Jurkovec in 2019 and remain third-string.

Consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec may not come near Notre Dame’s two-deep roster in 2018, but he may alter it simply be being on campus. (Rivals.com)

There is every expectation for Jurkovec to make his presence known, even if that is only as an announcement of his pending involvement in the 2019 discussion. Less than a week ago, Kelly responded to a softball of a question rather than dodge it. Even on a day full of hype such as national signing day, evading the thought of Jurkovec competing with Wimbush for playing time would have been the smart play.

“I want him to challenge. I want Brandon to feel competition, and I’m sure Brandon wants to be challenged,” Kelly said Wednesday. “Any great competitor wants that feeling that somebody is pushing him every day and, not that Ian Book doesn’t, but let’s bring in another really good quarterback, a great quarterback.

“That’s our job here at Notre Dame. I’m not doing a good enough job if I don’t bring in a great quarterback to challenge the incumbent quarterback. If that threatens Brandon, then he’s not the guy I think he is. I’m pretty certain he’s going to be excited about Phil being here and the competition.”

Now that is not saying Jurkovec will start. That is not even saying Jurkovec may start. But it is saying the thought has crossed Kelly’s mind.

Although, Wimbush’s November gave the musing plenty of reason to cross Kelly’s ponderings.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame gets the letter: Phil Jurkovec

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Receivers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs
Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Backs
Where Notre Dame was & is: Offensive Line

Notre Dame wins the Joe Moore; Lenzy displays maturity; links to read

@NDFootball
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It’s Christmas Eve. If Notre Dame’s roster can do the favor of not forcing any issues in the next few days, then this space will be taking off the next two days.

The audacity!

In the meantime … Let’s start with the video of Irish head coach Brian Kelly announcing the winning of the Joe Moore Award by the Notre Dame offensive line, naming it the most outstanding such unit in the country. Offensive line coach Harry Hiestand and his charges deserved the honor, and there appeared to be rather genuine emotion upon realizing the news.

ON Braden Lenzy’S COMMITMENT
Expect to see Lenzy’s essay for “The Players’ Tribune” cited repeatedly in these parts. The points it makes need to be pounded into the heads of far too many college football fans. Upon decommiting from the Irish in June, Lenzy said he received messages from fans wishing him ill will to the extent of death threats.

“It got to where I would cringe every time my phone buzzed,” Lenzy wrote. “… I wish I could say I just brushed off the negative messages, or that I was big enough to just ignore them entirely. But that wouldn’t be true. I did read them. And I thought about them a lot.”

Lenzy overcame the influence of those idiots and signed with Notre Dame on Friday.

“I want to make clear not only to those people who sent me those messages directly, but also to every other high schooler who has experienced the same thing: Negative people exist everywhere, but you can’t let them dictate how you live your life.”

Credit to Lenzy for a well-written essay. Credit to Lenzy for making a tough decision. And credit to Lenzy for having ten times the maturity than many Irish fans.

OUTSIDE READING
LSU will play Citrus Bowl without Arden Key, 2 other linebackers, Ed Orgeron says

LSU preparing for ‘great challenge’ in Notre Dame running game

10 takeaways from the new early Signing Day and the Class of 2018 — “Lost amid all the excitement that came on Wednesday will be what assistant coaches will end up changing jobs. It happens every single year after the normal signing date in February and nobody quite knows if that will be the case again after the December period closes.”

5 things to know for college football’s new early signing period — “The biggest unintended consequence of the new early signing period will be an industry-wide flurry of assistant coaching movement. Nearly one-third of assistant coaching jobs in college football could turn over the upcoming weeks. In other words, there’s a one-in-three chance the assistant who has been courting a high school prospect the past 18 months will be slipping on a new polo shirt soon.”

Former Notre Dame RB commit Markese Stepp finds new home at USC

Jerry Kill reveals details of how he fought to finish at Rutgers: ‘I loved the staff I worked with’

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
ON RECRUITING
Monday’s Leftovers: Early signing period basics and Notre Dame’s likelihoods

Notre Dame’s 12 defensive signees: Brian Kelly’s takes

Notre Dame’s eight offensive signees: Brian Kelly’s takes

Friday at 4: Context shows Notre Dame succeeded in the early signing period

With four spots remaining, what recruits is Notre Dame still chasing?

ON SUSPENSIONS & INJURIES
Claypool injured & out

Notre Dame suspends WR Kevin Stepherson and RB C.J. Holmes

Shoulder surgery sidelines Notre Dame TE Brock Wright

Notre Dame announces Alizé Mack suspension

Brian Kelly on suspensions, Notre Dame’s fifth-years’ timetable

OTHER
Friday at 4 Bowl games are fun, but little else, even for Notre Dame vs. LSU

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS/IS
Running Backs

Defensive Backs

Offensive Line

With four spots remaining, what recruits is Notre Dame still chasing?

rivals.com
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Notre Dame finished the early signing period with 21 signatures thanks to consensus four-star receiver Braden Lenzy’s (Tigard High School; Portland, Ore.) commitment on Friday. That leaves at least four spots for February signees on the traditional National Signing Day, Feb. 7.

If the right players wanted to commit to the Irish, the class could expand as high as 29 players without straining against NCAA rules. Early enrollees can be counted toward the previous class, meaning Notre Dame could chalk up four of the seven early enrollees as part of the class of 2017, which had only 21 pledges. Thus, neither class would exceed the ceiling of 25 prospects.

It is more likely 25 remains the mark to meet this year, at the most.

“We’re not going to take guys just to take guys, they’ve got to address needs,” Irish recruiting director Brian Polian said Wednesday. “We could go to 24, 25. We may go to 21, 22. We’ll see how it plays out here through the course of the rest of the recruiting period.”

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly outlined those needs. At that point, receiver was still in the discussion, but Lenzy’s commitment diminishes that need drastically.

“Defensive back is still in play for us, offensive line is still in play, and then best player available,” Kelly said. “I would probably highlight them in that fashion.”

Ten players seem most likely to fill those remaining scholarships and roster spots …

Consensus four-star safety Julius Irivin (Servite High School; Anaheim, Calif.)
The No. 8 safety in the class per rivals.com and the No. 87 prospect overall, Irvin appeared set to decide between Notre Dame, Washington and USC this week before a family emergency prompted him to delay his signing until February.

Consensus four-star cornerback Noah Boykin (H.D. Woodson H.S.; Washington, D.C.)
The No. 20 cornerback in the class and the No. 193 prospect overall, Boykin (pictured above) committed to Maryland in July but did not sign a National Letter of Intent this week. In other words, he is hardly committed. Such is the transparency the early signing period provides.

“It clears up a lot of the uncertainty in this process of guys not committed when they should be still visiting other schools and saying that they’re soft verbal [commitments],” Kelly said to explain his favorite part of this new process. “That never made any sense to me.”


Rivals.com four-star/247sports.com five-star offensive tackle Nick Petit-Frere (Berkeley Prep; Tampa, Fla.)
The No. 7 offensive tackle and No. 67 prospect overall, Petit-Frere has kept his recruitment thoughts close to the vest. He visited both Notre Dame and Michigan this fall and has shown interest in Alabama and Florida, as well.

Consensus three-star offensive tackle Luke Jones (Pulaski Academy, Little Rock, Ark.)
The No. 45 offensive tackle in the class per rivals.com, Jones mirrors Boykin. Jones committed to Arkansas in July but did not put pen to paper — or finger to cellphone screen, as would most likely be — this week. The difference lies in the coaching change at Arkansas. That alone could be the reason for Jones’ delay, wanting to gauge a possible relationship with new head coach Chad Morris, formerly of Southern Methodist University.


Malik Langham (rivals.com)

Consensus three-star defensive end Malik Langham (Lee H.S.; Huntsville, Ala.)
The No. 38 defensive end in the class, Langham toes the line between an Irish positional need and the “best player available” distinction. Notre Dame only offered him in December, joining the likes of his homestate Alabama and a few other SEC options.

Kelly made it clear Wednesday he will not pursue defensive linemen, specifically defensive ends, unless they fit a broader mold for the Irish. He has that luxury this cycle thanks to the continued progression of the four current sophomores at defensive end, led by Daelin Hayes and Khalid Kareem.

“We’re not going to take somebody just to take somebody in this class at that position,” Kelly said. “It has to do certainly that there is a need there, but if the fit is not there, we’re not going down that route unless the right fit is there.”

Consensus three-star defensive tackle Moro Ojomo (Katy; Texas)
Consensus three-star defensive tackle Otito Ogbonnia (Taylor H.S.; Katy, Texas)
Notre Dame extended offers to both these Texas products this week. Reading between the lines, that could point toward expectations of current junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery heading to the NFL Draft, creating a need for more depth in the defensive interior.


Consensus five-star receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown (Mater Dei H.S.; Anaheim, Calif.)
The youngest brother of current Irish junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, Amon-Ra certainly fits the “best player available” qualifications. Rivals.com considers him the No. 1 receiver in the class and No. 3 prospect in the country. Notre Dame would jump at the chance to sign him even with the talented trio of receivers already committed. Plus, it would mean the Irish beat out USC, a victory just to not have to face a talent like St. Brown every season.

The Trojans gained another edge in this race, though, when St. Brown’s high school quarterback and the top passer in the class of 2019, JT Daniels, reclassified into the class of 2018 on Friday. He has been a staunch USC commit since July.

Consensus three-star receiver Lawrence Keys (McDonogh 35; New Orleans, La.)
The likelihood of Keys ending up with Notre Dame decreased significantly with Lenzy’s commitment, but if the Irish have a spot open come Feb. 7 and Keys wants it, there would be little reason to turn him away.


Consensus four-star linebacker Solomon Tuliaupupu (Mater Dei H.S.; Anaheim, Calif.)
It may be outright greedy of Notre Dame to look for the signing of a fifth linebacker, four of which would be four-star prospects, but Tuliaupupu might rival Jack Lamb (Great Oak; Temecula, Calif.) as the best of the bunch. Rivals.com slots Tuliaupupu as the No. 3 inside linebacker in the country and No. 94 overall prospect.

Notre Dame signs consensus four-star WR Braden Lenzy at end of early signing period

rivals.com
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Notre Dame finished the early signing period with a flash Friday night thanks to the commitment of consensus four-star speedster receiver Braden Lenzy (Tigard High School; Portland, Ore.). Lenzy’s signature ends a circuitous recruitment right back where it began.

Lenzy first committed to the Irish in February before flipping to Oregon in June, primarily citing concerns about his ability to run track at Notre Dame. When Ducks head coach Willie Taggart took the head job at Florida State, Lenzy once again reopened his commitment, narrowing the possibilities to Notre Dame, Oregon and UCLA.

When I made my official visit [to Notre Dame] last week after opening my recruitment back up, I had this one moment of clarity that I’d been waiting for without knowing it,” Lenzy wrote in an essay announcing his commitment on The Players’ Tribune. “I was walking out of the locker room and onto the field. The weather wasn’t great — it was 30° outside and snowing — but for some reason it also seemed perfect. It was almost like an itch had finally been scratched.”

He joins consensus four-star Kevin Austin (North Broward Prep; Pompano Beach, Ill.) and rivals.com four-star Micah Jones (Warren Township; Gurnee, Ill.) to form an excellent grouping of receivers in the now 21-commit class.

When the first 20 of those, including Austin and Jones, signed Wednesday, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly pointed to receiver as an area the Irish would continue to recruit after praising the committed duo.

“Obviously, we need to continue to recruit at that position,” Kelly said. “We’re hoping to add to that position in this cycle to balance off the receiving crew.”

It is within reason Notre Dame looks for even another receiver if that player fits Kelly’s description of “best player available,” the third priority remaining behind defensive back and offensive line.

BRADEN LENZY
Tigard High School; Portland, Ore.
Measurements: 6’0”, 170 lbs.
Accolades: Consensus four-star; No. 13 receiver in the class per rivals.com and No. 3 prospect in Oregon.
Other Notable Offers:
Lenzy could have gone nearly anywhere in the Pac-12, including USC, Stanford or Washington State. Instead, his recruitment always centered around Notre Dame and Oregon with UCLA gaining ground in the race once Chip Kelly was hired as head coach.
Projected position:
Receiver
Quick Take:
You can’t teach speed, and Lenzy has it. That alone will get him on the field early. Irish coach Brian Kelly has always preferred to have at least one speedster on the field to take the top off the defense. (See: Chris Brown, Will Fuller, Kevin Stepherson.) With hands providing legitimacy to that deep threat, Lenzy offers a dynamic option.
Short-Term Roster Outlook:
If Lenzy had signed the first day of the early signing period, this bit would have read much differently. Then, current sophomore Kevin Stepherson would have stood staunchly between Lenzy and consistent playing time. Now, Stepherson’s future at Notre Dame is very much in doubt. Thus, Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long could be looking for a new deep yet shifty playmaker. Lenzy fits that bill better than any other receiver already on the roster.
Long-View Depth Chart Impact:
The trio of Austin, Jones and Lenzy makes for a complete set of receivers in one class. Austin could someday be the starter at the field position (a la current junior Equanimeous St. Brown in ideal scenarios) with Jones on the boundary (think of sophomore Chase Claypool) and Lenzy in the slot but able to quickly move to a sideline to force a defense’s hand.

On Stepherson
WNDU, the South Bend affiliate of NBC, reports Stepherson was pulled over on Dec. 14 and charged with possession of marijuana, speeding and lacking a valid driver’s license. It was just a day later he and freshman running back C.J. Holmes were arrested for shoplifting.

Suffice it to say, it is difficult to see any scenario where Stepherson remains with the Irish much longer.

RELATED READING: WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish (Feb. 23)

Notre Dame loses four-star WR (June 15)

Friday at 4: Context shows Notre Dame succeeded in the early signing period

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Notre Dame should claim the early signing period as a resounding success. It’s that simple.

Dismiss the rankings, though they point to a top-10 status. Realize stars are meaningless once players reach the field, even if half the 20 signed commits as of publishing have been deemed four-star prospects. Ignore headlines of heroes, partly because they’ll mostly focus on consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland High School; Gibsonia, Pa.)

RELATED READING: Notre Dame gets the letter: Phil Jurkovec, consensus four-star quarterback

The Irish handed the inaugural December signing period well, largely because they were ready for it. In signing the 20 — and again, that figure is accurate as of 4 p.m. ET on Friday — the Notre Dame coaching staff did exactly what it needed to.

It needed to find defensive playmakers, specifically defensive backs. It needed to throw in a few more playmakers among the receiver corps to (hopefully) spark someone to rise to the top, even more so the case given other events this week. Irish head coach Brian Kelly needed to land a top-tier quarterback after securing only good ones the last two cycles.

Context matters more than rankings or stars. Fit determines the roster more than hype. Talent is found, not touted.

For that matter, there is a phrase about a bird in the hand and its relative value compared to multiple birds chirping in a bush. Notre Dame has 20 commits signed. It could be argued no program in the country had a better week recruiting.

“What do I like about this [early] signing day? It’s put the commitment back in commitment and really what that means,” Kelly said Wednesday. “No more soft commitments.

“… Let’s take the hype out of it. Let’s let these young men decide based upon what’s in their best interest for their future. Let’s take the circus atmosphere away from signing and let’s get back to making a decision that’s going to be in your best interest for the next 40 years of your life.”

This was always going to be the most difficult recruiting cycle to succeed in from a logistics standpoint, no matter how much a 9-3 Irish resurgence may have helped the cause. In order for a high school senior to sign his National Letter of Intent with Notre Dame, he first needed to gain early admittance to the University.

Getting that admittance is not an easy task with any version of timing. Requiring every commit to manage it six weeks earlier only furthers the difficulty. Perhaps it would not have been an issue for 18 or 19 of the 20, but simply based on the numbers, to go 20-for-20 stands out.

“[The early signing period] puts the onus on the young men in terms of academics,” Irish recruiting director Brian Polian said. “We’re not a place that can sign a guy and not have a test score. There are places in the country where guys are waiting on their first SAT to come back and they can deal with that. Ours is not a place that can do that.”

Further complicating the expedited timeline was the abbreviated nature on the front-end. The early signing period was not officially approved until June. This class did not have the luxury of the earlier official visits also approved then. Moving forward, schools can pay for visits of high school juniors in April, May and June, rather than having to wait until the fall of their senior years. Without that altered timeline leading this recruiting cycle but still with a December deadline awaiting, a time crunch was created. Polian referred to it as “a condensed calendar.”

“We’re not a school that 80 percent of our class can drive here for an unofficial visit, so the sped-up timing of the early signing day combined with not being able to bring young men here officially in the spring and summer made it a little bit difficult and unique,” Polian said.

Nonetheless, Notre Dame hit its marks.

Consensus four-star safety Derrik Allen (Lassiter High School; Marietta, Ga.) could force his way into the starting conversation his freshman season. Consensus four-star defensive back Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.) immediately patches the depth concerns stemming from not signing any cornerbacks a year ago. Of the three other defensive backs, if so much as one becomes a regular contributor, the Irish hit on a sustainable rate of success.

“If you bat .500-.600 in a recruiting class and look up and say we had two or three starters and impactful players and good kids and good students, then you’re doing a heck of a job,” Polian said, referencing his Pro Football Hall of Fame father’s track record. “Obviously, we feel good, because they’re ours, they are in our family. We don’t feel like we made any mistakes but ultimately time will tell.”

Adding four linebackers fills a need after what may have been a lackluster signing a year ago. Even if current freshman David Adams and Drew White prove to be success stories, Notre Dame will lose seniors Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini this season and junior Te’von Coney could still yet head to the NFL Draft. Consensus four-star linebacker Jack Lamb (Great Oak H.S.; Temecula, Calif.) helps ease those worries dramatically.

If the Irish receivers disappointed this season — removing that if would not be an inaccurate decision — adding a multi-positional threat in consensus four-star Kevin Austin (North Broward Prep; Pompano Beach, Fla.) and a physical option in rivals.com four-star Micah Jones (Warren Township; Gurnee, Ill.) will force others to up their games lest they be passed by the newcomers. Notre Dame may still add another receiver in this period, too, with consensus four-star Braden Lenzy (Tigard; Portland, Ore.) expected to make a decision yet tonight. Adding the speedster would be the Christmas present the Irish did not think would arrive in the mail in time to make it under the tree.

This class fits Notre Dame’s needs already, and it isn’t done. Not every player needs to be a four- or five-star. That is not reasonable in any sense. Adding a number of them where the roster lacked means more than splashy names or outrageous claims.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame’s 12 defensive signees: Brian Kelly’s takes
Notre Dame’s eight offensive signees: Brian Kelly’s takes