Notre Dame’s turnaround from its 2016 debacle to a 2018 Playoff berth has been credited in part to Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s reinvention, to director of athletics Jack Swarbrick’s patience two years ago, to this season’s quarterback change after a month and the offensive outburst it sparked. They all deserve pieces of that applause.
So, too, do the current sophomores, a class that came together under one coaching staff and still signed with a new one in place, a class that hardly wavered from wanting to go to Notre Dame despite a season too ripe with missteps to be forgotten, and a class critical to this unbeaten run.
Of a signed class of 21, 15 committed long before that February’s National Signing Day, and they were so low-maintenance, Kelly felt obligated to thank them.
“We couldn’t be where we are today unless we had 15 student-athletes that were committed to Notre Dame from the start to the finish,” Kelly said back in February 2017. “Really during a very difficult season, this group of 15 really had to endure the things that would occur out there in recruiting. Other schools reminding them about a very difficult season that we had.
“Then there was them sticking together because of why they wanted to come to Notre Dame.”
That allowed Kelly to focus on putting together this staff that has led the way to a 22-3 record since. In came offensive coordinator Chip Long, his receivers coach Del Alexander; Kelly hired defensive coordinator Mike Elko, along with his protege and linebackers coach Clark Lea. Special teams coordinator and west coast recruiter extraordinaire Brian Polian returned to South Bend.
It is over-the-top to presume Kelly could make those hires only because the recruits were minding themselves, but it is equally presumptuous to write off the impact entirely.
“This class is about the 15 that really stuck together, giving myself an opportunity to reconstitute our staff, put our staff together, get back out on the road after the dead period, and finish it out really strong,” Kelly said.
For the most part, the class of 2017 hardly affected that season outside of waiting for the coaches to get to the Gug. Robert Hainsey started at right tackle, but if he was not around, it simply would have meant then-sophomore Tommy Kraemer handled all the duties instead of just half of them. Two defensive tackles provided depth up the middle, rather than leaving the Irish to rely on less-talented upperclassmen. And that was about it.
But already, this class held 2018 together. Now a two-year starter, Hainsey was joined on the line by left guard Aaron Banks when a possible All-American tore his ACL. One of those defensive tackles, Kurt Hinish (pictured at top), was needed even more when the other, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, broke his foot in the opener. Imagining the Irish offense in September without running back Jafar Armstrong is to ponder a very possible 2-1 start, if not the inverse of that.
Those latter two names joined the class long after those core 15. A week before National Signing Day, Armstrong de-committed from Missouri and pledged to Notre Dame a day later. Tagovailoa-Amosa waited until the afternoon of the day in question. Toss in possible 2019 starting linebacker Jordan Genmark Heath’s late flip from Cal and a theme will present itself.
Long and Alexander tracked down Armstrong. Polian and his Hawaiian track record pulled in Tagovailoa-Amosa. Elko and Lea had long wanted Genmark Heath, just changing their recruiting pitch from Wake Forest to Notre Dame.
This was a change for Kelly, for any Irish coach, really. Tomorrow’s expected 21 signees have been set for awhile. Finding half a dozen prospects as the cycle’s clock dwindles is not something Notre Dame usually needs to do. A 4-8 season and a coaching staff turnover made it a necessity, one those coaches pulled off.
“It was a bit of a different perspective for us,” Kelly said. “I don’t necessarily want to make a habit of pulling our commits. We’d like to do our own work, but these were the right fits for us, as well. We went after guys that we felt fit at Notre Dame, and it worked out pretty good for us.”
Indeed it has. While not all are hits — three of those 21 are already no longer on the Irish roster, and a few more are likely to follow this offseason — that is part of the speculative process. Some gave Notre Dame what it needed this year as sophomores, Armstrong and Banks in their first seasons of eligibility. Others will join Genmark Heath as next year’s keys, namely tight ends Cole Kmet and Brock Wright; perhaps receiver Michael Young, as well, pending some NFL decisions from upperclassmen.
Too often immediate results are wanted. Waiting a year to influence a season and two years to start is how these things usually go. It is literally the design of a college roster’s construction. That “usually” becomes less probable when thinking about following 4-8 seasons and wholesale changes, which may be the real exception of these sophomores. They hung in and believed in Kelly and Notre Dame, providing short-term depth and long-term quality.
Tomorrow’s signees are likely to follow that general timeline. For the most part, their day will come in 2020.