Things We Learned: Stress-free recruiting cycle sets up Notre Dame both now and in the future

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Notre Dame may yet add to its class of 2019. Two consensus four-star defenders continue to be pursued, but adding either would only marginally change the feelings about the 21-23 signees as a whole. The class may rank as only No. 11 in the country, according to rivals.com, but its strengths are so notable, it comes across as much more impressive than that.

Maybe it was the lack of drama that most contributed to that feeling, with only two de-commitments in the entire cycle, one of which was hardly a commitment in the first place. Perhaps it is the welcome lack of stress over recruiting in December when a Playoff semifinal awaits eight days away. Or, most likely, signing four 4-star linemen on each side of the ball makes for such a foundation, the final ranking hardly matters.

Pulling in such a haul on both sides of the line is essentially unprecedented. Sticking with rivals.com rankings for the sake of consistency and the Brian Kelly era for the sake of comparison, the Irish have landed four 4-stars on either side of the line only in 2014 (four offensive linemen, including five-star Quenton Nelson and current center and captain Sam Mustipher) and 2011 (four defensive linemen, including five-stars Stephon Tuitt and Ishaq Williams). The combined high in Kelly’s nine previous recruiting cycles was six 4-star linemen, seen twice (2016, 2011). It is no coincidence five of the six brought in 2016 have helped push the Irish to a Playoff berth to cap this 22-3 stretch: ends Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara the defensive representatives; left tackle Liam Eichenberg and right guard Tommy Kraemer the remaining offensive linemen.

Current junior defensive end Daelin Hayes headlined the recruiting class of 2016, the only one with an influx in the trenches comparable to what has signed with Notre Dame this week. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

And to say it again, Notre Dame may yet hear good news from consensus four-star end Isaiah Foskey (De La Salle High School; Concord, Calif.) to make for five such defensive linemen. Foskey will not announce such during this period, though.

Following a year in which only one four-star lineman was among the 27 signees (defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola), the two classes complement each other. Last year was ripe with skill position players, a heralded quarterback and defensive backs expected to carry the secondary forward; this cycle resulted in the types of bodies needed to handle the dirty work to make those other guys look good.

“One of the things that is really exciting is we’re starting to stack some really good classes on top of each other that we’re really confident in,” Irish recruiting coordinator Brian Polian said Wednesday. “When you do that, the sustainability to keep competing at a high level becomes a much more realistic scenario.”

The stars alone are not why these prospects were sought. There were other high school seniors, plenty of others, some of which started calling Notre Dame back in November as it rolled toward a 12-0 finish only to be told the no vacancy sign had been turned on. On the offensive side, the Irish had the class most like this one vet these recruits. That 2014 haul of offensive linemen begat a unanimous All-American in Nelson, another All-American in Mustipher and a possible All-American deprived of such honors only by the cruel twist of a torn ACL in current fifth-year Alex Bars. Mustipher, Bars and the rest of the current Irish linemen had their say about who would join the room next year.

“They got to spend time with our offensive linemen, and, I’m not kidding you, they give a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down on them,” Kelly said Wednesday. “That is a close and tight group of guys. You either fit with those guys, or you don’t.”

Apparently, they fit, and when saying the quartet will join the room “next year,” that is meant calendar year, not school year. All four offensive linemen signees will enroll early next month, as will three of the defensive linemen and three others. The total of 10 exceeds last year’s previous high of seven, a notable escalation in a practice Notre Dame only began working with in 2006.

Sacrificing prom for six months in the weight room, a spring spent getting meaningful practice reps and a semester chipping away at the academic workload is the smart long-term play. The Irish will not always have 10 players opt for it — Kelly specifically credited the players for getting ahead on their high school work and being proactive enough to make this possible on their end — but the standardization of early enrollment stands out as another step forward by the University as a whole to making life a bit more tenable for the roster.

“It’s gone from, ‘Do you really think he should be here?’ to, ‘We will embrace him because we’ve had such great success,’” Kelly said. “When I say inside-out, the University has really embraced it and taken the time to be so much more concerned with that transition where we’ve built classes and we’ve built transition for the mid-year enrollees.”

Their arrival may, in a way, help the sorting process inherent to offseason roster attrition. The handling of the recruitment of consensus four-star linebacker J.D. Bertrand was done in an intentional manner to keep him eligible for an academic scholarship. Hence no official visit to Notre Dame and no in-home visit from the coaching staff. For now, let’s not count him toward the final scholarship numbers, and let’s not include seniors such as quarterback Brandon Wimbush and defensive tackle Micah Dew-Treadway. Wimbush will presumably transfer elsewhere to start one last season behind center and bringing in two more four-star tackles in this class reduces the need to invite Dew-Treadway back for a fifth season.

That puts the current scholarship count at 90, with Foskey and the ongoing drama of consensus four-star linebacker Asa Turner (Carlsbad; Calif.) possibly pushing it to 92. The Irish roster will need to see at least five pieces of turnover by the start of the fall semester. That is by no means an exorbitantly large number, but it will remain a piece of conversation and mild drama until it is reached.

That drama will not begin to play out until Notre Dame’s season ends, and next weekend remains the biggest moment of this month. Oftentimes a recruiting class like this one would be described as the latest win on the calendar. Doing so when Clemson looms would elevate recruiting to an undeserved level. No matter how good the class, how deep the lines, how many enroll early, the greatest Irish benefit of this week’s worry-free success is the little time it took away from Playoff preparations.