Adding a fifth defensive lineman in this class needed to be a priority for Notre Dame. Before bringing in this grouping — three of which have already enrolled — the Irish had just two defensive tackles at each interior position, spots where going three-deep is often a forced necessity, and only two defensive ends in the previous two classes combined.
Notre Dame was without depth for the immediate future and reinforcements for years to come.
Enter consensus four-star tackles Jacob Lacey and Hunter Spears, both early enrollees. Enter consensus four-star ends NaNa Osafo-Mensah (early-enrolled) and Howard Cross. Enter the Wednesday addition of consensus four-star end Isaiah Foskey.
“We were looking for a pass rusher,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in an in-house video discussing Foskey’s signing, the only availability provided on this reduced Signing Day. “Certainly any time that you finish up your recruiting, you want to finish with somebody we think can make an impact. Isaiah comes from a great program, De La Salle (in Concord, Calif.). It’s a great fit, strong student, but more importantly, I think we needed that guy that can make a presence in our defense.”
Following the December signing period, this space pointed out how rare it is for Notre Dame to sign a quartet of four-stars on either side of the line in one year. That emphasis still stands …
“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.”
With Foskey, Notre Dame has five defensive linemen in this class fitting those parameters. With Hayes, Kareem and Okwara around, it may be difficult for Foskey, Osafo-Mensah or Cross to break through in 2019, but their time will come. Meanwhile, Lacey and Spears could be relied upon for rotational snaps this fall, making their early enrollments all that much more important.
They stand out when Kelly vaguely splits the class into three groupings.
“There will be some developmental guys, guys that are going to take some time,” Kelly said. “There are going to be some guys that are going to push for some time, and then there are some guys that I think could start for us. Every class has those guys in it. You recruit that way. Not all these guys are ready to play.”
Lacey and Spears will almost certainly see some playing time, and one injury to any of the four other defensive tackles could immediately force one or both of them into extended action. Safeties Kyle Hamilton and Litchfield Ajavon may not start right away given the safety duo already in that role — rising seniors Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott — but they should push for time somewhere on the field from the outset, filling that one of Kelly’s groupings.
On the other end of the spectrum, given how rarely freshman offensive linemen play for the Irish, that quartet of four-stars may fit the developmental description proffered by Kelly, though it is not hard to imagine Zeke Correll earning the nod at center if fifth-year Trevor Ruhland struggles in the role, one he is expected to step into this spring. Of note: All four offensive lineman signees enrolled early.
For all 22 newcomers, Kelly continues to see the four-game allotment before losing a year of eligibility as a motivational tool, particularly for the 12-14 somewhere between buried on the depth chart and desperately needed immediately.
“It helps guys stay engaged a little bit, but you know who can play and can’t play, and who is going to get redshirted and who is not going to get redshirted,” Kelly said. “I just think it’s a nice carrot for the guys that they know they can get a couple of games in, and then you can kind of figure out there are maybe one or two guys that can help you later in the season.”
Foskey, Osafo-Mensah and Cross are very obvious candidates for that last designation, staying at or under the four-game limit but still playing some valuable, depth-providing minutes late in the season, especially with Notre Dame’s 2019 ending with three physical matchups against Navy, Boston College and Stanford.
ON THE SECOND SIGNING DAY
The February date used to be a 7 a.m. headline-producer, a day filled with assistant coach interviews, an afternoon piqued with dramatic decisions.
Even Kelly sees this as an auxiliary date now, with the December signing period the real moment of notice.
“What we found is that early signing date is de facto the signing date, and I think we’ve learned that in year two,” Kelly said. “All it means is everything has kind of sped up by a few months.”
It squeezes recruitment decisions into the same timeline as NFL draft announcements, Playoff preparations and early roster churn, but it also eliminates the six weeks of useless speculation between Christmas and Signing Day, when no football can properly distract from recruiting noise. For that, sacrificing a day of February availability is a small price to pay.