February 5, 2014 // Recruiting

Hidden Gems in Notre Dame’s Class of 2014

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(Photo: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sport)

(Photo: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sport)

It is easy to get excited about all of the highly rated recruits signing their national letters of intent today – the 5-star and top 100 recruits that Notre Dame will sign plenty of throughout the day as the faxes come in. Often times, however, it’s the 3-star guys that come out of nowhere that are what end up making a class truly special 4 and 5 years down the road when you can actually judge how successful a recruiting class really was.

[Related: Signing Day 2014 Announcement Schedule]

As we anxiously await for the tweets to be sent out of all of the incoming faxes to the Notre Dame athletic department and nervously wait as the announcement times for Terrence Alexander, Courtney Garnett, Daniel Cage, JuJu Smith, and Michiah Quick draw near, we will take a look a group of 3-star recruits that we can’t wait to see develop over the next few years under the guidance of the Notre Dame coaching staff.

Note to be considered for this list, we are only looking at recruits who were 3-star recruits in at least 3 of the 4 recruiting services.  And before you scoff at the notion of getting excited about 3-star recruits, let’s not forget that Tyler Eifert, Ian Williams, Everett Golson, and Nick Martin were all 3-star prospects recently.

Jhonathan Williams – DE/OLB

For the life of me I can’t understand why Williams didn’t receive more offers from MAC caliber programs.  I get why SEC schools didn’t come calling in numbers.  Williams is a bit of a project because he hasn’t played a whole lot of football to this point in his career, but he fits the profile of the kind of recruit that goes to a MAC school, comes out of nowhere and then 4 years later is a high draft pick and everyone points to him and says, “why can’t Notre Dame find players like that” or points to them as proof that under the radar kids develop into NFL talent all the time.

Now, I am not predicting that Roger Goodell is going to be calling Williams name from the stage at Radio City Music Hall in 4 or 5 years, but Williams is the one recruit who I am the most excited to see develop because he is really just scratching the surface of his potential and we really have no idea how good of a player he can be.

Williams has all of the measurables of a prototypical, pass rushing nightmare as a hybrid OLB/DE in Notre Dame’s defense.  Will he put all of that together and develop into that player?  I have no idea whatsoever.  No one does right now.  What I do know though is that he has the athleticism, length, and potential to be that type of player.  A lot will have to go right for Williams to become that player, but it is going to be a heck of a lot of fun to watch Brian VanGorder work with him.

Pete Mokwuah – NT

When Notre Dame lost Matt Dickerson to UCLA they started searching for another defensive tackle for this year’s class.  That search lead them to St. Joseph’s by the Sea in Staten Island where they found the mammoth Pete Mokwuah.  Originally committed to Rutgers, Mokwuah rebuffed interest from several elite programs around the country during his senior season – including Alabama.  When Brian VanVorder and his mustache entered the picture though, Mokwuah’s ears opened and he listened to what Notre Dame had to offer.

Not long after Notre Dame entered the picture in January, Mokwuah committed to Notre Dame before ever setting foot on campus and then traveled to South Bend last week and did his best to recruit fellow defensive tackle Courtney Garnett to Notre Dame along with him.  Speaking of Garnett, the picture below of the two of them on their official visit is one of the main reasons I’m excited to see how Mokwuah develops.

That is Mokwuah, all 6’5″, 305 lbs of him, on the left standing next to the 6’2″, 280 lbs Courtney Garnett in the Notre Dame locker room last week making him look small.  That is not a small feet considering Ganrett is a top DT tackle prospect Notre Dame is currently trying to pry away from Oklahoma.  You just can’t teach that kind of size.  Throw Mokwuah in the weight room with Paul Longo for a year and we very well could have the makings of a space eating, guard consuming nose tackle to anchor the Notre Dame defense.

Kolin Hill – OLB

Notre Dame started recruiting Kolin Hill at just the right time.  Just as his recruiting was starting to heat up, the Irish got involved in the nick of time and secured a commitment before too many other programs came calling.  That didn’t stop those other programs from continuing to call though.  Notre Dame had to fight off Texas til the end for Hill’s commitment.  The work put in by Kerry Cooks to keep Hill on board should pay off dividends for Notre Dame down the road.

Hill is a lanky athlete that could provide a pass rushing threat off the edge of the defense for Notre Dame in much the same way Prince Shembo has for the last four years.  Hill was a late developer making huge strides in the weight room between his junior and senior years and fits the mold of the kind of recruit Brian Kelly made a living on recruiting prior to coming to Notre Dame – a still developing and growing into his frame recruit with a high ceiling.  Since Hill is still developing and growing it’s possible he could end up playing at inside linebacker at some point as well.

Nile Sykes – ILB

His fellow Chicagoland native inside linebacker, Nyles Morgan, gets most of the attention (and for a good reason, Morgan is really, really good), but Sykes is an impressive recruit as well and could be one of the steals of this year’s class.

After playing with his hand on the ground as a defensive end as a junior, Sykes made the move to linebacker as a senior and has impressed scouts along with the way with his ability to drop into space and play coverage.  Notre Dame offered Sykes in November after seeing some of his senior film and by the middle of December, Notre Dame added Sykes to the #GoldenArmy14.

Because he has only played the position for one year, it’s not realistic to expect Sykes to crack  the two deep next year even with depth concerns at inside linebacker, but give him a year or two in the Notre Dame defense and the Irish could have a great find here.

Grant Blankenship – DE/OLB

This one may be cheating a little bit since Scout has Blankenship ranked in it’s top 100 overall, but the other three services all have Blankenship as a 3-star prospect so I’m going with it.  The main reason I’m excited about seeing Blankenship develop is because of his versatility.  He actually reminds me a lot of Troy Niklas coming out of high school. Niklas came to Notre Dame projected as either a DE or OT according to recruiting services.  Niklas proceeded to play his freshman season at OLB and then moved to TE as a sophomore before emerging as an elite TE as a junior and leaving early for the NFL.

I could see a similar career arc for Blankenship.  He is a long, lean athlete right now who could grow into a defensive end or stay at outside linebacker as a CAT.  Blankenship also played tight end in high school.  He could never move to tight end with Notre Dame landing so many highly rated tight ends the last two years you say though?  Well, when Niklas came to Notre Dame the Irish had just added 4-star Ben Koyack and already had 4-star Alex Welch and Niklas ended up passing them both on the depth chart.

All of these recruits are going to be fun to watch develop over the next few years along with the rest of the class of 2014.  Finding talent in late developing prospects like many of the recruits in this post can make a big difference for Notre Dame given some of the recruiting challenges it faces each year.  In fact, it is pretty much vital for Brian Kelly and his staff to be able to identify a few diamonds in the rough each year.

Of course, it would also be nice if Notre Dame were to add a couple more highly rated recruits to this year’s class throughout the day as well.

 

Comments to this Article

  • duranko commented on February 5th, 2014 at 3:09 pm

    Frank, I love this list! Williams is still playing hoop and will bulk up when he stops. He and Blankenship are “Long.” Kelly indicated that Blankenship is already up to 265 lbs. Hill and Sykes may need a year but they will strengthen the speed and hitting of our LB corps.

    We are certainly getting more athletic on the defensive side of the ball.

    [Reply]

    Frank Vitovitch replied on February 7th, 2014 at 9:48 am

    Williams has a chance to be a pass rushing nightmare in this defense if VanGorder and Elston coach him up. Love the athleticism upgrade at LB after watching Fox/Calabrese this year. Was really shocked to hear Blankenship was up to 265. I thought he might stay at OLB, but if he’s 265 already he’ll be DE size in no time.

    [Reply]

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