Any Notre Dame fan that logged on to ESPN.com to watch Cincinnati linebacker recruit Justin Hilliard announce his college destination last week with the hope an Irish upset would occur – similar to Manti Te’o’s grainy webcam surprise commitment to Notre Dame over USC years ago – was ultimately disappointed when Hilliard selected the in-state Ohio State Buckeyes. And while you win some and lose some in college recruiting, the loss of Hilliard was an undeniable blow.
Falling inches short of landing the #1 inside linebacker in the country is a tough thing to swallow for any college program, but Notre Dame missing on Hilliard was an even bigger deal given the circumstances that were working in Notre Dame’s favor. The talented Ohio prospect made multiple trips with his parents to campus over the course of several months, including two recent trips that were several weeks apart. He spent the night with Notre Dame’s players to develop a rapport and met with Notre Dame’s professors to better learn about the university’s top-ranked business program, his desired major.
Hilliard is what Brian Kelly has aptly named the “right kind of guy” when targeting recruits, and to make things even more personal, Hilliard chose to select Ohio State over Notre Dame alongside Rivals 4-star defensive end Jashon Cornell of Cretin-Derham Hall in Minnesota, a traditional pipeline to South Bend that has previously produced greats such as Michael Floyd. The loss of Hilliard was felt deeply enough that Fighting Irish fans have been focusing more on what could have been than focusing on the fact head coach Brian Kelly has landed nine verbal commitments since June alone.
With such a missed opportunity in Hilliard, a question remains: will Notre Dame suffer at the linebacker position moving forward?
Offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has developed a cult following amongst Notre Dame fans for his strong, and largely unexpected, talent for recruiting. Since Hiestand’s arrival the Fighting Irish have arguably landed the #1 recruiting classes for offensive linemen in 2013 and 2014, and Notre Dame is on pace to have one of the best in the nation yet again for the Class of 2015. What is lesser known, however, is that Kelly and staff have slowly been building the Irish linebacker rotation into a similar position – even with the recent loss of Nile Sykes to a transfer.
Kelly has managed to sign at least one blue-chip prospect at the linebacker position per year since signing Jaylon Smith, and each blue-chip signature involved a massive recruiting coup. Smith was a Rivals 5-star linebacker listed as the #3 player in the nation for the Class of 2013 – rated even higher than Irish legend Manti Te’o – and held offers from every program in the nation. Landing Smith’s commitment marked a milestone in Brian Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame, as it proved he was capable of recruiting at an elite level, and he bested Ohio State head man Urban Meyer – Jaylon Smith’s brother played for Ohio State – in order to do it.
The following recruiting cycle Notre Dame earned the signature of Rivals 4-star linebacker Nyles Morgan, rated as the #5 inside linebacker in his class. Securing Morgan’s commitment involved a come-from-behind victory over a multitude of SEC suitors, most notably Ole Miss. Morgan appeared set to follow his old high school teammate, top wide receiver prospect Laquon Treadwell, to Oxford, Mississippi, when the Fighting Irish staged a late recruiting coup and swayed him away from the Rebels.
Receiving a commitment from Justin Hilliard would have resulted in Notre Dame landing three rare linebacker talents over a three-year stretch, and though it did not come to pass, current Notre Dame linebacker commitment Josh Barajas could potentially fill the void. Barajas is a Rivals 4-star linebacker with offers from the likes of Michigan, Ohio State and Oregon, and Notre Dame managed an upset to secure his commitment as well, as Barajas recently de-committed from Penn State to join the Fighting Irish’s ranks due in large part to his strong relationship with Jaylon Smith.
And Barajas may not be the only elite linebacker added within the current recruiting cycle. Te’Von Coney, a 247 Sports 4-star athlete coveted by all the major powers in the SEC, headed into Notre Dame’s Irish Invasion camp with the Florida Gators as his leader. By the end of the weekend Coney had tabbed the Fighting Irish as co-leaders, and there is reason to believe ND could ultimately win out for his services. Coney only added fuel to the fire by tweeting out a picture of himself decked out in Notre Dame attire this weekend.
— Tevon Coney9⃣ (@TevonConey) July 5, 2014
In addition, Asmar Bilal, a 247 Sports 4-star with offers from blue collar winning programs like Michigan State and Wisconsin, is considered to have Notre Dame and Michigan neck-and-neck for his signature.
Landing a commitment from Justin Hilliard would have catapulted Notre Dame’s linebacker recruiting into the same category of success as Hiestand’s offensive line unit, but swinging and missing on Hilliard is only a temporary setback. Brian Kelly and staff have done an excellent job of not only signing elite talent at the linebacker spot but securing quality depth as well, with a pool of upcoming linebacker talent at their disposal, such as Doug Randolph, Kolin Hill and Jhonathon Williams to name only a very few. And if the face of the linebacker corps, Jaylon Smith, continues his meteoric rise, many more elite linebackers will be on the horizon.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his fiancée. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org