When Brian Kelly was asked about which defensive freshmen can help Notre Dame this fall, he didn’t mention his 5-star linebacker – Nyles Morgan (5 star by Scout) or his highest rated defensive lineman – Jay Hayes. Instead, Kelly mentioned four recruits who were either late additions or under the radar recruits – Jhonny Williams, Kolin Hill, Jonathan Bonner, and Daniel Cage.
“I can tell you the guys that will help us,” Brian Kelly said when asked about which freshmen in the front seven can help the Irish early. “Jhonny WIlliams will help us. (Jonathan) Bonner will help us. (Daniel) Cage will help us. Kolin Hill will help us,” he would add. “Those four guys have shown an ability to pass rush on third down,” Kelly explained. “Now they probbably won’t be every down players but they can come off the edge for us.”
Of that quartet, none were really headline recruits that Notre Dame fans were fawning over last February. In fact two of them, were listed in a Signing Day article we did on hidden gems in the class of 2014. It was clear all of them had some talent, but for most of those guys, it was figured that they would need some time in the program to develop before making an impact. From the sounds of things, that won’t be the case.
Here’s a quick recap of each’s recruitment and offer list. As you’ll notice, Notre Dame wasn’t beating out the Florida States and Alabamas of the world for these players – they were beating mostly regional mid-level programs.
- Jhonny Williams – Received a late offer from Notre Dame after originally committing to Missouri. Williams also picked up a late offer from his home state Michigan but only after the Wolverines lost Da’Shawn Hand. No other major programs offered Williams.
- Kolin Hill – Another recipient of a late offer from Notre Dame. The Irish were actually one of the first big programs to get in on Hill and had to survive a late charge from Texas to secure his signature on Signing Day. Boise State and Colorado were the only other big offers from Hill outside of Notre Dame and Texas.
- Jonathan Bonner – Bonner got an offer last summer after an impressive performance at Notre Dame’s camp so he wasn’t a late addition, but he was an under the radar recruit. Michigan State and Missouri were really the only other major programs to offer Bonner.
- Daniel Cage – The epitome of the late addition for Notre Dame – Cage committed to Notre Dame on Signing Day. After losing Matt Dickerson the Irish staff turned over every rock they could find to add another DT to the class and were very fortunate to be able to pry Cage away from Michigan State. Of the group here, Cage had the best set of offers with scholarships from Georgia Tech, Florida, Missouri, Nebraska, and Tennessee in addition to Notre Dame and Sparty.
When Williams committed to Notre Dame and film became available of him, it was clear that Williams had talent, but that he was pretty raw. Since he signed his letter of intent, I had made comparisons to Justin Tuck out of high school. I figured like Tuck, Williams would need a season to redshirt and develop, but it doesn’t look like that is going to happen and he will see the field early.
The same could be said of Kolin Hill. The Texas native showed a lot of potential but also looked like he was a bit raw and would need time to develop. When Hill committed to Notre Dame, I compared him to Prince Shembo and it looks like Hill could fill a pass rush role similar to what Shembo did for the 2010 Irish.
Daniel Cage’s rise up the depth chart was in part due to the career ending injury to Tony Springmann opening up playing time along the defensive line while the most intriguing of the bunch might be Jonathan Bonner. Notre Dame didn’t offer Bonner until they saw him on campus last summer and he reported to Notre Dame with some freakish athletic ability for someone weighing in at 270 lbs.
Notre Dame fans should take all of this to heart the next time anyone wants to opine about the lack of star power in the current class of 2015. Star ratings and offer lists aren’t always the best indicator of who can help a football team. Certainly they shouldn’t be ignored or completely disregarded either, but these four players are showing that 3-star, under the radar recruits can come in and make an instant impact.
As for Morgan, the headliner on the defensive side of the ball in the class of 2014, Kelly didn’t say that the Chicagoland native wouldn’t be able to help this year, but he certainly was more cautious in his remarks. “We’re trying, it’s a lot. We’re bringing him along,” Kelly said of Morgan. “It’s a lot of work to get there. He’s extremely athletic and a gifted player and he has a lot of want to. It’s just going to take some time and he’s working at it.
There were some of freshmen who were a bit more highly touted that drew positive reviews from Kelly on Saturday as well. Tyler Luatua, one of the highest rated tight ends in the country is going to play this fall. “He’s gonna play,” Kelly said of the California native. “We’re gonna feature some backfield sets that will allow him to really use his size – he’s a load. He’s close to 270 pounds and when he brings it he’s a heavy load,” he added. “We haven’t had that kind of downhill physicality that changes the pace. We can still play fast and then play down hill. He gives us some really good flexibility.”
Freshmen wide receivers Justin Brent and Corey Holmes, both highly touted prospects, have had their development escalated because of some injuries at the wide receiver position that have opened up some additional reps for the pair as well.
It will be interesting to see how much Cage, Hill, Williams, and Bonner play this fall after being singled out. Assuming they make some plays it will be interesting to see if fans’ opinions on the current class will change at all and if they will trust the staff’s ability to identify recruits who are under the radar that can help out this football team early in their careers.
Only time will tell how much they play and how effective they will be this fall, but if Notre Dame can get some early contributions out of those four the class of 2014 could end up being much better than most pundits had it rated just a few months ago on Signing Day.