Signing day 2017 finished with a flourish for Brian Kelly’s Fighting Irish, signing six players in the last two weeks after sending out a boat load of new offers while bringing in a new staff and losing commitments to other schools. The excitement regarding these signees was somewhat tempered, mostly because they weren’t a bunch of high profile players that the talking heads at ESPN would fawn over and create headlines. In fact, while browsing the ESPN recruiting home page, of the top 14 headlines, Notre Dame is not mentioned. This class lacks the star power of a Jaylon Smith, Brandon Wimbush, or Tommy Kraemer, so this is not a surprise.
Of the 21 signees, 14 are either at the low end of four star status according to 247’s composite ranking (which combines the ranking of every major site), or is a three star player. And let’s be clear, these guys aren’t exactly table scraps. According to 247, Notre Dame finished 11th in their final recruiting rankings, ahead of Stanford, Clemson, Penn State, and Washington.
Notre Dame has already had a number of players in the 2016 class outperform their rankings, as three star players Julian Love became a freshmen All-American, Kevin Stepherson scored four touchdowns while racking up over 450 yards receiving, and Devin Studstill started 10 games, tallying 38 tackles and recording an interception.
In the spirit of turning guys with a suspect composite score into meaningful contributors on the football field, here are Brian Kelly’s best success stories during his Notre Dame tenure. I use the 2017 comparison to highlight players with a similar recruiting ranking who I think could have similar types of careers in terms of impact, though not necessarily playing the same position or making a style comparison. Strictly impact on the team.
*A note that according to the 247 rating system, 90-97 are four star prospects, and 80-89 are three star prospects.
Tyler Eifert, Tight End, 2009
247 composite ranking: .8567
2017 comparison: Michael Young, .8706
So obviously, this one is a pretty big miss for the recruiting service community. Eifert, similar to his teammate below, is the lowest rated tight end who was signed to play the position for Brian Kelly. He only turned into a second team all-american while winning the Mackey Award as the best tight end in the nation in 2012 and was a first round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2013 draft. Pretty safe to say this guy who was thought to have a high upside, reached that potential and then some.
Zach Martin, Offensive tackle, 2009
247 composite ranking: .8967
2017 comparison: Dillon Gibbons, .8847
Martin was seen as a solid player who might eventually turn into a contributor as his career got further along. He came in at 270 pounds, so it was a matter of bulking up and carrying that weight appropriately. After taking his redshirt season as a freshman, Martin cracked the starting lineup in 2010 at left tackle and proceeded to start the next 52 games at left tackle, which I haven’t looked up, but I’ll say that’s a record because it just has to be. He was a first round pick of the Dallas Cowboys in 2014 and has been a first team All-Pro every year he’s been in the NFL.
Bennett Jackson, Cornerback, 2010
247 composite ranking: .8600
2017 comparison: Jordan Genmark Heath, .8649
Jackson actually began his career on the offensive side of the ball, playing wide receiver and special teams as a freshman in 2010. After seeing limited action in 2011 on defense, he moved into a starting role in 2012 and never looked back. He finished his Notre Dame career with 26 starts, 158 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 6 interceptions, and 1 touchdown. Not bad for the 15th best player in a 24 man class in 2010.
Tommy Rees, Quarterback, 2010
247 composite ranking: .8641
2017 comparison: Avery Davis, .9053
Fun fact: Tommy Rees is the lowest rated quarterback signed by Brian Kelly at Notre Dame.
Fun fact: Tommy Rees has the most wins by a quarterback played under Brian Kelly at Notre Dame.
Easily the most polarizing player during the Brian Kelly era, Rees was first the savior in 2010, then at the start of 2011, then the goat at the end of 2011, then the savior in 2012, then the goat again in 2013. Quite the roller coaster ride for a guy with a 22-7 record as the starter and over 7,000 yards passing and 61 touchdowns. Love him or hate him, the only reason we got a chance to feel that way is because he far exceeded his star rating and expectations.
Nick Martin, Offensive Line, 2011
247 composite: .8610
There is no player comparison for the younger Martin in the 2017 class because all four players are rated significantly higher than him and closest one, Dillon Gibbons, I already used above. You could make the case the only reason Nick was recruited to Notre Dame was the great success of his brother. He vastly underachieved from the example his brother set, however, only starting in 37 games at guard and center and being a 2nd round pick rather than a first. The jury is still out on whether the low three star linemen worked out as a legacy pickup. In other news, if there is another Martin, whatever his ranking, Notre Dame should sign him as soon as legally possible.
Matthias Farley, Safety, 2011
247 composite: .8413
2017 comparison: Kofi Wardlow, .8427
Farley came in as a former soccer player who was really athletic and was going to be a receiver, but really no one knew where he would play. He was just good at running by people and making plays against North Carolina high school kids. Actually, looking back it’s a little absurd that he was offered a scholarship; he didn’t have a position and it isn’t like he was a physical freak. We are talking barely a three star. So naturally he became a captain, moved to defense, started 26 games and recorded 7 interceptions.
CJ Prosise, Running Back, 2012
247 composite: .8887
2017 comparison: Jafar Armstrong, .8709
Prosise is similar to Farley in that he came essentially without a position, even though it was assumed they were going to start him at safety, just because of his size. It should have been obvious that he’d move to offense when studying his high school film, his best moments were as a kick returner. He flashed some as a receiver his first two years, but then the coaches thought it was best to just hand it to him. As a senior in 2015, having been a running back for about 15 minutes, he ran for 1,032 yards on 6.6 a carry and 12 total touchdowns. He parlayed that success into a 3rd round draft choice to Seattle in the 2016 draft.
Will Fuller, Wide Receiver, 2013
247 composite: .9005
2017 comparison: CJ Holmes, .9036
Like Holmes, according to 247, Fuller was barely a four star player in the 2013 recruiting class and ESPN famously ranked Fuller as the 173rd best receiver in the nation and the worst player in that Notre Dame class (a 73 grade. 73! Take a bow ESPN). As we all now know, there were not 172 better receivers in the country in high school in 2013, as the #1 corner in 2014 found out very quickly in 2015 in South Bend. Fuller turned into a total revelation, probably the most exciting player since The Rocket, and became a first round pick in 2016.