On the field, Brian Kelly 2.0 has been an objective success. They are 27-5 in the last 32 games with losses to Georgia twice, Miami, Stanford, and eventual national champion Clemson in the playoffs last season. The collective record of those five teams is 53-11; in other words, not cupcakes. He has them again in the top 10 this season as we approach November, ranked 8th with a big matchup against #20 Michigan next weekend. The program is in excellent shape.
That being said, it is fair to wonder how far the program can go at the current trajectory. They are ranked 15th in total team talent, according to 247 sports analysis of the roster, with the teams they are competing with all in the top 10. (For example, Georgia is 3rd this season, USC is 4th, and Clemson was 7th last season.) To compete with those teams rosters, they’ll need to acquire more top-end talent, specifically at the skill positions.
Among the top offensive skill players on the Notre Dame depth chart, just three–back up wide receiver Javon McKinley, and tight ends Cole Kmet and Brock Wright–were ranked in the top 150 in their recruiting classes, and only Chase Claypool was in the top 200. That’s four out of the 15 players to have run the ball or caught a pass for the Irish who were top 200 talents (It’d be five if you count Phil Jurkovec, six with the suspended Kevin Austin). There is a similar trend in the back end defensively. Notre Dame currently has two players–Kyle Hamilton and Houston Griffith–who were ranked in the top 200 of their recruiting classes. Obviously, they are not the Sisters of the Poor at these positions; they’ve won plenty of games with the players they have. But, in each of the losses of the past five seasons, there has been a sizable gap at the skill spots.
Fortunately, Notre Dame is loaded with top 200 talent on the offensive line and in the front seven, which is the key to playing winning football. And coupled with what they are bringing in, that trend will continue in the future. But, what about the skill positions? That tide looks to be turning as well.
Having brought in just two top 200 offensive skill players in 2018–Austin and Jurkovec–Notre Dame currently has commitments from eight in 2020 and 2021 (two quarterbacks, one running back, three wide receivers, and two tight ends). The running back, Chris Tyree, is a five-star player and ranked #26 overall on 247’s composite rating scale.
The wide receivers are ranked #29 (Jordan Johnson, 2020), #51 (Deion Colzie, 2021), and #102 (Lorenzo Styles, 2021). They also happen to be perfect compliments to each other. Johnson is the do it all, 6-2 receiver who has that deep speed, but also the size where he’s a matchup issue. Colzie is 6-5 and fluid, with Styles the slot type who can be used like Chris Finke or Lawrence Keys and is a good enough athlete to be a top 100 defensive back. As you can imagine, Notre Dame didn’t back into these commitments; these three were front on center on the wishlists of every program you can imagine.
Colzie is out of Athens, Georgia, so obviously the Bulldogs were a significant player for him, as well as a little school named Alabama. Styles hailed from Pickerington, Ohio, otherwise known as Buckeye country. Not only that, but his father is an Ohio State legacy. Pulling those two players out of those two regions is as impressive as their star ranking. Jordan Johnson doesn’t have a local tie out of Missouri, but the #29 player nationally attracts lots of suitors.
To go along with them is #52 overall tight end Michael Mayer in 2020 and #86 overall tight end Cade Berrong in 2021. Not only are these folks in the top 200, but that’s also five receivers/tight ends in the top 102 in two cycles.
And of course, #184 quarterback Drew Pyne in 2020 and #76 quarterback Tyler Buchner in 2021 to deliver this group the ball. This is the type of skill talent Notre Dame can make a run with.
Still Strong Inside
In 2019, Notre Dame signed five top 200 players on the offensive line or front seven, and they currently have another six–out of 24 total–commitments that fit that bill in 2020 and 2021. That’s 11 upfront in two cycles, with a lot more to go in the 2021 class with only seven commitments total. Notre Dame has already been loading up inside–all of their starting offensive linemen, as well as the top backup, are top 200 players with eligibility remaining. That group will be good for a long time.
The two upcoming classes are highlighted by #70 in 2020 Tosh Baker and #53 in 2021 Blake Fisher. Add them into the four top 200 who signed in 2019, and Notre Dame will be a force on the offensive line for the duration of Kelly’s tenure.
Notre Dame has needed top-line talent on offense for a few cycles, and they are getting it in the next two recruiting classes. We often talk about Notre Dame closing the gap with the top programs and moving from being competitive to being favored. They still have some work to do at defensive back, but the gains they’ve made upfront, and some strong prospects at safety, should mitigate that some.
It took Kelly some time to figure out how to build his program, more time than people wanted. It looks as though he has finally found the formula in recruiting as well.