Defensive recruiting during the tenure of former defensive coordinator Brian Vangorder was generally pretty terrible. The only thing he was less effective at than stoping opposing offenses was luring elite talent to South Bend. That all started to change almost immediately following his departure with the class of 2018 and looks to be clearly in the rearview with the defensive class of 2019 already shaping up to be one of the best of the Brian Kelly era.
If there were any lingering concerns about the recruiting momentum from 2018 under Mike Elko falling off in 2019 now that he ran off to Texas A&M, new defensive coordinator Clark Lea and recruiting coordinator Mike Elston have firmly put them to bed for now. With the latest addition to the class of 2019 – 4-star and near top 100 overall prospect NaNa Osafo-Mensah – the Irish have the foundation for the best defensive class assembled since Brian Kelly arrived in late 2009.
With Osafo-Mensah on the board for 2019, Notre Dame now has four commitments on the defensive line all of whom are consensus 4-star prospects. Along with Osafo-Mensah, Notre Dame has a pair of 4-star defensive tackles in Jacob Lacey and Hunter Spears to go along with 4-star strongside defensive end Howard Cross.
Lacey was the first recruits in the class of 2019 and gives the Irish a potential stalwart NT of the future. Spears was next to join and while some may list him as a strong-side defensive end, the Texas native has the kind of frame that makes anything but a future on the interior of the line seem unlikely. Cross, son of former Alabama and New York Giant great Howard Cross, will start off a SDE but could also grow into a DT.
The commitment of NaNa Osafo-Mensah was particularly important for Notre Dame after they failed to land a true WDE in the class of 2018. The Irish did well recruiting the DL with the Ademilola twins – Jayson and Justin – and Ja’mion Franklin, but landing a WDE would have made the haul much more complete. The staff has done that already this year and will still be looking to add another pass rusher between now and February. Colt Ellison (pictured in the photo above) and Aeneas DiCosmo are both names to follow here.
The quartet gives Notre Dame a potential entire starting lineup of 4-star prospects for the class of 2019 with the calendar still reading May. That is a stark contrast to the days of scrambling in December and January to find any defensive linemen to fill out the roster as had become customary under Vangorder’s recruiting “leadership”.
The only defensive class that comes to mind that addressed the defensive line this well for Notre Dame under Brian Kelly is the 2011 class that featured Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt, Tony Springmann, and Ishaq Williams. That class also included Chase Hounshell and Troy Niklas who were listed as defensive ends but didn’t ended up making an impact there during their careers though Niklas did become an great tight end during his collegiate career.
On top fo the four commitments in along the defensive line, Notre Dame has addressed the defensive backfield with commitments from 4-star prospects KJ Wallace (CB) and Litchfield Ajavon (S) along with the underrated 3-star Kyle Hamilton (S). This comes on the heels of Notre Dame hauling in one of the best defensive backfields in the country a year ago with DJ Brown, Noah Boykin, Tariq Bracy, Joe Wilkins Jr, Paul Moala, and Derrik Allen. Of those six; Allen, Boykin, and Bracy were all 4-star recruits.
That’s nine combined prospects for the defensive backfield filled by five 4-star and four 3-star players.
The only area in which the Irish haven’t added to their defensive haul from last year to this point this year is linebacker. After adding four linebackers in 2018 though (Jack Lamb, Ovie Oghoufo, Bo Bauer, and Shayne Simon), Notre Dame can be a bit more selective here and is still heavily in the mix for several 4-star backers. Osita Ekwonu, a 4-star ILB from Charlotte, for instance currently has his Crystal Ball pointing to 100% for Notre Dame.
Stars aside, what is important for Notre Dame here is that they are continuing to load up on defense in numbers. Not every one of these recruits will end up panning out but in the past the Irish gave themselves very little margin for error when it came to recruiting on the defensive side of the ball. Remember when Notre Dame’s hopes along the defensive line rested on hope and prayer type offers to players like Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah in 2014? Cage ended up being a solid contributor but Mokwuah ended up being one of the least visible players to enroll at Notre Dame in some time.
A few years back Notre Dame tried loading up on early offers along the defensive line and ended up with Micah Dew-Treadyway, Elijah Taylor, Brandon Tiassum. Taylor and Tiassum have transferred without making much of an impact though injuries did prevent what could have been a breakthrough campaign for Tylor in 2017. Dew-Treadway remains but neither has been able to crack the depth chart.
Clark Lea and Mike Elston have done a tremendous job in continuing the momentum that was started last year and have the future of the Notre Dame defensive roster looking stocked with potential impact players. Work still does remain though. Notre Dame’s misses on pass rushers in the past has them in need of another pass rusher to team with NaNa Osafo-Mensah, but the work this staff has done thus far is giving every indication that they will be able to continue to get the job done. As a result, the future of the Notre Dame defense is looking pretty bright for the foreseeable future. That has not been able to be said for some time at Notre Dame.