It has been 14 years since a Notre Dame defensive lineman was picked in the first round of the NFL draft. It's no coincidence that the Irish have not won a national title during those years—or the nine before that. Second-year coach Brian Kelly knew Notre Dame had to upgrade its defensive-line talent if the team hoped to end that 23-year championship drought. So last week he signed a 2011 recruiting class with three of the nation's top 10 defensive-line prospects, according to Scout.com. All are ends: Aaron Lynch of Cape Coral, Fla.; Ishaq Williams of Brooklyn; and Stephon Tuitt of Monroe, Ga. (Williams has the versatility to play outside linebacker in the team's 3--4 scheme.) "The excuse has been out there that Notre Dame couldn't return to prominence because we could never recruit those athletic defensive linemen," Kelly said. "We've taken that excuse off the book."
Indeed, by landing the kind of five-star pass rushers who barely sniffed around South Bend during the tenures of his predecessors Charlie Weis, Tyrone Willingham and Bob Davie, Kelly filled what had been the program's biggest recruiting hole. Combine that with the other 20 members of the class (ranked No. 8 overall by Scout.com) and a four-game winning streak to end the 2010 season (including a win over Miami in the Sun Bowl), and the Irish (8--5 last year) have a lot of momentum entering next season.
Kelly logged more than 15,000 air miles in December and January visiting prospects, including quarterback Everett Golson of Myrtle Beach, S.C. A skilled passer and runner who has drawn comparisons with Notre Dame's last national-title-winning quarterback, Tony Rice (also from South Carolina), Golson could be an ideal fit for the Irish's spread-option offense. Kelly said Golson, who is already enrolled in school, will be given first-team reps in spring practices with a chance to compete against 2010 starters Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees. "Notre Dame showed resilience on the recruiting trail," said Scout.com analyst Allen Wallace. "The class stands out for Brian Kelly's ability to identify his team's needs."
Among the other signing-day winners:
USC Coach Lane Kiffin loaded up on offensive linemen—two of the nation's top 10 high school guards (Cyrus Hobbi of Scottsdale, Ariz., and Aundrey Walker of Cleveland) and two highly regarded juco tackles (David Garness and Jeremy Galten). Kiffin needed to stockpile depth with impending NCAA sanctions (currently under appeal) that could dock the Trojans a combined 30 scholarships over the next three years.
Clemson An offense devoid of playmakers last season added two of the nation's most sought-after receivers: Sammy Watkins (Fort Myers, Fla.) and Charone Peake (Roebuck, S.C.). Coach Dabo Swinney also landed two impact linebackers—Stephone Anthony (Wadesboro, N.C.) and Tony Steward (St. Augustine, Fla.)—and remains in the hunt for the nation's top overall prospect, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (Rock Hill, S.C.), who is set to announce his college choice on Feb. 14.
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JOHN ALBRIGHT/ICON SMI (TUITT)
DEFENSIVE STRIVING With recruits like Tuitt (left), Kelly (below) aims to make the Irish national champions again.
ROBIN ALAM/ICON SMI (KELLY)
[See caption above]