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They Could Have Been Great: Sizing Up the Notre Dame Class of 2007

The 2007 class wasn’t supposed to be in the discussion as the "worst ever" to attend Notre Dame. Coming off two straight BCS bowl games in the first two years of Charlie Weis’ tenure, no one could have believed this class would be closing out its four years in South Bend with a 21-26 record to date.

After all, this was supposed to be Charlie Weis’ anchor class, the players who would make up the bulk of Notre Dame’s true resurgence on the national stage and really return the Irish to glory.

The class was led by Jimmy Clausen, perhaps Notre Dame’s biggest recruit in a dozen years, if not longer. However long it had been, the Irish faithful were ecstatic to have the number one overall recruit in the nation coming to South Bend.

As he rushed to coach Notre Dame after working for the Patriots, Charlie Weis was not able to close a very strong class in 2005. When this 2007 class stepped on campus, it would be the second straight top 10 class under Weis and some would say the most talented to wear blue and gold in a very long time.

The expectations were sky-high, the hype was through the roof and knowing what we know now, this class almost seemed destined for failure.

Let’s take a look at the 2007 class and where their football careers have taken them over the past four years.

Armando Allen-RB

A four star burner out of Florida and the second-best running back in the country, Armando Allen will leave Notre Dame having suffered a season ending injury in his senior year, but as someone who displayed more toughness and heart than anyone out of the group.

He got plenty of playing time as a true freshman and owned the starting job in the backfield for the past three years, but could never stay healthy enough as an upperclassman to really turn into a special runner.

He’ll leave South Bend never having rushed for 1,000 yards in a season, although he does hold the school record for most receiving yards by a running back and quietly had one of the better all-purpose yardage totals in Notre Dame history.

I really like Armando Allen, his perseverance, and the way he continued to get better each season. It’s too bad it didn’t work out, but the same could be said for this class as a whole. One of the more shocking statistics is that Allen played in 41 games, started for three years, and only scored 8 rushing touchdowns while wearing a gold helmet.

Jimmy Clausen-QB

I could probably write dozens of pages worth of material on Jimmy C, but it’ll probably take a few more years before we can really put his Irish career into its proper perspective.

Clausen left a year early for the NFL, holding the number one or two spots in most passing records, and put up a 2009 season that statistically was for the ages.

Of course a lot of people will call his time on campus a disappointment, but I don’t think his career can be simplified like that. There’s no doubt that he was extremely talented, but the program just never took off or recovered from the disastrous 2007 season.

That leaves us wondering how things could have been different for Clausen had he redshirted his first year, and how things could have been different if he stayed in school too. He’s the biggest enigma, not only from this class, but in recent Notre Dame history.

Taylor Dever-OT

Dever is one of the few members of this class that you could say is definitely overachieving thus far in his career.

A three-star prospect and 39th best tackle nationally, Dever redshirted in 2007 and spent the next two years playing on special teams and serving as a backup at right tackle in mop-up duty.

Now a senior with another year of eligibility left, Dever has been starting at right tackle this season and playing pretty well. If he continues his strong play and comes back and does the same next year, he could carve himself out a career in the NFL and be one of the biggest surprises of the 2007 class.

Gary Gray-CB

A four-star prospect from South Carolina and the ninth best corner in the country, Gray was one of the biggest recruits at his position to come to Notre Dame in a while.

He didn’t play at all in 2007 and has now played three seasons in South Bend, becoming arguably the team’s best secondary player this year.

With one year of eligibility left, Gray will have another season to really turn into something special at corner and be one of the mainstays that can hopefully turn around the recent woes the Irish have faced on defense.

He is already on his way to achieving that feat and should be among the most talented and skilled corners returning in the entire country next year.

Robert Hughes-RB

Hughes was a fairly big recruit coming out of high school in Chicago, not too far behind Armando Allen as the 7th best running back in the nation. He had a quiet freshman year until he put together a couple of monster performances to end 2007, showing a lot of promise in the process.

Yet, Hughes never really found that excellence again as he stayed Allen’s backup for the better part of two years before falling off the depth chart this year in a new spread system.

Although he has gained 1,200 yards and scored 13 touchdowns, his career has been somewhat of a disappointment given his high ranking as a prep player and the promise shown in the early part of his career.

Duval Kamara-WR

Other than Michael Floyd, the case could be made that Kamara was the biggest receiver recruit of the entire Charlie Weis era, and he was one of the team’s bright spots during the disastrous 2007 campaign in which he set numerous records for a freshman wideout.

However, even in the pass-happy offense, Kamara was never able to regain his freshman form and has spent the past three years wallowing in obscurity. From 2008 through the present, Kamara has only caught four touchdown passes, with two of those coming in the big win against Utah last weekend.

Considering there was a good deal of hype for this New Jersey product, Kamara will go down as one of the underachievers in this recruiting class. Although he is a solid possession receiver and great blocker, he seemed to never have developed the speed necessary to become anything more than a third or fourth option in a D-1 offense.

Kerry Neal-LB

Neal came out of high school as a four-star defensive end and found himself often switching between that position and linebacker during his career at Notre Dame.

Like a few of his classmates, Neal had a promising freshman season while being thrown into the fire of college football, yet was never able to build upon that success.

Coming into this year he was sort of a forgotten figure on the team, but has come through with a very solid season totaling 34 tackles so far after notching 70 tackles in the preceding three years combined.

Aaron Nagel-transferred to Northwestern

Andrew Nuss-OT

Nuss was a decent prospect out of Virginia (four-star, No. 22 nationally at his position), but has yet to carve out a starting spot on the offensive line.

Since he did not play in 2007, he will have another year of eligibility left next season although it is unclear if he will be granted a fifth year.

Nevertheless, Nuss has been a good special team’s player and has performed admirably in a backup role at guard and tackle over the past two years. If he comes back in 2011, he will be in the mix to start somewhere on the line, but it does look like he may be a career backup.

Emeka Nwankwo-DE

Nwankwo was an interesting prospect coming out of Florida as a three-star offensive lineman, who sat out 2007 and then switched to the defensive line during his sophomore campaign.

There hasn’t been much production from Nwankwo as he tallied two tackles as a defensive tackle in 2008, didn’t play at all in 2009, and has totaled three tackles thus far in 2010 with limited action.

It will be interesting to see what the future holds for the big 290 pounder, because he is one of those players that is in the gray area of whether or not he will return for a fifth year in 2011. Since he is a defensive lineman he may have a better shot than some others, but it will definitely be a tough decision.

Steve Paskorz-LB

One of the forgotten members of this 2007 class, Paskorz was a four-star athlete coming out of high school who started his career off at linebacker before switching to fullback for two years where he served as a backup role and quality special teams player.

As a senior, Paskorz has been moved back to linebacker but has not seen any playing time while being passed by some younger players on the depth chart.

It is unlikely he will be granted a fifth year of eligibility.

Mike Ragone-TE

Ragone has had a tumultuous career in South Bend, full of disappointment, bad decisions and injuries.

Consider that Ragone was a four-star tight end and the third best tight end in the nation coming out of high school and has caught only 10 passes over three years and has yet to score a touchdown in blue and gold.

Before the season started he seemed like a likely candidate for a fifth year of eligibility, but has since been passed by redshirt freshman Tyler Eifert on the depth chart and is basically a third stringer considering Kyle Rudolph is injured.

If Rudolph comes back for his senior season, it may be difficult for Ragone to come back as well. My inclination would be to bring him back, but with Eifert showing a lot of promise, Alex Welch maturing and Ben Koyack coming in next year, Ragone may be the odd man out.

Matt Romine-OT

A super talented prospect out of high school (four-star, No. 3 OT nationally), Romine saw limited action as a freshman and has languished as a backup for four straight years.

He was one of the leading candidates to replace one of the two graduating tackle positions this past off-season but was unable to secure either spot.

Due to an injury, Romine did start one game this year but his Notre Dame career will end at the conclusion of this season having logged around 100 minutes of playing time.

Brian Smith-LB

A fiery and emotional player, Smith was a four-star recruit and inside the top 20 nationally at the inside linebacker position coming out of high school.

Like many in this class, Smith displayed some serious promise in his freshman year but was never able to build upon that personal success.

He is currently enjoying a small renaissance this year, but as a linebacker who has played the majority of snaps over four years and started almost 40 games, his roughly 200 career tackles are a bit of a disappointment.

Harrison Smith-S

A four-star athlete from Tennessee, Smith sat out 2007 but played pretty well as a linebacker during the 2008 campaign.

Last year, Smith split time at both linebacker and safety clearly regressing as a playmaker while trying to play both positions.

In 2010, Harrison has improved greatly while starting at safety and is currently second on the team in tackles and has notched three interceptions. Written off by many, it appears Smith is settling into his role as a quality safety and has been one of the team’s biggest surprises so far this year.

He will be coming back for a fifth year in 2011.

Golden Tate-WR

One of the best all-around athletes in recent school history, Tate was a four-star prospect out of Tennessee and the 7th best athlete according to Rivals national rankings.

A converted running back, Tate would play in every game as a freshman but didn’t make a big impact until his sophomore season when he totaled 1,000 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns. Last year, Tate was the country’s best receiver with 93 receptions, 15 touchdowns and almost 1,500 receiving yards, setting school records in the process.

Not just an explosive receiver, Tate was a great punt and kick returner as well as perfect fit for the wildcat formation. His presence has been sorely missed in 2010 and it makes one wonder how much more success the team and this class would have had with one more year from Tate in South Bend.

Brandon Walker-K

There’s really no other way of putting it…Walker has struggled big time while at Notre Dame. At one point he was the starting place kicker, but he has since lost his job to two younger players.

It is highly doubtful Walker will attempt another field goal as a Golden Domer. He’ll leave South Bend having missed 16 field goals in two years, and only converting 55 percent of his attempts.

Ian Williams-DT

There wasn’t as consistently good of a player in this entire class that wasn’t highly recruited as Ian Williams was. Just a three-star prospect from Florida, Williams played right away as a freshman and always played tough in the defensive interior.

While struggling a little bit in his sophomore and junior seasons (like the rest of his teammates), Williams was the anchor of this 2010 defense and was playing the best football of his career before suffering an injury against Navy.

He may never have been a 1st or 2nd team All-American, but Williams was without a doubt one of the most important members of this 2007 class.

What Went Wrong with this Class?

There are a number of factors that contributed to this class struggling mightily in the win column over their four years in South Bend.

First, they were put in a terrible position almost right away with the lack of big-time recruiting during Tyrone Willingham’s last two years at Notre Dame finally catching up to the program just as these freshmen stepped on campus.

11 of these players (a whopping 64.7 percent of the class) played as freshmen, with nine of those holding down a starting role at some point during the 2007 season.

One could blame Charlie Weis for throwing so many freshmen into the fire, but the head coach really didn’t have much of a choice as the amount of scholarship players and talented athletes were at disgustingly low levels in 2007.

That meant that plenty of players who would have been better off redshirting their first year on campus (Allen, Hughes, Ragone, Tate, possibly Clausen) wasted a year while trying to fill the gaps left behind by poor recruiting.

Secondly, the program was in shambles for nearly the entirety of this class’ time on campus. This affected the defensive players the most (Neal, B. Smith, H. Smith, Gray, Williams) who were subjected to ever-changing systems and coaches on a yearly basis.

In other words, there was poor player development. That is no secret to Notre Dame fans.

Thirdly, they were asked to be leaders far too soon.

This goes back to the first point in that there were not many junior and senior leaders around who could guide and show these players the ropes of major college football when they came to Notre Dame.

This group of recruits trained on the job probably more so than any other recruiting class in Notre Dame history. And since they were tasked with carrying a good portion of the entire team for 2007 and 2008, it resulted in a combined 9-15 record, a big hole they couldn’t crawl out from, and one fired head coach.

In the end, I think it is unfair to call this the "worst class ever" even if they do end up losing more games than any other in school history. True, there were some players who underachieved and didn’t pan out, but this class was handcuffed by a lot of outside circumstances perhaps like no other class of freshmen in history.

And if you really think the 2007 class is the worst ever, take a look at the preceding 2004, 2005 and 2006 classes. You’ll change your mind pretty quickly.