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Notre Dame's defensive struggles can be traced back to poor defensive recruiting

Notre Dame's defense has been bad this year and a lot of that has to do with youth. Some key recruiting mistakes at certain positions are a big reason why so many young players are being relied upon

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Five straight games of giving up 30 points or more. Is that bad? (Just checked. Yeah, it's bad.) Giving up 40 to a Northwestern team that had only scored more than 24 points once this season? That's even worse.

A lot of things have contributed to the defensive performance since the North Carolina game. Injuries? Yup. Suspensions? Affirmative. Turnovers by the offense? Oh yeah. But those things are just pieces to add to the biggest problem and reason for so many gigantic mistakes this season: the Notre Dame defensive two-deep is filled with freshmen and sophomores. Players who could be contributors in a regular year are being asked to play key roles and, frankly, it's not going too well.

It wouldn't go well for anyone. I don't care who is coaching or what schedule a team is playing. When young players are asked to do too much too early, there are going to be plenty of mistakes. Those mistakes are piling up right now and even the flashes of brilliance shown by some of the young players is being drowned out because of it.

The question that comes to mind when watching every missed assignment or busted coverage is always the same. How the heck did the Irish end up with so many young players playing on defense?

It's easy to point at major injuries and suspensions as the cause for it, but that's really only a small part of it. The real reason has everything to do with recruiting.

The Irish are getting little contribution from the defensive prospects that signed with the Irish in 2011 and 2012. From mismanagement of recruiting numbers at certain positions to bad evaluations, I don't know if Notre Dame has had two more disappointing classes on one side of the ball. There were good defensive players in each class, but the misses in recruiting were gigantic whiffs each year.

Before we get into it, it has to be mentioned that Charlie Weis' last partial class in 2010, that was later salvaged by Tony Alford and Brian Kelly, had really bad numbers in certain positions. There was only one true inside linebacker that signed (Kendall Moore) and three true defensive backs (two who transferred without having played a down at Notre Dame). I think that needs to be kept in mind when looking at the next couple of years in recruiting.

Now, knowing that, let's break it down, year by year:


Notre Dame signed 6 defensive linemen in this haul. Right there, that sounds awesome. But when you look closer, that numbers is incredibly deceiving. Aaron Lynch transferred after one season, Brad Carrico was moved to offensive line and then had to stop playing football because of injury, and Troy Niklas was moved to outside linebacker before eventually moving to tight end after one season. That means Notre Dame was already down to three defensive linemen after one season with only Stephon Tuitt, Tony Springmann and Chase Hounshell left. After one season, there should have been alarm bells going off that the Irish needed to sign more defensive lineman in the next class.

Looking at it now, there are no defensive linemen from that class who are currently playing for Notre Dame in what would have been their senior year. Tuitt left a year early for the NFL, Springmann was forced to retire because of injury, and Hounshell has never got back into the lineup because of injury.

Remember how I mentioned that Notre Dame only signed one inside linebacker in 2010? They again only signed one inside linebacker in 2011 with Jarrett Grace. At the time, the Irish were running a 3-4 defense. I'm not sure what the logic was with only signing one inside linebacker a year after bringing in the same number to play in a defense that requires two inside linebackers to be on the field for the majority of the snaps. There is no other way to say it than to say that Kelly and Bob Diaco horribly mismanaged the inside linebacker situation in recruiting in terms of numbers. It's inexcusable that they didn't prepare more for the future at the position. With Grace missing this entire season due to recovering from a broken leg, it's become painfully obvious that they needed to bring in more inside linebackers. The Irish got lucky that a preferred walk-on in Joe Schmidt ended up turning into a key contributor this season. He was the only upperclassmen presence at the position this season.

At outside linebacker, the players who were recruited just never developed into what was expected from them. Ishaq Williams has not lived up to his lofty ranking, but may be able to come back next season after sitting out the current season and be a good player at defensive end. In addition to injuries, Ben Councell just got beat out by other good players in Danny Spond and Jaylon Smith. He has not really been a major contributor this season. The other outside linebacker was Anthony Rabasa, who never developed into the pass rusher many thought he could be. Even with an opportunity to earn more playing time because of the loss of a player like Williams at defensive end, he failed to beat out true freshmen in a nickel rusher role.

Four defensive backs in this class and the only one who has been a significant contributor during his career is Matthias Farley. Jalen Brown and Josh Atkinson never saw any minutes at cornerback. Eilar Hardy has missed chances to contribute last season and this season due to suspension. He still may get a chance to contribute at safety in the last couple of regular season games.

Farley is the only player that is currently contributing on defense from this entire class and the only other player that was also contributing earlier was former walk-on, Joe Schmidt.

Brian Kelly was asked about the 2011 recruiting class in his press conference yesterday and based on the lack of productivity from the defenders who signed, he should be asked about it a lot more. It's shocking at how unproductive it turned out.


This was a smaller class in terms of numbers and only two defensive linemen were signed. Two. That's right, I said two. Both of them ended up being good players in Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones, but what the hell, two?! This is a year after Notre Dame ended up with only three players left from the six they signed the year before. With those three that are now zero, the only players left from 2011 that could play defensive tackle are Day and Jones. This is why anyone who wasn't concerned about the health of these two and if they could hold up the whole season could have been justifiably called insane. With Jones banged up and Day expected to miss the next couple of weeks, everyone's worst nightmares are coming true.

The Irish turned away a commitment from 4 star defensive tackle Tommy Schutt (he later signed with Ohio State) back when Day originally committed. In hindsight, this was an incredibly dumb thing to do. Heck, even back then it was probably pretty dumb. I don't know if Schutt would have ended up being a a better player than Jones, but I know he would be a nice player to have on the roster right about now.

It's going to get even more puzzling when I tell you that Notre Dame did not sign an inside linebacker in this recruiting class. After two consecutive years signing one each, they failed to sign one in 2012. Manti Te'o was heading into his senior year and they didn't sign an inside linebacker.

Notre Dame only signed one outside linebacker/edge player in this class and it was Romeo Okwara. He has not broken out as an impact player as of yet, but at the very least he is an experienced player on the Irish defense.

There were four defensive backs who signed and all were safeties. John Turner was not a highly touted player coming out of high school and has moved to outside linebacker where he's a backup. CJ Prosise is now a starting receiver on offense and Nicky Barratti has not played significantly since 2012 because of a shoulder injury. The only remaining safety out of those four is Elijah Shumate and he has started most of the games this season at safety.

Ironically, Notre Dame didn't sign a corner, but ended up with a very good one in KeiVarae Russell. Russell was a tailback in high school and would have been an important player this season if not for suspension. Of course, Russell may have never been moved over if Tee Shephard and Ronald Darby, ended up in South Bend. Shephard was in school for a short time, but left before spring ball and Darby was committed then flipped to Florida State.

If 2011 was a defensive recruiting disaster, then 2012 was not far off. (2011 can be Sharknado and 2012 can be Sharknado 2. I think that fits well enough.)

The craziest part about all of this is that the 2011 class was one that national writers pointed to when talking about Brian Kelly's recruiting prowess. That was the ninth ranked class in the nation according to the 247Sports composite rankings. That was the class that showed he could recruit defensive linemen from the south. Now if you looked back at the class overall, I don't think it would even have a sniff at being considered in the top twenty overall.

I understand the challenges that Notre Dame presents in recruiting. When it says 85 scholarships, they mean 85 scholarships. They can't oversign and load up every year. But what they did on defense in recruiting in those two years are why the Irish defense is what it is right now. It's the reason why there probably isn't going to be too many more Brian VanGorder fist pumps until next season.

The Irish missed on some evaluations and they definitely didn't bring in the right amount of numbers at certain positions. They are paying for those mistakes on the field right now.