I'm not telling anyone what they don't already know when I say the return of offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley is huge for Notre Dame. He should be on several pre-season All-America lists going into next season and has the chance to be a dominant player for the Irish.
The most exciting thing about Stanley coming back though, in my opinion, is his reason for returning. He wants to win a national championship.
Of course, we want players to select Notre Dame for reasons beyond football. But we also want them to want to be at Notre Dame so they can win championships. Stanley watched the Ohio State-Oregon game on Monday night and knew right then, that's what he wanted to compete for. For a guy who could have been the top tackle off the board in this year's NFL Draft to want to return for that reason, it's the kind of thing that can even get the most cold hearted message board poster pumped for spring ball and beyond.
The best part about Stanley's motivation for coming back is that it is an actual realistic goal. Yes, there are questions that need to be answered about next season's squad, but a lot of those questions can be answered because of how many players are returning and the amount of talent the Notre Dame coaching staff has recruited.
The 2015 team should have
54 55 players on the roster that were considered blue chip recruits (those who have a 4 or 5 star ranking) coming out of high school. That accounts for some losses they have had due to attrition as well. There may even be more than that if some players return from suspension and Notre Dame lands some other top players to finish out this recruiting class. (More on both of those later)
That's an elite roster of raw talent that Brian Kelly is going to have at his disposal. That's more raw talent than any roster during the Kelly era and 19 (make it 20 with Alize Jones) more blue chip recruits on the team than Kelly's first season in 2010. That's the kind of talent on a roster that is good enough to compete for a spot in the playoff and play for the national championship.
It's even more impressive when you break it down by position. A couple of things before we get going: I'm doing this under the assumption that all committed players will sign with Notre Dame in February and also that players with uncertain futures, like DaVaris Daniels and Eilar Hardy, will likely not be back next season.
Let's start with the big boys up front. (All star rankings are taken from 247Sports composite rankings. Yes, I realize Quenton Nelson was a 5 star on some sites. His composite ranking was a 4 star.)
|Ronnie Stanley||Tackle||4 star|
|Matt Hegarty||Center/guard||4 star|
|Nick Martin||Center/guard||3 star|
|Mark Harrell||Center||3 star|
|Hunter Bivin||Guard||4 star|
|Steve Elmer||Guard||4 star|
|John Montelus||Guard||4 star|
|Mike McGlinchey||Tackle||4 star|
|Colin McGovern||Guard||4 star|
|Quenton Nelson||Tackle||4 star|
|Alex Bars||Tackle||4 star|
|Sam Mustipher||Guard||4 star|
|Jimmy Byrne||Tackle/guard||4 star|
|Tristen Hoge||Center/guard||4 star|
|Trevor Ruhland||Guard||3 star|
To say that Brian Kelly and Harry Hiestand have done an outstanding job recruiting offensive linemen is a gigantic understatement. I think it's obvious, this should be a strength of the team like it was in the Music City Bowl versus LSU. Running behind these big dudes is probably a good idea.
|Tarean Folston||Running back||4 star|
|Grey Bryant||Running back||4 star|
|Josh Adams||Running back||3 star|
One look at the lack of numbers in this group and makes it kind of scary, but Brian Kelly and Tony Alford don't deserve as much heat as you might think. There has been unexpected attrition at this position with the dismissal of former 4 star running back Will Mahone and position changes for transfer Amir Carlisle and KeiVarae Russell. Suddenly the numbers wouldn't look quite as bad if they were all still at running back and all were rated as 4 star players out of high school.
The one huge mistake that you can ding the Irish coaching staff for is not signing a back in last year's class after having 5 star running back Elijah Hood decommit. That wouldn't make the Irish as desperate to sign a second running back in this class as they are right now. There are plenty of good running backs still left on the board and there's a good chance they'll be adding another blue chip player to the talent pool at running back.
|CJ Prosise||Slot receiver||3 star|
|Chris Brown||Wide receiver||3 star|
|Torii Hunter Jr.||Wide receiver/slot||4 star|
|Corey Robinson||Wide receiver||3 star|
|Will Fuller||Wide receiver||4 star|
|Justin Brent||Wide receiver||4 star|
|Corey Holmes||Wide receiver||4 star|
|Miles Boykin||Wide receiver||4 star|
|C.J. Sanders||Slot||4 star|
|Jalen Guyton||Wide receiver||3 star|
|Amir Carlisle||Slot||4 star|
This is another loaded group when it comes to talent and the 3 star players, like converted safety Prosise and Corey Robinson, have shown flashes of becoming big time playmakers. The scariest part is that this list doesn't include DaVaris Daniels, who may be back next year, and two players who transferred in Davonte Neal and Justin Ferguson. They all were 4 star players out of high school as well.
Notre Dame could also very well add to the group with a commitment from 4 star Equanimeous St. Brown on signing day.
|Durham Smythe||Tight end||4 star|
|Mike Heureman||Tight end||4 star|
|Tyler Luatua||Tight end||4 star|
|Nic Weishar||Tight end||4 star|
There aren't many programs that have recruited better at the tight end position and a big reason why is that Notre Dame continues to develop their tight ends into NFL players. These four are pretty much all potential and no production other than some solid blocking from Luatua as a freshman. One or two should emerge this season and if they don't, the breakout star may end up being 4 star Alize Jones who could flip his commitment to the Irish from UCLA.
Update: You can officially include Alize Jones in this group. Huge get for the Irish!
|Everett Golson||Quarterback||4 star|
|Malik Zaire||Quarterback||4 star|
|DeShone Kizer||Quarterback||4 star|
|Brandon Wimbush||Quarterback||4 star|
First off, let's not assume anything yet with Golson. There is still the spring to figure this all out and as of right now, he will be on the roster for 2015. Either way, Notre Dame has not had this much talent at quarterback in a very long time. You also have to consider that 5 star Gunner Kiel would have been in the mix too. There is no David Wolke or Darrin Bragg in this group. (Thanks Ty)
|Ishaq Willams||Defensive end||5 star|
|Romeo Okwara||Defensive end||3 star|
|Isaac Rochell||Defensive end/tackle||4 star|
|Andrew Trumbetti||Defensive end||4 star|
|Grant Blankenship||Defensive end||4 star|
|Jhonathan Williams||Defensive end||3 star|
|Kolin Hill||Defensive end||3 star|
|Bo Wallace||Defensive end||3 star|
They have definitely brought in some talent at defensive end, but this is the position with the most question marks on the entire roster. If Ishaq Williams is back, can he come anywhere close to living up to the hype that originally surrounded him? Is Rochell a more effective player and pass rusher if he moves inside to tackle on a permanent basis? Who is going to emerge as the edge rusher that the Irish so desperately need?
Most of these questions all stem back to the coaching staff not signing enough players at the position in the 2012 and 2013 classes.
We will have to wait and see how it plays out, but young talent like Trumbetti and Blankenship should be significantly better in 2015.
|Sheldon Day||3 technique||4 star|
|Jarron Jones||1 technique||4 star|
|Jacob Matuska||1 technique||3 star|
|Jay Hayes||3 technique||4 star|
|Jonathan Bonner||3 technique||3 star|
|Daniel Cage||1 technique||4 star|
|Pete Mokwuah||1 technique||3 star|
|Jerry Tillery||1 technique||4 star|
|Micah Dew-Treadway||3 technique||3 star|
|Elijah Taylor||1 technique||4 star|
|Brandon Tiassum||3 technique||3 star|
I can't even remember the last time Notre Dame had this many players at defensive tackle. It's a nice luxury to have. It's also nice to have Day and Jones back, which may end up being the top starting defensive tackle tandem in the nation. The players are still young behind them, but guys like Cage and Hayes could take a big step this upcoming season.
|Joe Schmidt||Mike||2 star|
|Michael Deeb||Mike||3 star|
|John Turner||Sam||3 star|
|James Onwualu||Sam||4 star|
|Jaylon Smith||Will/Sam||5 star|
|Doug Randolph||Will||4 star|
|Nyles Morgan||Mike||4 star|
|Greer Martini||Mike/Will||3 star|
|Tevon Coney||Mike/Will||4 star|
|Josh Barajas||Will/Sam||4 star|
|Asmar Bilal||Will/Sam||4 star|
The obvious thing that stands out is the big old 2 star the top. It's obvious Schmidt has far exceeded his original ranking while at Notre Dame. The other thing is the player that is missing: Jarrett Grace. His football future and potential 5th year status is uncertain at this time.
The Irish now have better athletes at linebacker than they have had at any time during the Kelly era and the group has been bolstered by a really talented trio that will be starting their career in 2015. Most of that athletic talent, other than Smith and Onwualu, is still inexperienced though.
|Matthias Farley||Safety/nickel||3 star|
|Elijah Shumate||Safety||4 star|
|Max Redfield||Safety||5 star|
|Drue Tranquill||Safety||4 star|
|Nicco Fertitta||Safety/nickel||3 star|
|Mykelti Williams||Safety||3 star|
Virtually every Notre Dame recruiting site has counted out Prentice McKinney from actually signing with the Irish, so he was not included. Neither was Nicky Baratti, whose career seems likely over after another shoulder injury, or Eiler Hardy, who is likely going to transfer.
Those are reasons to be concerned and why Notre Dame is still after signing another safety in this class. But just like every other position, there is talent there. They just need to play better.
|KeiVarae Russell||Cornerback||4 star|
|Cole Luke||Cornerback||4 star|
|Devin Butler||Cornerback||4 star|
|Nick Watkins||Cornerback||4 star|
|Shaun Crawford||Cornerback/nickel||4 star|
|Nick Coleman||Cornerback||3 star|
|Ashton White||Cornerback||3 star|
Losing Cody Riggs hurts. Gaining back KeiVarae Russell takes the sting away.
Russell and Luke could be a great duo at cornerback with some solid depth behind those players. And to think, another talented player in Tee Shephard was once supposed to be included in this group.
There is no denying that there are plenty of questions that need to be answered next season before Notre Dame officially can be considered a national championship contender. There is also no denying that the talent is there to make a run. There are very few teams in the nation that boast similar raw talent and it will be rare for the Irish to face a talent deficit this season.
Sure, there have been some misses in recruiting and everyone likes to dwell on those, but anyone who says Brian Kelly hasn't increased the talent level at Notre Dame isn't making that argument based on fact. The 2015 squad will be his most talented team he has ever coached.