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Fri-YAY Listicle: Top 10 “Diamonds in the Rough” of the Brian Kelly Era

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Pat Rick uses some really subjective and inconsistent criteria to determine the best unheralded gems of the BK tenure

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Michigan State Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Happy Fri-YAY

Welcome, everyone, to the weekly One Foot Down listicle! Each week on Friday, Matt Greene and I will alternate providing for you all a listicle of the greatest/top/best Notre Dame Fighting Irish-related things we can think of. They might be more serious, but mostly they will probably be wacky (what else would you honestly expect from the two of us?). We are AMPED to provide these for you each week.

This week, we’re gonna take a look at diamonds in the rough during the Brian Kelly era — who are the guys who came in without the hype and surprised us all in becoming STUDS??

PLAYER DEVELOPMENT BAYBEEEEE

I don’t need to remind any of you how Notre Dame needs to recruit more elite talent at specific positions if they want to compete with the big boys. The 2020 ACC Championship and 2021 Rose Bowl showed us a lot in that regard — the match-up with Alabama was especially telling at the WR/CB positions.

However, recruiting 5-stars is obviously only part of the battle there (a big part, but still not all of it). One of the other big pieces is whether the signees that Brian Kelly and co. bring in to the program are actually developed to their full potential.

Chuck Weis brought in tons of blue-chip recruits in his 5 years atop the program, but many of them failed to really live up to the hype. Meanwhile, Brian Kelly and his staff have made a living on finding guys who may be undervalued by other marquee programs and then turning them into superstars.

Obviously, that alone is not enough to become an Alabama/Clemson/Ohio State type of program...but it helps. So, with that said, I wanted to put together a list of what I think are the absolute best “diamonds in the rough” that BK and his boys turned into top-flight players in South Bend.

FIRST, SOME HONORABLE MENTIONS

  • Robby Toma: it was pretty awesome to see that this “toss-in” recruit used to help land Manti Te’o ended up being an important guy in the receiver rotation during a 12-1 season (24 catches, 252 receiving yards, 1 rushing TD in 2012). He wasn’t technically a BK recruit, but he did become a contributor in the BK era
  • Matthias Farley: came in as a 3-star WR, ended up spending years in the NFL as a safety
  • Josh Adams: I don’t think Adams was quiiiiite unheralded enough for this list, considering any underestimating of him was largely due to a high school injury and because he was a top-300 recruit with offers from Penn State, Stanford, Pitt, etc. But I feel the need to mention him because he surpassed all expectations and had one of the best 8-game stretches of a Notre Dame running back I can remember, rushing for 1,169 yards and 9 TDs to start the 2017 season, including 393 yards and 4 TDs in back-to-back games against ranked USC and NC State. He also had a “long” run of 60+ yards in 6 of those 8 games. Pretty good for a guy who wasn’t even considered the best back in his recruiting class
  • Kevin Stepherson: I truly believe that if he had stayed out of trouble and finished his career with ND, he would be in the top 10 below — a very mediocre recruit in terms of ratings who ended up tearing it up on the field
  • Danny Spond: he was a 3-star “ATH” from Littleton, CO who ended up being a very, very solid starting linebacker on that 2012 defense. What could have been if he didn’t need to retire from football for medical reasons??
  • Bennett Jackson: Bennett is probably the #11 guy overall here, just missing the list below. He was a 3-star WR recruit ranked 523rd in the country who managed to become a starting corner on one of the best defenses in the country, and then parlayed that into an NFL career that’s STILL ongoing
  • Nick Martin: I’m including Nick in honorable mention because he was a 3-star recruit the Irish stole from Kentucky, but let’s not kid ourselves — no brother of Zack Martin can be considered “unheralded” or really a “diamond in the rough.” We all knew he’d end up pretty damn good for the Irish
  • Cam McDaniel: at this point he’s mostly remembered for that meme, but as the 646th-ranked player in his class, I don’t think anyone would have expected the kind of production he gave the Irish in his time in South Bend. A solid little recruit for the Irish out of Texas
  • CJ Prosise: Prosise was indeed a 4-star prospect, so I don’t want to put him in the list below. But it needs to be noted that he was a SAFETY recruit whom they moved to wide receiver as a sophomore (where he put up 29 catches for 516 yds and 2 TD with Everett Golson under center), and then whom they decided to try at running back as a junior. When Tarean Folston went down in the opener against Texas in 2015, Prosise was forced into action and never looked back, rushing for 1,029 yards and 11 TDs while also catching 26 passes for 308 yards and a TD, earning him the reward of being drafted by the Seattle Seahawks as a RB just a year removed from not having played the position at the collegiate level
  • Jalen Elliott: Elliott was ranked 476th in his class and was considered an “ATH” after playing numerous positions in high school, including QB. Early in his career, it wasn’t clear if he would ever really be a major factor. But then he came somewhat out of nowhere to claim the starting safety spot opposite Alohi Gilman in 2018 and 2019, accumulating 116 tackles, 11 passes defended, and 6 INT during that two-season stretch while also being named a team captain. Not too shabby.
  • Kurt Hinish: he’s obviously still on the team, but he’s played enough of a career for me to mention him here — he wasn’t a super heralded prospect considering he’s a pretty under-sized DT, but he’s tough-as-nails and has really developed into a very productive NT in the Clark Lea defenses the last few years
  • Drew White: there’s a very good chance that White plays well enough this season to be moved into the top 10. The guy was ranked 977th in his class and his other big offers besides ND were Arkansas, Illinois, Florida Atlantic, and Cincinnati. But he’s proven to be a fantastic, consistent, and reliable linebacker for the Irish the last few years. The one thing we all want to see is how he plays without a guy like Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah helping make up for any mistakes — I have a feeling White will continue to play great in 2021

SOME POTENTIAL FUTURE SELECTIONS FOR THE LIST

It’s way too early to say for sure, but if you told me to pick a handful of current ND players who I think will end up as strong candidates for a list like this in a few years, here’s whom I would mention.

  • Kyren Williams: this one is like Josh Adams — Bellyman was technically a 4-star recruit, but he was never a guy Irish fans were super excited about or felt would become a star. After 2020, it’s clear how wrong everyone was. Assuming he keeps up his production, Bellyman could be pushing for All-American status over the next season or two and likely has an NFL future considering his pass-catching and pass-blocking skills
  • Jack Kiser: signed out of a small school in Indiana, Kiser’s other offers were from the likes of Duke, IU, Illinois State, and Indiana State. So I think everyone was pretty surprised to see him contributing pretty significantly as a true sophomore last year. If he keeps it up, he will really have proven to be a diamond in the rough
  • Marist Liufau: Hawaii has continued to be kind to the Irish, as Liufau was a late addition to the 2019 class as the 464th-ranked player in his class. In 2020 he could be seen flying all over the field with a great mix of aggression and speed, and if he keeps developing, could end up being another top-flight linebacker for the Irish
  • Cam Hart: this is a super-early call, but all reports out of spring practice are saying Hart has been a pleasant surprise at corner and could very well start at the position. Considering he was a 3-star WR prospect in 2019 and ranked 644th in his class, it’s sufficient to say this would be another fantastic depth chart engineering move by BK and co., similar to KeiVarae Russell, Bennett Jackson, Matthias Farley, CJ Prosise, etc.
  • Clarence Lewis: when a 5-star guy like Kyle Hamilton comes in and plays significant time as a true freshman DB, it’s not surprising. But when a 3-star CB like Lewis, ranked 727th in his 2020 class, comes in and earns a starting spot over some veteran guys — well, that’s a very good sign for his future at the position

TOP 10 BAYBEEEEEEEE

Okay, here’s what you all have been loudly clamoring for, I know. Please try to remember that I’m trying to rank them as “diamonds in the rough” and not just ranking them based on their greatness/production — either way, though, please feel free to tear me apart in the comments. Makes me feel alive.

10. Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

MTA was a late addition to the 2017 class as part of a flurry of commitments/signees that came on board with the arrival of Mike Elko as DC. 247sports actually had him as a low 4-star, but his composite ranking was 472nd in the class, and besides an offer from USC, his other options were limited to schools such as Navy, Air Force, and Vanderbilt.

Tagovailoa-Amosa was able to earn some early playing time as a frosh, showing flashes in 7 games of what he could be — including a couple tackles for loss. However, it was really his junior year in 2019 when he began to show out, accumulating 23 tackles (2.5 for loss) and half a sack while helping anchor the middle of the defensive line. His senior year was even more impressive, statistically-speaking, as he managed 5.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks in the 8 games he played in while dealing with some injuries.

Overall, he went from an afterthought addition to the 2017 class to a multi-year starter at defensive tackle who’s been very important to the consistency and production of Clark Lea’s, and now Marcus Freeman’s, defenses.

9. Romeo Okwara

Wake Forest v Notre Dame Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

Romeo makes the list as a guy who was SUPER young for his age (16) when he signed with the Irish as a 3-star DE from Charlotte — the #452 player overall in his class, according to 247sports. He did have some okay offers at the time (Clemson who obviously wasn’t CLEMSON yet, NC State, Minnesota), but he certainly wasn’t an attention-grabbing prospect in a 2012 Irish class that touted Gunner Kiel, DaVonte’ Neal, Tee Shepard, Sheldon Day, Elijah Shumate, etc. (what a wild class that was, btw).

And considering how young he was when he came to campus as a 17-year-old for his freshman season, it wasn’t surprising that Okwara didn’t play much in his first couple seasons. He DID manage 7 tackles and a forced fumble in spot time as a freshman on the 2012 team, but really didn’t start to make any noise until his junior year (3 sacks, 4 TFL, 1 FF, 39 tackles).

His final season is really when he put it all together, though. As a senior on an extremely talented 2015 squad, Okwara racked up 9 sacks, 13.5 tackles for loss, 1 FF, 1 FR, and 49 total tackles.

He wasn’t drafted, but managed to sign with the New York Giants. He started 4 games for them over two seasons, registering just 1 sack but playing well enough to be claimed by the Detroit Lions when he was placed on waivers. From there, Okwara’s pro career took off: in 3 seasons with the Lions, he’s racked up 19 sacks (including 10 in 2020), 111 tackles, 20 TFL, and 5 forced fumbles. Last month, the Lions signed him to a 3-year, $39 million contract extension. Pretty good for the 16-year-old 3-star from Charlotte, eh?

Final note: he gets bonus points for being the anchor that brought his younger brother, 4-star DE Julian Okwara, to the Irish. He was fantastic in his time in a gold helmet and it’s now so cool to see that they’re playing together in Detroit.

8. Drue Tranquill

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 24 Notre Dame at USC Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Tranquill would maybe be higher in this list if he weren’t a 4-star recruit both in the composite rankings and in 247’s own rankings, but even as such he’s a fun story of not only a diamond in the rough, but also a guy who overcame multiple significant injuries to be a stud on a CFP team.

Tranquill was originally committed to play for Purdue with his other offers being from the likes of IU, Bowling Green, Cincinnati, and Eastern Michigan, but then when ND finally extended an offer to this fairly unwanted Fort Wayne recruit, he jumped on the bigger opportunity.

After showing some solid skill at safety from 2014-2016 (and suffering some bad luck with his ACLs), Tranquill was moved to linebacker for his final 2 seasons and absolutely THRIVED, racking up 171 tackles (19.5 TFL), 5 sacks, 7 passes defended, 1 INT, and 4 fumbles recovered while leading an Irish defense that was good in 2017 and pretty damn elite in 2018.

On top of all that, he was an exceptional emotional leader of the team and a super hard worker, and now he’s caught on in the NFL with the San Diego Chargers, which is awesome to see.

7. Tommy Rees

New Era Pinstripe Bowl - Rutgers v Notre Dame Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Depending on how his offensive coordinator career continues to pan out, you could argue Tommy should be near the top spot in this list. But for now, I’ll put him here and largely base this on his playing days, since the jury is still out on his coaching (a year in, it’s looking pretty good, though).

Tommy Rees was, of course, a 3-star QB recruit who was really never meant to be the starter at ND. Instead, he was supposed to be a depth guy and backup plan behind Dayne Crist/Andrew Hendrix/Everett Golson. You couldn’t ask for much more from the #421 player in his class whose other offers were mainly comprised of lots of MACtion.

We all know what ended up happening, though — Crist and Hendrix both had major issues, so Rees was called on as a true freshman to help pick up the pieces. Same basic thing happened his sophomore year, and then as a junior he was benched for Golson, but still had to play relief and save the Irish more than a time or two.

Then, with Golson’s suspension in 2013, Rees had to step back in as a senior starter. He finished his career at ND having thrown for 7,670 yards and 61 touchdowns, with really only Brady Quinn above him in most passing stats.

Now, Rees has become OC at his alma mater well before his 30th birthday. He’s the diamond in the rough that keeps on giving, you guys.

6. Chase Claypool

NCAA Football: Navy at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Compared to most other guys on this list, Chase Claypool could be considered a “heralded” recruit. He was a low-4-star who was ranked as the #33 receiver in his 2016 class and the #172 guy nationally, and did hold offers from Michigan, Oregon, Oklahoma State, Tennessee, Washington, and a few other solid programs.

But looking back, Claypool was wildly underrated coming out of high school, mostly because he was coming from Abbotsford, British Columbia. He was a 6’5” freak of nature who could catch, run, block, etc., and yet somehow he barely cracked the top 200 of his class.

Obviously, Irish fans know how lucky ND is to have earned his LOI signature. After a mostly uneventful freshman season and an okay sophomore one, Claypool thrived as the #2 WR in 2018 alongside #1 Miles Boykin. He caught 50 passes for 639 yards and 4 touchdowns that season, which set him up to step into that WR1 role in 2019 and absolutely DOMINATE. He pulled in 66 passes for 1,037 yards and 13 TDs as a senior, and then followed that up with a sparkling rookie debut with the Pittsburgh Steelers that’s established him as one of the best young wideouts in the league, catching 62 passes for 873 yards and 9 TDs in 2020 while also rushing for a couple more scores.

5. Adetokunbo Ogundeji

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Ade Ogundeji is a pretty fun story, and he lands higher in these rankings than someone like Claypool or Rees or Okwara just because he seems like even more of a “find” than those guys. Ogundeji was a 3-star prospect who couldn’t break into the top 500 as a recruit from Walled Lake, Michigan, and who, in his first few seasons, did very little to make anyone think he would ever contribute much at defensive end.

However, he started to make an occasional play rushing the passer in 2018 and 2019 that made everyone begin to take note of him, and in 2020 he had a superb 5th-year starting opposite Daelin Hayes, managing to accumulate 6 sacks and a forced fumble as he was really the most ferocious and productive defensive end on the team.

In just a year or two, Ogundeji went from being a career depth-guy to someone pushing for mid-round draft status in this upcoming NFL draft. When it comes to going from 3-star project to bonafide pro prospect, Ogundeji tops almost everyone on the defensive side of the ball in the last 10-ish years.

4. Ian Book

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

You didn’t think I could do a top-10 of ND diamonds in the rough without Ian Book, did you???

Book came to South Bend as the #517 recruit in his class and #20 pro-style QB and, much like Rees, was really always considered the bridge/depth piece between blue-chip guys like Brandon Wimbush and Phil Jurkovec. Instead, Book managed to leave Notre Dame as a QB who led the program to 2 CFP appearances in 3 seasons and as the #2 guy in many statistical categories behind Brady Quinn and #1 in various QB rushing categories, having beaten out Wimbush — the incumbent — for the job in 2018 and then holding off Jurkovec in 2019 to keep it.

His mix of fantastic footwork and magical, play-making ability gave us countless unbelievable memories over the last three years, and it’s wild to think that we would have had NONE of that without BK and co. stealing a young QB commitment from Mike Leach and Washington State back in 2016.

3. Julian Love

Wake Forest v Notre Dame Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Now it’s time to get into the guys who came to the program as 3-star recruits and left as All-Americans.

Julian Love was an unassuming, 5’11”, 3-star corner from the Chicago area who didn’t seem like he would ever become the star he was. He wasn’t huge or an athletic freak, and his speed was never that of his classmate Troy Pride Jr., who was a 4-star guy and high school track star.

However, Love being in the 2016 class gave him the unique opportunity to play early and often on that horrid 4-8 defense, and by 2017 he had secured himself a starting spot on Mike Elko’s retooled defense and was making big play after big play, including a couple pick-sixes against Michigan State and NC State and an incredible penchant for racking up the passes defended stat. He had 20 of those in 2017 and added another 16 in his junior season of 2018, when he also snagged another INT, had 3 fumbles recovered (including one for a TD against Virginia Tech), and tallied 63 tackles from the cornerback spot.

He was named a consensus All-American that season while leading the Irish to a top-5 finish in pass efficiency defense, and then was drafted in the 4th round of the 2019 NFL Draft by the New York Giants, whom he still plays for today.

2. Will Fuller

Notre Dame v Virginia Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Will Fuller is easily one of the most-used examples of a “diamond in the rough” or “player development” when talking about Brian Kelly’s Notre Dame tenure. He was actually a 4-star prospect in the 247sports rankings and composite rankings, but his offers spoke for themselves in 2013, when besides ND and Penn State his best options otherwise included Rutgers, Toledo, Delaware, Kent State, and Villanova. In the ESPN recruiting rankings, he was the lowest-rated player in Notre Dame’s 2013 recruiting class.

He was not particularly big at 6’0” and although he was considered pretty fast, he certainly wasn’t getting much credit for being someone who had the potential to be one of the speediest guys in the country. So, Fuller committed to Penn State in the summer of 2012, but then when Notre Dame extended an offer and he got out to South Bend to visit the campus, he quickly decommitted from the Nittany Lions and chose the Irish.

From there, he never looked back. A modest freshman season still gave him enough opportunities to flash big-play potential (6 catches, 160 yards, 1 TD), which set him up to burst onto the scene in 2014 with Everett Golson’s big arm tossing the ball his way as much as possible. In Fuller’s second season he had 76 receptions for 1,094 yards and 15 TDs — many of which were absolute bombs where he simply outran the defense with his elite speed.

Heading into 2015, he was no longer a well-kept secret as a fast, home-run-threat receiver, and yet that didn’t stop him from earning All-American honors while catching 62 passes for 1,258 yards and 14 touchdowns on that Irish team that went to the Fiesta Bowl.

Fuller ended his 3-year career with the Irish ranking 2nd in touchdown receptions (30), tied for 4th in receiving yards (2,512), and 8th in receptions (144) despite his limited PT as a freshman and no senior season whatsoever. His sophomore and junior seasons accounted for one of the best two-year stretches for a receiver in school history, and he would almost certainly have broken Michael Floyd’s career mark for receiving touchdowns if he’d returned for his final year of eligibility.

Instead, the speedster got himself drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft. Since then, despite numerous injury issues and a recent suspension for PEDs that cut short his 2020 season, Fuller has still managed to reel in 209 receptions for 3,110 yards and 24 touchdowns in the 53 games he’s played in, proving to be one of the most lethal deep-ball threats in the league while also just being a super productive receiver when the ball’s thrown his way.

1. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah

NCAA Football: Southern California at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

I’m putting Owusu-Koramoah in the #1 spot because of the incredible contrast here between expected result and where he ended up.

He was a linebacker in the 2017 class that followed the 2016 catastrophe of a 4-8 season, and went from a 3-star nobody committed to play for the Virginia Cavaliers to a guy who committed to and signed with the Irish LATE in the game upon their new defensive staff of Mike Elko and Clark Lea coming on-board.

He didn’t really see the field in his first two seasons, and so when he was mentioned as a potential starter at Rover in 2019, it was part of a collective nervous breath that all Irish fans took, seeing as the linebacker group looked pretty green and unproven after Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill departed from the 2018 CFP defense. The first game of the 2019 season didn’t do anything to calm those fears, as the Irish linebacking corps looked lost at times in what was not exactly a super-impressive win over Louisville.

When the Irish traveled to Athens to play the Georgia Bulldogs a couple weeks later, JOK and Drew White and the rest of the Irish front seven were considered to be the likely target of the Bulldogs running game absolutely flattening them.

Instead, this was JOK’s coming-out party. He made 8 tackles and it was noticeable how good he looked flying all over the field with exceptional speed and not missing many tackles against the vaunted UGA running backs. From then on, he proceeded to have a sensational junior year, finishing the season with a 9-tackle, 3-sack, 1-forced-fumble, 1-fumble-recovered performance in the Camping World Bowl against Iowa State.

In his senior season of 2020, he picked up right where he left off — he racked up 62 tackles, 1.5 sacks, forced 3 fumbles, recovered 2 fumbles (including the one he took for a TD in the Irish’s upset of #1 Clemson), and even flashed some great coverage skills with an INT and 3 passes defended on the year. He was so good in his final season in a gold helmet that he became the 36th unanimous All-American in Irish history, placed on the first team of all 5 major All-America teams. He also won the Butkus Award for the best linebacker in the country, following in the footsteps of former 5-star recruits turned ND stars, Jaylon Smith and Manti Te’o.

Now, Owusu-Koramoah is preparing to be drafted, and will very possibly hear his name called on the first night, considering he’s been labeled as the ideal modern linebacker and one of the top linebackers in the draft with his combination of size, speed, toughness, and talent.

Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is just the ultimate GOAT “diamond in the rough” of the Brian Kelly era. He was a late addition as an unheralded recruit, considered a project, and just not even talked about as a potential starter — let alone a STAR — until he was essentially already proving it on the field in games. And that entire transformation happened in the span of 2 years. Dude absolutely rules.

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Sound off in the comments — did I miss any big ones? Disagree vigorously with my rankings? If you extended the criteria to include the Weis and Willingham years, who else might crack the top 10??