To those that follow recruiting year in and year out, Notre Dame’s 6-0 start isn’t as big a surprise as it may be to those that just tune into college football on Saturdays.
Kelly and his staff have upgraded the talent and depth in the defensive front seven and the results are beginning to come in on Saturdays.
When Brian Kelly took over in South Bend after the Irish finished 6-6 in 2009, a head coach known for his offensive prowess knew he needed to upgrade Notre Dame’s productivity and depth in the defensive front seven for the program to go where he wanted to take it, which is ultimately a National Championship.
In three years, Kelly and his staff have brought in three of Notre Dame’s deepest and most talented defensive line/linebacker classes. Talent at these positions hasn't been stockpiled on an Irish roster like this going back to the Lou Holtz years.
Along with defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and the rest of the staff, Notre Dame has specific traits (height, weight, athleticism, hybrid players etc…) they look for in each defensive line and linebacker prospect for them to fit into their defensive scheme. They’ll pass on a highly-touted kid that might not meet all the criteria.
Sticking to that formula, things have gelled together this season at Notre Dame and the results thus far equate to the nation’s No. 2 ranked scoring defense, a defense that is No. 5 nationally in pass efficiency defense, No. 25 against the run and No. 11 overall. The Irish defense hasn't surrendered a touchdown in four weeks.
"You've got to knock on every door," Kelly said. "You have got to ring every bell. They are out there, you can find them, you just got to go get them.
"So I think the charge to the staff was: Let's go get these guys. This is what we need. Here is the blueprint for success. And we have been at that. I mean, we have been at it hard. We have had some successes, we have had some failures, we have had some good and bad situations that have occurred. But I think it starts with a plan, and knocking on every door and finding them. They are out there but you've got to go get them."
A look at the top players Notre Dame went and got, and who they’ve developed.
In 2010, blue-chip defensive tackle Louis Nix and outside linebacker Prince Shembo were already in the fold when Kelly was hired on, and he went on to land February commitments from outside linebacker Danny Spond and defensive tackle Kona Schwenke. Nix, Shembo and Spond are all starters, and Schwenke is a regular in the rotation. Nix came in a 6-foot-2, 315-pounds and is now at 326 pounds. Shembo and Spond were both listed at 232 in high school and now weight at in at 250 and 248 respectively. Schwenke has really blossomed at the training tables, going from 6-foot-4, 227-pounds to 290 pounds.
Before Kelly, Notre Dame struggled to land defensive line difference makers in the past like sophomore standout Stephon Tuitt.
The following year, Notre Dame received signatures from heralded prospects in Aaron Lynch who has since transferred to South Florida, defensive end Stephon Tuitt (6-6, 303) of Monroe (Ga.) Area and outside linebacker Ishaq Williams (6-5, 255) of Brooklyn (N.Y.) Lincoln. Other touted front-seven recruits included Top100 linebacker Ben Councell (6-5, 240) of Asheville (N.C.) A.C. Reynolds and Jarrett Grace (6-3, 240) of Cincinnati (Ohio) Colerain. Mentor (Ohio) Lake Catholic product Chase Hounshell (6-4, 275) was at one time a Florida commit before inking with the Irish and Fort Wayne (Ind.) Bishop Dwenger’s Tony Springmann (6-6, 300) has become an impact player on the defensive front. Tuitt is a starter while Williams, Councell, Grace and Springmann are all on the two deep. Hounshell played as a true freshman but an injury has kept him off the field this fall.
The current freshman class is led by Top100 defensive line recruit Sheldon Day (6-2, 286) of Indianapolis (Ind.) Warren Central. He’s played a lot while Rochester (N.Y.) Aquinas Institute defensive lineman Jarron Jones (6-5, 299) and Charlotte (N.C.) Ardrey Kell outside linebacker Romeo Okwara (6-4, 239) have bright futures at Notre Dame as well.
Charlie Weis and his staff deserve some credit for that first recruiting class and obviously for the guys already on the roster, but Kelly and company kept those recruits in the fold during the coaching change, upgraded recruiting over the long haul, and more importantly developed the talent into better football players in the years they’ve been on campus.
This is a physically impressive group. Of the seven defensive linemen listed on the depth chart, three are 6-foot-6, and the shortest is Day at 6-2. Day is also the lightest at 286. At linebacker, of the 11 listed, six are listed at 6-3, and 10 of them check in at 240 pounds or more. Te’o is arguably the nation’s top player, and after that the Notre Dame coaching staff has several capable players they’ve been rotating in to stay fresh throughout the football game.
All the credit for Notre Dame’s 6-0 start definitely can’t go to the front seven on defense as the offensive line is also the best the Irish have had in recent memory, several skill players have stepped up at the quarterback, running back, receiver and tight end positions, and a young and thin secondary led by senior Zeke Motta is playing way better than preseason expectations. However, if Notre Dame is going to remain in contention for the National Championship or BCS bowl, it will be this front seven continuing to lead the charge.
Moving forward the recruiting philosophy remains the same with an emphasis on front-seven difference makers. In the 2013 class, Notre Dame’s top-two rated commits are five-star linebacker Jaylon Smith and fellow Top50 prospect in linebacker Alex Anzalone. Defensive end Isaac Rochell and defensive end/outside linebacker Jacob Matuska are both ranked in the Top247 and linebackers Danny Mattingly, Doug Randolph and Michael Deeb were all heavily recruited.