The nuances of Notre Dame’s latest football recruiting class have escaped Ara Parseghian.
Perhaps it’s because the 87-year-old patriarch of modern day Irish football success wasn’t running to check his Twitter feed every five minutes.
But the former ND coaching icon (1964-74) does know the main story line — that two incredible U-turns and one insanely early heart-to-heart talk may have changed the trajectory of Irish football for years to come.
All of those events involved three of the top defensive prospects to matriculate to Notre Dame in the past decade. Two of them — defensive end Aaron Lynch and defensive end/outside linebacker Ishaq Williams enrolled early and have been taking classes and resculpting their bodies for two weeks now. The third, defensive end Stephon Tuitt, signs his national letter-of-intent Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. (EST).
It’s not just the brightest defensive stars, though, that make this class noteworthy, it’s the depth of the defensive class. And it’s not just the depth, it’s the resolve of the Irish coaches in gleaning the three uneasy pieces. It’s not just the resolve, it’s the commitment to a revised blueprint by second-year ND head coach Brian Kelly that now puts defense at the top of the bucket list.
And that’s the piece that has Parseghian smiling.
"We put our best athletes on defense when I was coaching, whether they played there in high school or not," Parseghian said via telephone earlier this week. "And great defense hasn’t gone out of style.
"It shows up every year. When you see the top teams in the bowl games, take a look at their defense. Look and see how many points they’ve given up, what kind of yardage they’ve given up, and you’ll see what goes with championship teams are outstanding defenses."
But the Tigers did have the ninth-ranked rushing defense nationally and stars on the defensive line, notably Nick Fairley, who on the hoof fit the profile of the biggest and brashest wave of front-seven talent at ND since 1990, the last class former Irish defensive coordinator Barry Alvarez had a hand in.
In the interim, the Irish have signed the nation’s top ranked player (quarterback Jimmy Clausen in 2007) and a No. 2 class (2006), but nothing close to quantity and raw quality on the edge at the defensive end and outside linebacker positions.
"It’s been the missing piece," CBS College Sports recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said.
Indeed, of the 90 Top 100 players (as rated by Lemming) who have signed with Notre Dame since 1998, only 27 of them were projected as defensive players coming out of high school and 11 of those were defensive backs.
Of the scant 16 front-seven blue-chip signings, there were easily as many busts as there were breakthroughs.
"We, I, myself, ESPN recruiting — we’ve taken a lot of heat of our criticism of Notre Dame recruiting classes in the past on that side of the football," ESPN recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill said, "because there haven’t been difference-makers in the defensive front. And that’s what separates the good teams from the great teams that compete for titles in college football.
"That’s one of the reasons why they have struggled to get back into college football’s elite. With this class, they’ve got a coach, in Brian Kelly, that not only understands that, has not only looked at his roster and realized, ‘Hey, this is where we cannot compete with the big boys of college football, we better change it or we’re going to be no different than anybody else,’ but has been able to actually go out and sell it."
The first step in selling it actually fell into place near the end of the Charlie Weis Era, when the former Irish head coach landed the seventh-rated national recruit of the 2008 national crop, in Hawaii linebacker Manti Te’o.
"The Irish finally had a star player at the linebacker position, who was living up to everything he was supposed to be and was getting national publicity," Lemming said.
"That attracts kids in and of itself. But then you have the dimension of Manti as a recruiter. He’s got the personality to attract other great players to fill in around him."