Commentary

Kelly's first recruiting class is strong

Updated: February 5, 2010, 2:34 PM ET
By Wes Morgan | Special to ESPNChicago.com

NOTRE DAME, Ind. -- When Brian Kelly was introduced as head football coach at Notre Dame in December, he worked Irish Nation into a foaming-at-the-mouth frenzy with a spirited news conference. On signing day, he tried to temper moonstruck expectations while celebrating a quality recruiting effort.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
AP Photo/Joe RaymondBrian Kelly recruited well in the Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky area.

An abbreviated courtship with the nation's top prep talent yielded Kelly and Co. a 2010 class ranked 21st by ESPN.com. It was a solid first at-bat. But even the hubris-fueled Kelly humbly acknowledged it wasn't a home run. Fact is, this is exactly what he expected when he inherited a program in severe need of a spit-shine.

"You need time to recruit," Kelly said Wednesday. "You need success if you want to be able to continue to recruit the very best. Clearly, we did not have either one on our side this time. We will. So the proof of our work as a staff and ultimately how I'll be judged is going to be down the road with this class, but more importantly next year's class as well."

Whether his vulnerability was feigned, a calculated attempt to dip below the radar, there's plenty of proof that Kelly's initial class is beyond serviceable with a mix of raw talent and polished players ready to make an immediate impact.

What Notre Dame has heading into spring practice is a stable foundation, something that can't be understated as the Irish start fresh. That includes a quartet of four-star players among a class of 23 (five of whom enrolled this winter). It's a far cry from the bevy of blue chips boasted by Florida, Texas, Alabama, Auburn and USC, but it's a "good start," Kelly said.

Kelly, who's done more with less throughout his career -- one void of top-25 recruiting classes -- addressed some glaring holes, notably on both lines and in the defensive secondary.

The Irish snagged three defensive backs (all three early enrollees) and a trio of key additions to the D-line. Kelly secured three heralded offensive tackles, headlined by 6-foot-7, 291-pounder Matt James out of Cincinnati, who brushed off Ohio State at the last minute.

That blow to the Buckeyes alone is reason to grade Kelly well.

Notre Dame also landed a trio of sound and talented quarterbacks, highlighted by fellow Cincinnati natives Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa, further evidence that part of Ohio, bitter or not, has much respect for Kelly. And for the former Bearcats coach, it's substantiation that Kelly has no problem burning his previous backyard again by lifting its top athletes and transplanting them in South Bend.

"There happens to be a specific influx of players from the Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky area as well," Kelly managed to say without smirking about the five players signed from that region.

Keeping this group relatively intact, with the addition of a few, pleasant surprises late in the process, is a major victory for Kelly and a good barometer for what he's capable of doing in years to come.

"Let's make no mistake about that," Kelly said of the work involved in rushing to re-recruit those first approached by the former ND coaching regime. "The staff that I have here today went out and went back to basics. We met with every young man. We got into their homes. We met with their coaches. And essentially after we had determined that a great deal of these young men fit those criteria, we went about starting all over again."

This year's class also debunks claims that South Bend has gone from glory to where careers go to die, reinforcing the enduring strength of the Notre Dame brand.

Current ND stars such as linebacker Manti Te'o, a Hawaii native, worked their home states hard, securing unexpected commitments from guys like Kona Schwenke (DL), bolstering relatively new pipelines in the process.

Players from Chicagoland like Inverness' Christian Lombard (OT) and Lake Forest's Tommy Rees (QB) still believe Notre Dame can wake up the echoes. Indiana boys like South Bend's Daniel Smith (WR) remain loyal sons.

Legacy Tai-ler Jones, son of former ND linebacker Andre Jones, is a dynamic receiver who has heard all his life about what it's like to play for the Irish.

Top prospect Louis Nix, a 315-pound behemoth of a defensive lineman from Jacksonville, Fla., opted to sign before Kelly was named as Charlie Weis successor. That's how much he wanted to be at Notre Dame.

"So I'm not going to stand up here and take the credit for every one of these young men," Kelly said. "Notre Dame gets a lot of the credit."

But past prestige alone didn't provide a solid foothold for the future, and Notre Dame gets a lot of credit for hiring what appears to be the right man for a daunting job ahead. Kelly's enthusiasm and drive kept the Irish from avoiding what could have been a recruiting disaster.

We'll find out next February if it was a large enough step in the right direction.