One time-test method remains paramount among the myriad ways college football fans, pundits, and historians can judge a recruiting class:
Wins and losses.
Notre Dame's current seniors, the 2009 recruiting class and final collection by former head coach Charlie Weis, cannot mask its bottom-line deficiency: 22 wins and 16 losses entering its final season together.
Yet individual, you'd be hard-pressed to find a recent group that developed, man-for-man, as well as the 2012 squad's seniors. An 18-player class on Signing Day 2009 will finish with 15 members: E.J. Banks, Shaquelle Evans, and Alex Bullard transferring elsewhere between August 2010 and today. (Only Evans played in an Irish uniform.)
The class has produced two college football standouts and all-time program greats. It features six more multi-season starters, two other regulars/former starters, and three multi-season starters among its trio of specialists included in the class.
Of the 15 that remained to be coached for two (now three) seasons by head coach Brian Kelly, only two failed to crack their position's respective rotation entering their senior years.
By any reasonable measure, five of the 2012 team's 10 best players are true seniors: Manti Te'o, Tyler Eifert, Cierre Wood, Zack Martin, and Chris Watt. Another remains perennially on the cusp (Theo Riddick) while three more (Zeke Motta, Dan Fox, and Robby Toma) are respected veterans, starters, and team leaders.
Add to that list Carlo Calabrese, a former starter that faces a career crossroads as a senior, this following a highly publicized off-season arrest that unfortunately followed a sub par season, one year removed from a breakout 2010 campaign. Other than Riddick, Calabrese likely has the most to prove to the coaching staff and legion of Irish fans in an effort to secure his legacy as a player.
Finally, the trio of recruited specialists -- a large number for any class much less the '09 cycle's 18-player haul -- are all in position to start as seniors. Like Calabrese and Riddick, each will be remembered more for his final season than anything accomplished previously.
A player-by-player review will follow in Part II of this column dedicated to Scout.com's #23-ranked recruiting class of 2009.
With knowledge that both highs and lows likely remain, below are their career highlights to date:
Highs and Lows Through Three
With only Te'o playing a key role in 2009 and Riddick, Motta, Tausch, Cowart and Turk in spot duty, I chose to focus on 2010-11 for the categories below.
Best Win: Its not close. Asked last season, Notre Dame's upperclassmen responded to a man that their best win was the 2010 season finale at USC, a 20-16 victory that ended the program's 8-game losing streak to the Trojans. USC wasn't the best team the class has defeated (that's likely the 2011 Michigan State Spartans), but no win in recent memory (at least not since Charlie Weis' first season) resonated more than the Irish upset vs. the Men of Troy.
Worst Loss: In terms of performance, nothing was worse than the 35-17 humbling at Navy in 2010, but in terms of a gut-shot to the team, staff, and fans, last year's Week Two collapse in Ann Arbor, a 35-31 defeat in which the Irish led 24-7 with 16 minutes remaining, and by three with 30 seconds to go, their hosts 80 yards from any semblance of hope.
Best Stretches of Football: A four-game run of top tier defense and clutch offense to conclude Kelly's first season in 2010. The Irish outscored Utah, Army, USC, and Miami 105 to 19 over a 15 quarter span before the Hurricanes tacked on two cosmetic scores to conclude the Sun Bowl. Remarkably, the streak followed the team, and program's, lowest moment detailed below.
Worst Stretch of Football: Three two-game losing streaks come to mind, but the program's low point in recent seasons wasn't its 0-2 start or finish to 2011, but an otherwise innocuous drop from 4-3 to 4-5 after unexpected losses to Navy and Tulsa -- two games that bookended the tragic death of Declan Sullivan. A bye week followed, and thus a 13-day stretch in which Notre Dame and its staff enjoyed little support nationwide or among Irish diehards. As freshman under Weis, the Irish lost four straight to conclude the 2009 season, but only Te'o played a major role.
Biggest Individual Surprise: With apologies to three-year starter and standout offensive tackle Zack Martin, this isn't close: Three-star Tyler Eifert had a career in question in the off-season of Brian Kelly's first year (Winter 2010). Two seasons later he was named first team All-America and ranked easily as the nation's best pass-catching tight end.
Letdown to Date: Senior defensive tackle Tyler Stockton entered college as a consensus 4-star recruit and was immediately deemed a player capable of contributing by the outset by the former staff. (It was Weis who dubbed Stockton: "A luxury item" one not needed because of the team's growing depth on the defensive front. Depth was apparently loosely defined, but I digress…). Stockton saw action in five of Kelly's first seven games in 2010 but hasn't played since, battling shoulder and knee injuries along the way.
Best Game by the Class: As sophomores in 2010, a 31-13 win at Boston College included 24 combined tackles by the inside linebacker trio of Te'o, Calabrese, and Fox and also ranked as the best individual game of Calabrese' career. Also in the mix that evening was Riddick with 9 receptions and a score, though Wood had a rare no-show (one carry/fumble). Tyler Stockton recorded his only career sack vs. the Eagles; it was the fifth tackle-for-loss by the class vs. BC in a game that saw the hosts limited to just 5 net rushing yards.
Worst Game by the Class: USC 2011. Cierre Wood (5 carries, 5 yards, fumble) suffered through his worst outing as a starter and Manti Te'o was ineffectual despite officially recording 10 stops -- none of which were within four yards of the line of scrimmage. The pair was named game captains, to boot. Motta had just two unassisted tackles as part of a secondary riddled by the Trojans passing attack and the left side tandem of Martin and Watt were part of an offense that managed just 41 rushing yards, abandoning the weapon in the process. To top it off, Calabrese was hit with a ridiculous (deserved) personal foul that gave USC new life on a first half scoring drive.
Riddick and Eifert played relatively well with 12 combined catches for 122 yards.
Coming Soon: A player-by-player review of Notre Dame's 15 seniors entering 2012.
For reviews of the squad's other classes, click the links below:
15 remain from Scout.com's 23rd ranked recruiting class of 2009. Individually, Notre Dame's senior class boasts among the best the program has seen over the last decade and in two cases, in its storied history. Now this collection of solid and standout college players must put it together for their highest win total in 2012.