We've always said that rankings from various recruiting experts should be taken with a grain of salt. We, at Irish Eyes, use one formula for measuring recruiting success—know which targets that were initially offered, and then compare the class they actually signed with the initial list of those early offers. Players always surface as the season goes on, but the initial list is usually a good indication of how the Irish did in their recruiting campaign.
We base our formula on a few things. First, a coach should know more than we do—that's his job. Second, this staff has earned our respect considering the impressions we have on players considered less talented by the experts in 2003 that impressed us in fall camp—this staff appears to know how to evaluate talent.
We also think it's important to gauge expectations with reality. All Irish fans expect the Irish to sign one of the top classes in the country every year. The truth of the matter is that it's much easier for any coach to sell their program after posting a 10-3 record than it is to sell their program with a 5-7 record.
Still, this is Notre Dame, and Irish fans don't care what objections a coach might face in recruiting with a 5-7 season attached to his back.
The reality of the situation is Tyrone Willingham and his staff faced an uphill battle this recruiting season. They might've created their own incline, but it was an uphill battle none the less.
Should we judge this recruiting season by the standards set by some of the best recruiting seasons of years past? Or, should we judge it considering the hurdles Willingham and staff had to overcome? Unfortunately for Willingham, it will be the former for many Irish fans.
We are not making excuses for Willingham or his staff. The challenges they faced were probably self-made challenges. At the same time, considering the results of the season, it's certainly not unexplainable why this recruiting season didn't meet the lofty expectations.
We will grade this recruiting season as we think many Irish fans will grade it—as an elite team should recruit. Irish fans don't accept a 5-7 season as the norm—nor should they.
We also want to say that considering the season, these expectations are probably improbable at best. Still, we do believe even under the current circumstances the Irish could've/should've landed a few more of their top prospects.
Let's take a look at some of the top prospects that were high on the wish list of the Irish coaching staff.
It's no secret the Irish were high on Anthony Morelli, Rocky Hinds and Brian Brohm at quarterback. Morelli never materialized for various reasons. Hinds dropped Notre Dame when the Irish canceled his visit for academic reasons according to him. The Irish held out hope for Brian Brohm and were burned in the end.
The Irish ended up signing David Wolke and Darrin Bragg in the end. Wolke is a player they had been recruiting all along--they came in later on Bragg. Both Bragg and Wolke have talent and should compete for the backup position at the very least. Still, this is not what the Irish coaches wanted, or hoped for. GRADE: C
The Irish did score well at running back. The Irish targeted Justin Hoskins, Darius Walker, Charlie Jones and Thomas Brown. The Irish did sign what many consider their top back in Darius Walker. They also signed Hoskins who they offered after an outstanding summer camp at Notre Dame. The Irish couldn't do much better than what they have here. GRADE: A
The Irish didn't fare so well at fullback. They offered Georgia prospect Brannan Southerland early. Southerland chose Georgia early in the process. They then set their sights on Jerod Arlich who later chose Stanford. No new names surfaced after Arlich dropped Notre Dame. We don't think this was a huge need for the Irish so we won't give this a terrible grade, but one player would've been nice here. GRADE: C minus
The Irish also missed at tight end. We don't think this was a need area either. Notre Dame was wise to target some great prospects and to leave the rest alone if they didn't land one of their top two. They didn't land one of their top two or anyone for that matter. The Irish targeted Zach Miller early, and then Kellen Freeman-Davis later. Neither player ended up signing with the Irish. GRADE: C
Offensive line has to be the most disappointing position for this class. The Irish only signed two offensive linemen in 2003. They needed to sign four this year. They did get commitments from John Kadous and Chauncey Incarnato, and both were targeted very early and should be considered top prospects. But, they also failed to sign Jeff Byers, Tyrone Byrd, Jeremy Ciulla, Allen Smith and Brian Abraham—all players offered early in the process.
The loss of Smith really hurt the Irish. The Irish coaching staff seemed to place a lot of hope in Smith. Their backup plan of Jaimie Thomas and Ell Ash also never materialized.
The final result is that the Irish fell 2 players short in both 2003 and 2004 at offensive line. Our grade is low, but not because of the players signed, but the failure to land the four they needed. The Irish will need to sign at least five offensive linemen next year to make up for these losses. GRADE: D
The Irish also failed to sign many of their top targets at wide receiver. This was another area that wasn't a big need for Notre Dame. They really only wanted one that had the speed to stretch the field. The Irish offered Calvin Johnson, Bobby McCoy, Adrian Arrington, Doug Dutch, Chris Ogboyana and Devon Lyons early.
The Irish later countered after being spurned by their top targets by offering Cortney Grixby, Bryant Creamer, Christopher Vaughn and Chancellor Young. The Irish landed Vaughn in the end, but missed on all their top prospects offered early. Vaughn is considered a sleeper prospect that has seen his stock skyrocket. His 6-5, 205-pound frame with 4.37 speed might be the reason why. If Vaughn has 4.37, this grade might be even higher. GRADE: B
Defensive line is also an area of disappointment for the Irish considering the initial offers. Jeff Schweiger, DeMario Pressley, Darryl Richard, David Brown, Phillip Mbakogu, Franklin Okam, Dwayne Hendricks, A.Q. Shipley and Thomas Herring were all targeted early.
Schweiger, Pressley and Herring were rumored to be a stretch academically so they were probably not real targets. Still, the Irish failed to land all of these top targets.
The Irish did sign a number of defensive linemen. Brandon Nicolas, Ronald Talley and Justin Brown all signed with the Irish. Ryan Baker also verbally committed to Notre Dame, but has yet to send his fax to the Irish coaches. We can't count Baker as a commitment yet. Nicolas could end up at offensive line in the end, but will start out on defense. He was targeted early with an early offer.
Brown, Baker and Talley are considered defensive ends by many. We expect at least one to move inside in the future, if not two. Baker had a ton of offers from many of the top programs in the country and is the most heralded of this group. Talley certainly appears to have the right attitude. Brown is very raw after playing one year of high school football, but considered a very athletic player.
It appears the Irish landed three players who have the chance to help this team, and might have landed four. However, considering the initial list, this isn't what many had hoped for. GRADE: C with Baker's fax, D without it.
They landed Vernaglia, Banda and Crum in the end. Banda is known as a raw athlete who has not played a lot of football. Vernaglia and Crum were offered very early and come from talent-rich states in California and Florida.
The main complaint from most Irish fans is that the staff didn't land a middle linebacker. Thaxton never made his visit, and the Irish failed to land their backup plan in Ronnie Palmer in the end. Many feel the Irish didn't land a true middle linebacker last year, either. Regardless, they landed three players who have the athletic ability to play linebacker. Hopefully they can plug them in to the appropriate spots in the end. GRADE: B
They did sign Junior Jabbie who is an intriguing prospect. Jabbie wasn't well-known early in the recruiting process after spending a year in prep school, but we hear the Irish coaches are very high on him. They also signed Tregg Duerson who has some good bloodlines and Leo Ferrine who could end up at corner or safety.
In the end the Irish signed four players at defensive back. The numbers are important, just not the top players they targeted early in the season. GRADE: B minus.
The one question we are asked more than anything is "what happened?" We think the Irish struggled for a number of reasons. First, their 5-7 season probably hurt more than anything. Second, the late hiring of Jimmy Gonzalez also put the Irish behind many other schools. Third, our guess is that the Irish staff focused on the season because wins were going to help more than a phone call. Fourth, and most important, the lack of a backup plan—and staying on top of that backup plan—really hurt the Irish. It's important to note that this is just our assumption based on covering recruiting all year and many years in the past.
Let's take a look at what we mean. When offensive linemen Jeff Byers and Tyrone Byrd committed to other schools, we didn't see new names surface for quite some time. Jaimie Thomas and Ell Ash only became known prospects in late December and January. That is simply too much ground to make up considering the Irish finished 5-7 on the season.
The Irish held out hope for Jae Thaxton all year at middle linebacker. Thaxton never made his visit to Notre Dame, and Ronnie Palmer never surfaced until late December.
The Irish appeared to hold out from Brohm with little or no backup plan.
At cornerback, the Irish only offered four true prospects at corner early. The Irish needed at least two if not three top corners in this class. Once Gorham, Davis and Council opted for other schools, it took a long time for Jabbie, McBath and Everett to surface as prospects.
It's important to mention that we don't know every Irish prospect being recruited—Wolke is a good example. Still, it's impossible for us not to hear that the Irish are recruiting these kids if they had been all year.
The good news is the Irish appear to be shaking the bushes on top junior prospect already. They've held the earliest junior day we can ever remember. They are targeting the top prospects at an earlier date than we can ever remember.
That is great news for Irish fans, but that doesn't mean the problems are solved. We don't believe you can target 40 players and sign 20—especially with a poor season.
We feel the Irish staff must focus on a much larger pool of players, and stay on top of all of them throughout the entire recruiting season. They should never have to discover players in January. They should be recruiting them all year in case they have a similar situation.
It's also important to note that the Irish coaching staff did hit the bricks in December and January. We can't remember a time when we heard them out on the road as much, including Willingham. The effort was there in the end, we just think it might've been a little too late.
In the end, we wind up with reality. What is the reality of the 2004 recruiting class? Again, we think you have to look at this as the reality of the situation. Is this the class they should've signed if they were an elite team in college football? No. Is this an acceptable class, if not surprising, considering the circumstances? Yes.
The final two commitments of Vaughn and Lambert were important. If they lose Baker, that will be very disappointing. Regardless, the Irish appear to have filled some needs with this class—just not all their needs, and with the top players they originally targeted. The results are about what we expected considering the challenges they faced. We also believe even with these challenges, they should've been able to land a couple more of their top targets.