Subjectively, the class already features two likely future first-round NFL draft picks.
And popular opinion suggests the class possesses three, possibly four of the "best" players on the squad entering 2010; and it's no stretch to argue the group holds six of the top 10.
The 2008 Notre Dame recruiting class has been a close-knit group from the outset, sticking to their verbal commitments as high school seniors while their future teammates struggled through a train wreck 3-9 campaign. That act of solidarity earned deserved goodwill throughout the fan base, and as first and second-year players, the group provided hope for the future over the course of two mediocre seasons.
But as the recruiting class of 2007 (today's seniors-to-be) can attest, sporadic individual highlights interspersed with a few too many losses inevitably takes its toll on any goodwill earned prior to campus arrival. You won't find many Irish fans extolling the virtues of the class of 2007 these days, despite the fact that two of its members played at a high enough level to merit discussion as first-round draft picks following their true junior seasons; shattering individual records along the way.
This collection of juniors-to-be has the collective ability – along with the enviable situation of a coaching change – to lead the program back to prominence over the next two to three seasons.
Below is a closer look at the 22 players in the recruiting class of 2008, the majority of whom (14 of the 22) have three seasons of eligibility remaining in the program.
Likely Starters:With the exception of Slaughter, it would be a major surprise if any player from this group is beaten out for his starting spot next season. Slaughter has been our forecasted No. 1 free safety since the end of the '09 season, and appears to be the front-runner for the job in the early days of spring practice.
Michael Floyd (WR) – Already has more touchdown receptions (16) than did former Heisman Trophy winner and College Football Hall of Famer Tim Brown. Floyd is the team's best, and most explosive football player; the prototype wide receiver.
Devil's Advocate: The Irish were 2-5 last season when Michael Floyd took the field; 4-1 without him.
Kyle Rudolph (TE) – A much-improved as a blocker since being thrown to the wolves as a freshman, Rudolph posted the most exciting, impactful two-game run by a collegiate tight end in recent memory, catching the winning touchdown at Purdue and the tying score (to send the game into overtime) vs. Washington one week later. He nearly turned the trick again with a last-second TD grab (ruled out of bounds and upheld by the replay official) vs. USC in the following contest. Like Floyd, Rudolph possesses prototypical NFL size for his position.
Devil's Advocate: No touchdown receptions after October 4 in his two-year college career.
Trevor Robinson (RG/OL) – Earned the starting right guard spot as a true sophomore last season: a position deemed the most difficult to play (due to lack of double-team help in the scheme) by the previous staff. If there's one lineman guaranteed a starting spot, somewhere on the offensive line, it's the talented junior from Elkhorn, Nebraska.
Devil's Advocate: It's hard to nit-pick without the eye of an offensive line coach, and I'm certain the Irish are better with him in the lineup. But Robinson has started seven November games in his two-year career (his first three starts occurred in November of 2008) and the Irish are 1-6 in those games, averaging 3.3 yards per carry on the ground in those contests. That average dips to 2.06 in just the six losses.
Darius Fleming (OLB) – Led the team in tackles-for-loss last season with 12.5, the 11th highest total of the past decade at the school, and the highest total for any sophomore since Justin Tuck's 10 TFL in 2002 (Tuck's first season as a contributor).
Devil's Advocate: No sacks, just a half-tackle for loss during the team's four-game November losing streak last year.
Ethan Johnson (DE) – He's the returning team leader in career sacks (7) and has notched 11 official tackles-for-loss in 15 career starts. Johnson, who emerged as a leader and team voice as a true sophomore prior to last season, is expected to shine as a 3-4 defensive end after toiling at DT last season.
Devils' Advocate: There'd be more to dissect if the Irish remained a 4-3 base defense, but for the sake of argument, Johnson was only marginally better (to the naked eye) for the bulk of last season than he was as a true freshman that earned extensive playing time late in 2008 (and that '08 stretch included a fine effort vs. a powerhouse USC squad in the Coliseum).
Kapron Lewis-Moore (DE) – No defender showed greater improvement over the course of 2010 – his first season as a contributor – than Lewis-Moore. KLM finished second on the squad in tackles-for-loss and third in official sacks while leading all defensive linemen in total tackles (46).
Devil's Advocate: 2 solos, 4 assists, no sacks, no TFL in his final three games last season. (I sense a theme.)
Dayne Crist (QB) – Showed impressive athleticism and poise early in a hostile environment at Purdue last season, helping the Irish grab a 17-7 lead.
Devil's Advocate: Was bailed out of his first road loss by Jimmy Clausen's late heroics in West Lafayette. More relevant today, was noted for "awful" fundamentals by head coach Brian Kelly prior to Easter Break. Crist is still recovering from ACL surgery, and its unlikely he'll be at full strength at any point in 2010.
Jamoris Slaughter (S) – No Irish cornerback finished hits last season with the ferocity of Slaughter. The Tucker, GA product earned a start at free safety vs. Washington State last season and has officially moved back to his natural position this spring where he earned early praise from Kelly and defensive backs coach Chuck Martin.
Devil's Advocate: Film of Slaughter on an island vs. Michigan State wide receiver Blair White is exhibit 1A why he probably should have been earmarked for safety from the outset. (In fairness to the inexperienced Slaughter, the underrated White performed similar surgery on senior CB Darrin Walls later in the contest.)
Knocking on the DoorEach should play a large role next fall and any of the group of seven could serve as starters or major rotational contributors:
John Goodman (WR/Slot) – The fans' choice as the chief compliment to the Floyd/Rudolph tandem for next fall, Goodman must beat out (at least) a trio of athletes, including the more physical Duval Kamara; the quicker, more sudden Shaquelle Evans; and running back transfer Theo Riddick for a spot in the receivers' rotation.
Goodman might be a better overall wide receiver prospect than any of his competitors (sans Floyd, of course), but he's far from a finished product. More so than Kamara and Evans, Goodman appears to possess extreme self-confidence that doesn't waver, regardless of his status in the rotation, situation or opponent. If Kelly likes gamers, he has one in the former Bishop Dwenger star.
Robert Blanton (CB) – Blanton appeared destined for playmaking greatness midway through his freshman season in '08 (I designated him as one of Notre Dame's 10 "Indispensible Players" entering last season). But a disappointing 2009 campaign has him in a dogfight for one of the two starting CB roles. The formerly confident cover man will have to be much more consistent (and confident on the field) to earn that spot and regain his promising freshman year form.
Steve Filer (OLB) – After two seasons of position jockeying, Filer is now firmly designated as one of a quartet of athletes competing for a spot at Notre Dame's deepest defensive position: the 3-4 OLB. Filer appeared to be at his best in attack mode last season, so it will be interesting to see if he carves out a niche as a pass rusher or can earn legitimate playing time this season as a regular OLB – one asked to drop into coverage as often as he attacks the quarterback.
(I believe three of ND's four OLB are much better pass rushers than true LBs: Filer, Fleming, and Kerry Neal, while only Brian Smith appears able to handle the true duel outside linebacker role). Filer is the returning team leader in special teams appearances over the last two seasons (311).
Sean Cwynar (DE/NT): The least likely to start among those in the grouping, Cwynar's probably the fourth best defensive lineman along a three-man defensive front. He's nonetheless a "close fourth", and a player that will challenge both senior nose tackle Ian Williams, and the talented, but not yet proven duo of Johnson and Lewis-Moore for reps and playing time over the next 2/3 seasons.
Though undersized as a 3-4 nose guard, Cywnar should continue to be cross-trained at the position as none of the younger players are proven behind incumbent Ian Williams.
Anthony McDonald (LB) – The solidly-built McDonald earned praise last August from former defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta (Tenuta stated McDonald possessed "tremendous instincts") and, more important, from new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and Coach Kelly in recent days. His contributions to date have been almost exclusively on special teams, where McDonald made the third-highest number of appearances (180) among Irish players last season.
Dan McCarthy (S) – Speaking of recent, relevant praise…
McCarthy re-entered Irish fans' consciousness last week after Kelly singled out the former benchwarmer as a bright spot through four practices. "The McCarthy kid" as Kelly flatly stated (there may be no bigger compliment for a young football player than receiving praise without a hint of favoritism from the new man in charge) has impressed the new regime with his willingness to hit and play downhill. Both qualities will endear him to a fan base starved for anything resembling a consistent impact defender.
McCarthy is in a four-way tussle with Slaughter, senior Harrison Smith, and sophomore Zeke Motta for one of two starting spots at safety.
Braxston Cave (C) – The team's resident strongman appears to be the front-runner for the starting center role, though that's admittedly media conjecture as the squad has had just four practices to date this spring. (For more on Cave, click here.)
Note: Click here for Part II