Three years ago, Brian Kelly signed arguably his best recruiting class, both in terms of ratings at the time and on-field success once those players got to campus. This group will collectively enter its senior season this fall, so let’s look back on how each has fared so far, and what kind of impact can be expected going forward.
(All these recruiting ratings are via Rivals.com)
Jaylon Smith (5-star LB, Fort Wayne, Ind.)
Smith won the 2015 Butkus Award, was a consensus All-American and declared for the NFL Draft last month despite suffering a significant knee injury against Ohio State. Securing his verbal commitment was a watershed moment in the Brian Kelly era, as Smith was a top-three recruit nationally who had scholarship offers from loads of elite programs. While he won’t be back this fall, his impact will be far-reaching in recruiting going forward — being able to tell other blue-chip high schoolers that Smith played at Notre Dame is a major positive for the Irish.
Max Redfield (5-star S, Mission Viejo, Calif.)
Redfield hasn’t lived up to his five-star hype, but has 23 starts under his belt in three seasons. He hasn’t been alone at his position in struggling with far-too-frequent blown coverages, and was second on the Irish in tackles last fall despite being suspended for the Fiesta Bowl for a violation of team rules. He’ll be back in 2016 with one last chance to prove worthy of his five-star status, as well as earn himself a shot at playing in the NFL.
Greg Bryant (5-star RB, Delray Beach, Fla.)
Bryant took a medical redshirt his first year on campus and never was able to turn his athleticism and quickness into anything more than a couple of highlight-reel plays (like his 2014 spring game run and punt return against Louisville that fall). He was deemed academically ineligible for the 2015 season and decided to transfer to a junior college, and announced a few months ago he’ll play for UAB when that program re-starts play in 2017.
Eddie Vanderdoes (5-star DT, Auburn, Calif.)
The last five-star recruit to commit to Notre Dame on signing day didn't make it to campus, instead deciding in June of 2013 he’d prefer to play his college ball closer to home at UCLA. While he’s been banged up the last couple of years, his presence could’ve been a major boost for a defensive line that’s dealt with some depth issues, especially in 2014.
Malik Zaire (4-star QB, Kettering, Ohio)
Will he start this fall or not? That’ll be the No. 1 question surrounding Notre Dame for the next seven months until a starter is named or the team takes the field against Texas in early September. After nearly two seasons sitting behind Tommy Rees and Everett Golson, Zaire started the 2014 Music City Bowl and set the tone for a 31-28 upset over LSU, then opened the 2015 campaign with a win over Texas before suffering a fractured ankle the next week against Virginia. He’s more natural in the read option game than DeShone Kizer, and has a similarly strong arm, but whether he can re-take his starting job against a guy who won nine games last season remains to be seen.
Isaac Rochell (4-star DE, McDonough, Ga.)
Rochell has been one of Notre Dame’s more consistent performers since he took over a starting role from the suspended Ishaq Williams in 2014, starting 25 of Notre Dame’s 26 games with 15 tackles for a loss, three and a half sacks and 17 quarterback hurries. He looks like an early contender to be a team captain next fall and should continue to be a solid run-stuffing, quarterback-hurrying presence on the Irish defensive line.
Corey Robinson (4-star WR, San Antonio, Texas)
Robinson’s production sharply dropped off last fall, going from 40 catches, 539 yards and five touchdowns in 2014 to 16 catches, 200 yards and one touchdown in 2015. With Chris Brown gone, Robinson is the incumbent at Notre Dame’s boundary-side receiver position, where he’ll have to fend off Miles Boykin for playing time. Even if Robinson doesn’t build on that 2014 season, though, he’s an outstanding representative for the university — he started a non-profit organization that donates athletic gear to those in need and is running for Notre Dame student body president this year.
Doug Randolph (4-star LB, Richmond, Va.)
C.J. Prosise’s prep teammate at Woodberry Forest High School has primarily served as a special teams player, though his move to defensive end could get him in the mix for playing time in 2016 at a position with thin depth behind starters Andrew Trumbetti and Isaac Rochell.
James Onwualu (4-star ATH, St. Paul, Minn.)
Onwualu played as a freshman wide receiver mainly used for blocking purposes, then was moved to safety following the 2013 season. He quickly was shifted down to outside linebacker and started 17 games there in 2014 and 2015, settling into a nice groove with Greer Martini there — Onwualu will start against more passing-oriented offenses, while Martini gets the nod against running-oriented opponents.
John Montelus (4-star OL, Everett, Mass.)
Montelus hasn’t broken through as an interior offensive lineman, and with Steve Elmer and Quenton Nelson entrenched at both guard positions and Tristen Hoge and Sam Mustipher likely battling to replace Nick Martin at center, there doesn’t appear to be a clear opening for him to move up the depth chart.
Mike McGlinchey (4-star OL, Philadelphia, Pa.)
McGlinchey came to Notre Dame as a raw, athletic project of a player who offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has molded into a solid right tackle with plenty more potential yet to be reached. He started all 13 games last fall and could finish his career with 40 starts, provided the redshirt junior-to-be he exhausts the entirety of his eligibility.
Cole Luke (4-star CB, Chandler, Ariz.)
Luke had a fantastic 2014 season in place of the suspended KeiVarae Russell (four interceptions, 11 break-ups, two forced fumbles) but struggled at times in 2015 (two interceptions, five break-ups). With Russell gone, Notre Dame will need Luke to get back to his 2014 level of production to help keep its secondary afloat.
Torii Hunter Jr. (4-star WR, Prosper, Texas)
Hunter caught 28 passes for 363 yards and two touchdowns in 2015, though he had to compete for targets against established veterans at all three of Notre Dame’s receiver positions. With Amir Carlisle, Will Fuller and Brown gone, Hunter is the team’s leading returning receiver and the early favorite to start in the slot, though he has the flexibility to slide over to the field side and spell Equanimeous St. Brown there if need be (or if Kelly & Co. want to get C.J. Sanders involved).
Will Fuller (4-star WR, Philadelphia, Pa.)
Fuller dubbed Notre Dame “wide receiver university” on his way out the door, and thanks to his massively successful three-year stint in South Bend, that’s not hyperbole. With 144 catches, 2,152 yards and 30 touchdowns in his college career, Fuller joined Michael Floyd, Golden Tate and Jeff Samardzija before him among the best receivers to play at Notre Dame.
Tarean Folston (4-star RB, Cocoa, Fla.)
Last fall was supposed to be Folston’s breakout season, but Notre Dame’s unquestioned feature back tore his ACL on his third carry of the year. He’ll return for the 2016 season hoping to show Notre Dame — and the NFL — that he can be a complete, dependable running back, though he’ll have to compete for carries with Josh Adams, who in 2015 set a program record for most rushing yards by a freshman.
Steve Elmer (4-star OL, Midland, Mich.)
Elmer returns as Notre Dame’s most experienced offensive lineman with 30 starts, and coupled with McGlinchey should shift the power on Notre Dame’s offensive line to the right side this fall.
Hunter Bivin (4-star OL, Owensboro, Ky.)
Bivin hasn’t started a game in his three seasons, and is likely behind Alex Bars in the battle to replace Ronnie Stanley at left tackle. But with Bars still recovering from a fractured ankle suffered against USC Oct. 17, Bivin could run with the first-team offensive line during spring practice and give himself a shot at beating out Bars when the competition heats up in preseason camp this August.
Mike Heuerman (4-star TE, Naples, Fla.)
The brother of ex-Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman never was able to gain enough weight to see the field as a tight end, and took a medical redshirt prior to the 2015 season that ended his playing career.
Durham Smythe (3-star TE, Belton, Texas)
Smythe likely will enter the 2016 season as Notre Dame’s starting tight end, even though he missed all but three games last fall due to a knee and shoulder injury. He can catch and block, making him Notre Dame’s most complete tight end, though he’ll have the athletic pass-catching duo of Alize Jones and Nic Weishar pushing him for playing time and targets.
Colin McGovern (3-star OL, New Lenox, Ill.)
Like Montelus and Bivin, McGovern hasn’t broken through, but the state of Notre Dame’s offensive line when this class was signed wasn’t good: Leading up to the BCS Championship a few weeks prior, Notre Dame didn’t have enough healthy scholarship offensive linemen to complete two full units, which made practicing for Alabama’s punishing defense a difficult task. Even if Bivin, McGovern and Montelus never start a game, their presence is important in giving the Irish not only two, but three complete units of scholarship offensive linemen to use in practice.
Jacob Matuska (3-star TE, Columbus, Ohio)
Matuska quickly was moved to defensive line, where he played in 2014 after that unit was decimated by injuries. As that depth healed and improved, though, he only appeared in one game in 2015.
Devin Butler (3-star CB, Washington D.C.)
Butler would’ve started the Fiesta Bowl had he not broken a bone in his foot in practice a few days before the game. He’ll compete with Nick Watkins and Nick Coleman to start opposite Luke this fall and has three starts, one interception and six break-ups to his name.
[SHOP: Get your Notre Dame gear]
Rashad Kinlaw (3-star ATH, Galloway, N.J.)
Kinlaw was dismissed in April 2014 because “he didn’t live up to the rules within our football program,” Kelly said at the time.
Michael Deeb (3-star LB, Plantation, Fla.)
Deeb needed reconstructive surgery on and had nerve damage in his elbow, which led him to a medical redshirt that ended his playing career.
Summing it up: This class will have produced two NFL Draft picks by May (Smith is a likely first-rounder, while Fuller should be picked in the first three rounds) and could have as many as 12 of its members starting in 2016. That's awfully strong, and shows that Kelly's program not only is recruiting well, but also successfully developing those players.