Brian Kelly's plan to build a defense that will help Notre Dame become a national contender again was reflected in his first full recruiting class.
The Irish landed 23 recruits on Wednesday — 14 of them on the defensive side of the ball, including standout defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt of Monroe, Ga., and linebacker Ishaq Williams of Brooklyn, N.Y.
Williams and another highly regarded defensive lineman, Aaron Lynch of Cape Coral, Fla., are among five players already enrolled early at Notre Dame.
"You can't fake it on defense. You can fake it a little bit on offense. But defensively, you know, you've got to win the one-on-one matchups. You've got to win those matchups," Kelly said. "You can't hide there. And so the recruiting efforts start with the defensive line, and they work out from there."
Another early enrollee who will get a good look this spring is Everett Golson of Myrtle Beach, S.C., a mobile quarterback whose style could transform Kelly's spread offense into a more wide-open attack.
Golson finished 44-5 in his career as starting quarterback at Myrtle Beach (S.C) High School and threw for 11,634 yards and 151 TDs. The Irish return both of their starters from last season, Dayne Crist, who had season-ending knee surgery, and Tommy Rees, who started all four of the Irish's victories to end an 8-5 season.
Notre Dame also signed some players Wednesday with strong football roots: twin brothers George Atkinson III (receiver) and Josh Atkinson (defensive back), the sons of former NFL defensive back George Atkinson Jr.; offensive lineman Conor Hanratty, son of former Irish quarterback Terry Hanratty; and wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, son of NFL defensive end Phillip Daniels.
Notre Dame's recruits came from 14 different states. There are some players who have been on either side of the line, notably Troy Niklas.
Niklas, who is 6-foot-7 and 240 pounds, played on both lines at Servite High School in Fullerton, Calif., as a guard, tight end and defensive tackle.
Where players end up is not as big a deal as many project it to be, Kelly said.
"We look for players that are committed to being here at Notre Dame to help us win a championship, not because I've got to play this position, I have to be here," Kelly said.
Notre Dame's recruiting is nationally based and, as Kelly has found out in his short time running the program, it's a demanding process for him and his assistants as they recruit against conference schools all across the country.
"I think in just two months' time, you know, I put on over 15,000 miles in terms of air travel — 54 or 55 hours in the air," he said.
And sometimes there are areas that have to be redone, like when the talented Tuitt was reportedly de-committing from the Irish and heading to Georgia Tech. Four Irish coaches persuaded him that he should head to his original destination — South Bend.
"Having that presence there was really, for us, making a statement and making sure that what we were talking about and what he saw when he came to Notre Dame, what his family saw, was really the truth of the matter," Kelly said.
"And sometimes you have to over-communicate that message. And we had four coaches there to make certain that that message was clear."
Kelly added he's in favor of an early signing period for football recruits to relieve some of the pressure that's put on them.
"Those young men are 17 years old, 18 years old, and they're getting bombarded with professional recruitment for months on end," Kelly said. "And I think the early signing period allows that to end at a period where the young man can make a decision and go. That's why I'm in favor of it."
Other players added were early enrollee defensive lineman Brad Carrico; defensive back Jalen Brown; linebacker Ben Councell; defensive back Matthias Farley; linebacker Jarrett Grace; defensive lineman Chase Hounshell; defensive back Eilar Hardy; linebacker Anthony Rabasa; and defensive lineman Tony Springmann.
Cam McDaniel of Coppell, Texas., was the lone running back signed. The Irish also beefed up their offensive front with Matt Hegarty and Nick Martin, whose brother Zack is a starting offensive tackle for the Irish; Notre Dame got a tight end in Ben Koyack; Kicker/punter Kyle Brindza is another early enrollee.