Now that this season is behind us, our focus is thankfully turning from the funhouse rear view mirror. As you can see on the left, Notre
Dame has been absurdly behind the top programs in the country the last three years in upper class top talent.
But next year the gap begins to close rapidly. For the first time since Bob Davie, Notre
Dame will field as many upper class 4 and 5 star players as Michigan. And while ND is still considerably behind Florida and USC
, the slope of the talent line in South Bend is rising faster than anywhere else in the country -- which is both hopeful and hurtful. Hurtful because it's painful to see just how far Notre
Dame has fallen compare to programs like Michigan, but hopeful in that Notre
Dame will pass Michigan in 2009 and rise to the same overall level of talent that Texas had when it won its National Championship. When this year's incoming number one rated recruiting class reaches their junior year, Notre
Dame will be at the "program level" -- where it's upper classes are full of top talent without giant holes or gaps.
What are the characteristics of a "program level" contender?
1 - Strong junior, senior and 5th
2 - High (5-star) potential in the sophomore and freshmen classes
3 - Position depth
A "program level" contender has one of two things at most of their starting spots: experience or talent -- and you need both at (and this is a guestimate
) 80% of your positions on the field if you're going to contend.
This ensures that if you have to play young players, it's because you can't keep them off the
field. It also ensures that you have competition every practice. Sam Young is a great talent, but he's been thrust into the starting role without anyone to push him or mentor him. It's heartening to hear that he's one of the younger players who's taking charge, because he's been a symptom of why Notre
Dame hasn't reached program status. There is simply no one to challenge him or push him to be better. Auburn started true freshman on their Offensive line, but it was because they actually beat out senior talent. Building enough depth to create internal competition is one of the key features of a program contender.
Fans are often under the illusion that star ratings=ability to contribute at a championship level immediately. That's not the case. Very few of even five star players are ready to play at a championship level on a full time basis until their junior years. You have to giggle a bit when you hear fans pronounce that "player X or Y isn't as good as we hoped" and the sample pool is a few games of his freshman or sophomore year. There is simply no way you (rationally) can label a true freshman or sophomore a bust early in their careers.
Think about Ryan Grant's performance at Green Bay this season. He's STILL developing and it helps to understand that we're talking about developing players here, which is why seniority, depth and talent are all necessary. Most 5-star recruits DON'T pan out, so you need all three elements to compete on a year in year out basis. All teams are going to have holes and weaknesses, but the best have surrounded their weaknesses with strengths.
Three straight years of top level recruiting will put Notre
Dame back in program contention by 2009 and (get those shades) because this year's recruiting class might be the strongest in recent Notre
Dame history, the expectations for 2009 and beyond should be nothing less than NC contention every year.
So there's a lot to look forward to, but I don't think we're going to get there without some pain along the way over this next year -- in the next Rock Report I'm going to take a look at pain points for 2008.