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A Recruiting Retrospective

By Luke Smith | July 23
A Recruiting Retrospective
Tyrone Willingham- Photo Credit: New York Times

A lot has been made about the impact of new Irish Defensive Coordinator Marcus Freeman on the recruiting trail, and rightfully so. Right now, Notre Dame's 2022 class is ranked 3rd nationally by both 247 and Rivals, with its top four recruits all on the defensive side of the ball in Jaylen Snead,
Niuafe Tuihalamaka, Joshua Burnham, and Tyson Ford. The Irish's 2023 class is also off to a hot start, with commitments from four-star defensive end Keon Keeley and five-star defensive end Brenan Vernon. Fans are talking about recruiting in a way they haven't before, and for good reason. The Freeman Factor is real, and Notre Dame seems to have a real shot to break into top five of recruiting, which Brian Kelly pledged to do after the 2019 Camping World Bowl. With that in mind, let's take a look back at when things weren't so green. In fact, things were downright terrible.

The impetus for this article occurred a few weeks ago when I received a screenshot with a text saying "There's only two four-star recruits on this list. Tell me who they are." The screenshot in question was Notre Dame's 2004 recruiting class, and my God was it awful. For what it's worth, the two four-stars were linebacker Anthony Vernaglia and running back Junior Jabbie. In case you were wondering, Vernaglia had nine solo tackles over the entirety of his college career before doing a grad transfer to Hofstra, and Jabbie ended his career at Bryant in Rhode Island. Jabbie did, however, have a legendary Blue-Gold Game performance that many fans use today as a cautionary tale about that scrimmage. From what I can tell, the highlight of Vernaglia's college career was this article, where he boasts about dancing with Nicole Ritchie at a club and explains that he "chose to major in finance because you get paid the most coming out of college." Vernaglia founded a company "with a vision of producing innovative and affordable digital display software solutions for entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry." It appears the company has not done anything in the last three years. That all sounds about right. However, at least I remember, or had heard of Vernaglia and Jabbie. The rest of the class? That's not really the case.

Of Tyrone Willingham's 16-member 2004 class (ranked 32nd by Rivals), five of the names I genuinely do not think I had heard before researching for this piece. Those five individuals are linebacker Abdel Banda, running back Justin Hoskins, offensive lineman Chauncey Incarnato, defensive end Brandon Nicolas, and offensive lineman John Kadous. Banda was a Delbarton kid and one of Notre Dame's six (6!) two-star recruits in this class, and had his career end by injury as a sophomore. Hoskins apparently played in 11 games over 2 years before transferring to Central Michigan. Like I said, I don't remember him at all. Incarnato redshirted as a freshman, before transferring to Indiana and then UMASS. He is now an ICU nurse at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. What a path! Nicolas was the most successful of this group, but not at Notre Dame. He did not see action as a freshman, and transferred to Colorado where he was a three-year starter. Finally, the last of the unknown, John Kadous, apparently almost transferred to play at Arizona after his freshman year. He instead elected to just leave the program and finish as a student at Notre Dame. You're probably thinking, "alright, he's gotta talk about the guys that were good now." Oh no, we still have some garbage to work through.

As I mentioned, this 2004 class had six two-star recruits. Two of those were Quarterbacks, Darrin Bragg and David Wolke. Neither would play a meaningful game as a quarterback at Notre Dame. Wolke transferred to Western Kentucky after seeing action in 6 games in 2005, going 1-6 for 28 yards and a pick. Bragg had a weird ass career, changing positions to wide receiver and actually quitting the team at one point, before Charlie Weis begged him to come back in 2007 as a backup quarterback because depth was so poor. If that's not a sign of Willingham and Weis's horrific roster management, I don't know what is. Typing out that Notre Dame took two two-star quarterbacks in a class makes my brain hurt, but take two two-star quarterbacks in a class they did. The other two-stars in this class were corner Leo Ferrine, defensive end Justin Brown, the aforementioned Banda, and the late Dave Duerson's son Tregg. I don't think the junior Duerson ever even practiced for the Irish. You can't even find him on Sports Reference. Ferrine had 34 career tackles and a pick-six against Syracuse in 2005. To be honest, I barely remember Brown but the stats tell me he was a two-year starter who had 2.5 sacks for his career. As you can see, this group of two-stars produced the way you would expect a group of two-star recruits to produce.

The three-stars in this class were a bit of a mixed bag. Half of them are the guys I had never heard of who I already talked about. That's Incarnato, Kadous, Nicolas, and Hoskins. Ronald Talley, when healthy and present traits wise, was an effective player for the Irish. In 2005, he recorded 23 tackles, one sack, one fumble recovery, and two pass deflections. However, in 2006, after being expected to play a bigger role for the Irish alongside Victor Abiamiri and Chris Frome, Talley just quit the team after 6 games. I guess he was unhappy with playing time, and the coaches didn't try to convince him otherwise. This weird sort of thing honestly happened a lot during the Willingham/Weis eras, which probably explains a lot.

Now, there were some bright spots in this class that were three-stars. We all remember Terrail Lambert and the role he played in the epic comeback at Michigan State. Darius Walker was a bonafide stud for the Irish in his three years in South Bend, and held the freshman rushing record until Josh Adams broke it in 2015. For this writer, he was also a legend at Lonestar Steakhouse in Mishawaka after home games in 2005 and 2006. Any time we went there after a game, Darius would be there with his family and he would walk up to our table and sit and talk with the kids, signing all of the autographs anyone asked for. Finally, Maurice Crum Jr. probably had the most productive career of anyone in this class. Crum had 42 starts and was a two-time captain in South Bend, and ranks 11th on the school's all-time tackles list. All in all, there wasn't a ton of production from this group. That made me curious-was this year just a one-off or did Notre Dame have a prolonged period of recruiting ineptitude? The answer? Well, let me say that the 2005 class, which was half recruited by Willingham and half by Weis, was somehow even worse than the 2004 class.

The 2005 recruiting class had only 15 members and was ranked 40th by Rivals. The good news is that there were only two guys that I had never heard of prior to this. The bad news is that this neither of the class's two four-star recruits exhausted their eligibility at Notre Dame. The no-names are Derrell Hand and Kevin Washington. Hand did not see action his first two years in South Bend, then was arrested during the 2007 off-season for soliciting a prostitute. Frankly, I'd like to know more about that story and where it went down in South Bend, but that might be a task for another day. Hand, a three-star recruited by Weis, actually played in four games in 2007 after that arrest, but had his career ended by a spinal injury. Washington on the other hand, who was recruited by Willingham, apparently played in 4 games in 2007 and saw limited action in 2008 before transferring to Abilene Christian. Like I said, I have no idea who this guy is.

The two four-stars I mentioned? Well DJ Hord, the highest ranked prospect in this class and a Rockhurst grad (S/O Nick Hense), saw action as a kick returner in 2005 before transferring to Northern Iowa to finish his career. So yes, two years in a row, Notre Dame's top recruit finished their career at the FCS level. Meanwhile, Joey Hiben, the four-star tight end in this class, had to quit the team because he decided he had more of a passion for finishing his architecture major. This is probably a good time to correct Friend of the Program KeiVarae Russell who told us that "Notre Dame needs less architects." As it turns out, it is literally impossible to be both a Notre Dame football player and an architecture major at the University of Notre Dame. Still appreciate the sentiment though, Kei.

The majority of the class is pretty underwhelming. Steve Quinn, or "The kid who blocked the punt against USC" and the late Asaph Schwapp were the two two-stars in this class. I was shocked to see that Schwapp, who Willingham recruited, never had a touchdown. Then I remembered that he fumbled on the one-yard line multiple times and it started to add up. Other three-stars in this class recruited by Willingham included Evan Sharpley and David Grimes. Sharpley is probably most notable for being the quarterback that started the game that snapped Notre Dame's 43-game win streak against Navy while Grimes's most notable moment is a touchdown catch that got overturned against Stanford in 2007. For his part, Grimes was a captain as a 5th year senior, as was special teams standout and three-star recruit Scott Smith. Weis recruited three-star corner Ray Herring, who did a whole lot of nothing in his time in South Bend. He allegedly had 29 tackles in his 5 years on campus.

There are a handful of guys in the '05 class who were productive players at Notre Dame. Pat Kuntz, a Willingham recruit, was a three-year starter at nose. I remember him most as the guy that had the mohawk who was losing his goddamn mind when the Irish were getting destroyed in the Montana green throwbacks against USC in 2007. He led the nation in passes deflected that year, but if you ask him, it sounds like his biggest accomplishment may have been landing Manti Te'o. Kuntz apparently lived in an off-campus called, "The Kingdom," which he claims helped recruit a national-title-playing team through the activities at The Kingdom. The house, inhabited by Kuntz, Robby Paris, Quinn, Kyle McCarthy, and some others, landed Te'o, Zack Martin, and Tyler Eifert according to Kuntz. The home was subsequently remodeled after the fall of The Kingdom. Speaking of McCarthy, he may have been the most productive player in this class. Recruited by Weis, Kyle was a captain and eventual Notre Dame assistant, and also held the record for most tackles by a safety in a season. David Bruton was recruited by Willingham and became a two-year starter for the Irish before winning a Super Bowl with the Broncos. I guess that's good. To round out the class, Michael Turkovich and Paul Duncan were two offensive linemen who saw a lot of time but I honestly don't even remember them that well. In all likelihood, that's an indication of how low the standard for offensive line play was in the mid-2000s.

As you can see, this two-year stretch of recruiting was abysmal for the Irish. It should come as no surprise that as upperclassmen, these two classes went 16-21. I think it's an interesting contrast to compare this to what Notre Dame has in the hopper for 2022 and 2023. Can you imagine Notre Dame taking a single two-star recruit today? They took 8 over this two-year span in 2004 and 2005. Quite frankly, we're spoiled right now, and the thing is, it doesn't feel crazy to say that it feels like it's only going to get better, too. The Freeman Factor is real, and that spot in the top five is there for the taking. Let's see if it gets taken.