How Notre Dame was able to have a 3-9 record last season and still retain arguably the top recruiting class in the nation has boggled the minds of many across the nation. If anything, it is a testament to the effort and skill that head coach Charlie Weis and the rest of the Irish coaching staff has to bring in top talent.
Although the 2008 season has yet to start, Notre Dame has already received verbal commitments from many of the top players in the nation - some of these coming in positions of key needs.
The first notable player to jump on board was running back Cierre Wood from Santa Clara High School in Oxnard, Calif. Ranked as a five-star recruit at Scout.com, Wood brings an element of speed, explosiveness and playmaking ability from both the backfield and special teams. Wood committed during the weekend of the spring Blue-Gold game and his interest in the Irish turned some heads due to last season's record and the heavy competition at the running back position.
Tyler Stockton, a defensive tackle out of The Hun School in Princeton, N.J., also verbally committed to Notre Dame during the spring game. Irisheyes.com's Mike Frank thinks very highly of Stockton and feels that Irish fans will recall a recent standout along the defensive front when watching Stockton.
"Tyler is a very big pickup for the coaching staff," Frank said. "He's short, compact and can penetrate and make some plays in the backfield. He's a huge pickup because defensive tackle has been a position that Notre Dame has struggled to recruit in the past. I think he'll remind a lot of people of Trevor Laws when all is said and done."
Weis and his staff have done a solid job of luring talent out of the Garden State, a place Frank feels is vital for success in the future.
"Charlie has been putting a lot of effort into the recruitment of players out of New Jersey," Frank said. "It's a vital area that he can relate to because he's from there and it's an area he needs to continue to recruit to succeed."
Another New Jersey product that committed in the middle of May is inside linebacker Carlo Calabrese. Coming out of Verona High School in Verona, N.J., Calabrese is a force to be reckoned with in terms of stopping the run. More than anything, Frank feels, Calabrese has the type of attitude that the Irish are looking for in high school recruits.
"Carlo plays the game like it should be played," Frank said. "The play stops when Carlo hits you. He's a guy that's going to hit you every play he goes out there. He's fast and I think some will be surprised with how aggressive he is on the field."
Over the summer, the Irish coaches hit the recruiting trail and picked up some big names along the way. The second week of July, however, proved to be one that solidified some of the key players of the class of 2009 thus far. In the span of seven days, Notre Dame picked up verbal commitments from cornerback Marlon Pollard, who originally committed to UCLA, tight end Tyler Eifert and offensive guard Chris Watt.
Pollard originally wasn't scheduled to visit the Notre Dame campus, but after the Cajon High School product had an extra day in Chicago at the Offense-Defense Sports Select Football Camp, he decided to visit the Irish. That was all the coaching staff needed as special teams coach Brian Polian showed the four-star corner around campus and received his pledge to play for Notre Dame. Frank thinks Pollard could eventually be one of the biggest commits of the class.
"It was a real big deal to land another corner this early on in the process," Frank said. "Pollard's a little undersized, but at 6-foot-1, he's got good height to play against other receivers. He has extremely quick feet, maybe quicker than anybody on the [Irish] roster right now. He could be a leader in the secondary with his talent."
Watt, out of Glenbard West High School in Illinois is a physical presence and is exactly what Notre Dame needed, according to Frank.
"Chris is exactly what the coaching staff was looking for," he said. "He's a player that's going to hit you during the play, and he might hit you after the whistle too. Not to say that he gives cheap shots, but he's extremely aggressive and loves the contact.
"It was a big get because he's a Chicago kid and it was important to land him. With him on one side and Trevor Robinson on the other, the Notre Dame running game could be good for years to come."
Lying in the road ahead for the Irish are a couple of blue-chip prospects that are being heavily recruited by most large programs across the nation. Outside linebackers Jelani Jenkins out of Wheaton, Md., and Manti Te'o out of Honolulu, Hawaii headline the names along the defense.
"It's hard to tell with Jenkins because no one really talks to him," Frank said. "He came for a visit with his stepfather and mother, and his father likes Notre Dame too. I'd say Notre Dame will definitely be in his top five. If the Irish can win some games, they'll be in better shape."
Te'o's situation is very similar, Frank said.
"Manti's case is almost the same situation," he said. "Weis has done an excellent job of staying in touch with him and recruiting him very hard. Notre Dame needs to bring him up for a visit to have a shot here. I've been hearing that they're working on bringing him for the [Pittsburgh] game, but I think the Irish have a better shot at Te'o than most people think."
The other big name Irish fans are hearing a lot of is Xavier Nixon, a left tackle out of Jack Britt in Fayetteville, N.C. This is perhaps the most vital position left on the board for the Notre Dame, due to its recent struggles with the position. Like most recruits, Frank thinks the visit will tell the story.
"Xavier will definitely come up at some point," he said. "If not during the season, they'll look to bring him afterwards, but they need him on campus. His family likes the coaching staff and the education that Notre Dame brings. He's a highly recruited guy, so he's hearing from just about every program in the nation. He wants to know how the Irish will play and how he'll fit in. Having Corwin Brown recruiting him has been an advantage because Brown has struck up an excellent relationship with Nixon and his family."
As the season kicks off Saturday against San Diego State, all eyes will be on the Irish and how they will respond to last year. None will be as important as the high school recruits on the fence about the Irish.
Now only one thing is left to do - win.