January 31, 2023

SOUTH BEND, Indiana — Kaleb Smith was at the field level when the lights went out at Notre Dame Stadium last month and recorded the scene because that’s what top high school football prospects do. In the moments before Notre Dame took the field against Clemson, the three-star receiver from outside Dallas received video of the packed stadium lit by thousands of phone flashlights.

It made an impression. Just not as much as Notre Dame’s subsequent 35-14 win, the best performance of the Marcus Freeman era on a night when the Irish wanted both a win and a chance to make a good impression. Five-star security guard Peyton Bowen was also in attendance, along with more than a dozen Notre Dame commitments. For the Irish and a top five class to hold their own with early contract signings later this month, the whole scene was an opportunity to make a closing recruitment argument.

“It was electric,” Freeman said two days later. “You couldn’t ask for a better setting or a better ending, a crowd rushing across the field for the recruits that were here. I remind our employees that recruitment is so important. The relationships we develop, the ability to sell this university and football program, but the most important thing that happened on Saturday is the ability to win.

“These kids who were here, seeing themselves as a part of it, that’s your future. As we tell them, you will be a part of it, and this is just the beginning of something special. If you come here this may be what you expect to play in big games. We’re not going to rush onto the field at every game, but to be able to attend games like that, you come to Notre Dame.”

Smith has now joined the ranks of those commitments and is Notre Dame’s 26th verbal acceptance in a recruiting class that remains No. 3 nationally according to 247Sports Composite rankings. The former Texas Tech engagement is Notre Dame’s fourth wide receiver in a class that prioritized that position as a top goal alongside quarterback.

How has Notre Dame progressed from being a No. 1 in class earlier this year, to being relegated to the top 10 and finally returning to the top 5? These are the moves that have been most important as Freeman has led the Irish recruiting operation throughout the season and beyond, with Notre Dame attempting to finish in its highest rated class since before the Brian Kelly era.

Notre Dame finally got its quarterback

The Irish offered four-star quarterback Kenny Minchey in the summer, a speculative maneuver after missing Dante Moore in the Class of 2023 and landing CJ Carr for ’24. It was a sign the Irish didn’t like where they were as quarterbacks, which was a top priority early in the cycle. For months, the Irish believed they would land Moore, a five-star Detroit prospect who had privately assured Freeman he would be there. Then Moore committed to Oregon instead.

That led Notre Dame to Minchey, who had signed to Pittsburgh on the heels of the Panthers and produced a first-round pick on his position, Kenny Pickett. The Irish were also going after Austin Novosad, who was signed to Baylor but drew interest from Notre Dame and Ohio State over the summer. Minchey’s interest was weak at first, but the Irish kept in touch. Ultimately, the Hendersonville, Tenn., product was released from Pittsburgh on November 14, four days before his official visit to Notre Dame for the Boston College Game weekend.

Minchey went public with his involvement with Notre Dame on November 22.

While Notre Dame plans to land another quarterback in the transfer portal this winter, Minchey’s signing is about giving the Irish options at the most important position on the field. That was something the Irish didn’t have this season after Tyler Buchner’s injury forced Drew Pyne into action in Week 2. It was Pyne or nothing, no matter how much shouting there was for newcomer Steve Angeli.

None of this means Notre Dame expects Minchey to play early, just that these Irish will give themselves another option at the position. Notre Dame wants to consider another transfer next season to fight for the starting spot. But Minchey will create competition in the space and have a shot at eventually winning the job, even if it means having to stop Carr later.

The more quarterback options you have in your room, the more likely one of those quarterbacks will become a difference maker.

The Irish got aggressive with roster numbers

If Notre Dame signs 26 prospects this cycle, it will extend squad math for Freeman. If the Irish accept transfers at quarterback, receiver, defensive end and kicker to go as planned with this class of recruit, Notre Dame could be almost 10 players over the 85-man stipend limit on paper. It’s worth remembering that teams don’t need to be at the 85-man mark by next season’s inaugural start, meaning there’s no rush to be under the threshold at any moment during the offseason.

Still, Notre Dame’s position speaks to Freeman’s desire to “improve” the roster and likely says something about how staff view some of the players stuck outside the two deeps. Rather than waiting for a return on investment that may never arrive, Notre Dame seems more inclined to recruit over-the-top players who may never get clicked as college contributors.

The Irish became more comfortable with this version of roster management in Brian Kelly’s final years, when it was common for a handful of reserves to retire from the team, get their academics in order, graduate from Notre Dame and move elsewhere . Often these players left with two seasons left. Now some might even have three because of the bonus COVID-19 year. For example, juniors Kevin Bauman, Drew Pyne and Michael Carmody still have three years of eligibility despite playing three football seasons at Notre Dame.

Freeman has to be aggressive in managing the roster, although Notre Dame’s desire for high graduation rates and its emphasis on lifelong relationships with the school and football program muddies those waters somewhat. Still, there’s no advantage in modern college football that head coaches refuse.

Is Notre Dame done adding or losing numbers from its class?

Notre Dame remains on the hunt for two other untied prospects this cycle: three-star receiver Khalil Barnes (Bogart, Georgia) and three-star athlete Brandyn Hillman (Portsmouth, Virginia). Most recruiting analysts have Hillman — rated four stars on multiple networks — heading toward Notre Dame and Barnes leaning toward Clemson. Kaleb Smith’s Irish landing on Thursday likely reinforces those prospects compared to Barnes.

Hillman, who could play multiple positions, appears only in the bottom eight of Notre Dame, Tennessee, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Virginia, Miami, Kentucky and Virginia Tech.

But the bigger story for Notre Dame over the next four weeks will be holding its recruiting class together more than adding anything. Five-star safety expert Peyton Bowen has visited Oklahoma multiple times and has yet to publicly reaffirm his January 1 Notre Dame commitment, as does defensive end Keon Keeley, the five-star nominee the Irish lost earlier this year.

Four-star cornerback Micah Bell might also be worth pursuing. Georgia offered the Houston product this week. Bell’s older brother, Dillon, is a freshman receiver for the Bulldogs.

Notre Dame has lost four signings this cycle for various reasons: Keeley, four-star cornerback Justyn Rhett (Georgia), four-star offensive lineman Elijah Paige (USC), and three-star running back Sedrick Irvin (Stanford). Keeping that number at four is crucial for Notre Dame to sign a Top 5 class.

The Irish have 290.28 points in the 247Sports team standings. This total is higher than all of Kelly’s classes. In the previous five cycles, it would have ranked fifth, sixth, sixth, third, and fifth nationally.

(Photo: Quinn Harris / Getty Images)

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