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The Journal Gazette

Thursday, December 20, 2018 1:00 am

National Signing Day

Irish focus on defense with early signees

Mr. Football among 23 in class

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

Notre Dame's coaching staff took a short break from College Football Playoff preparation Wednesday to welcome the next crop of high school recruits into the Irish program.

The December national signing day produced 23 letters of intent to play at Notre Dame, including that of 2018 Indiana Mr. Football Jack Kiser of Pioneer, who will play linebacker for the Irish.

Notre Dame's class will likely still expand between now and the Feb. 6 national signing day, but the Irish have already locked in a talented group, one that ranks 13th nationally, per 247Sports, and fills specific needs for the team going forward.

Coach Brian Kelly said the class was the most “efficient” in his time at Notre Dame.

“I have not seen all our operation work as efficiently in this process as it has with these (players),” Kelly said. “I think we've done a much better job of making sure that everybody knows exactly what their job is and how to do their job.

“People staying in their lanes, doing their job on a day-to-day basis and also working together to make sure that gets done.”

Notre Dame's class was defense-heavy, with 13 of the 21 players signed lining up either on defense or special teams.

For the second straight year, the top recruit was a defensive back. Safety Kyle Hamilton of Atlanta, the No. 103 player nationally, leads the #FightClub19, as the class is known on social media.

The Irish coaching staff focused heavily on the trenches, especially on the defensive line, where they signed four players. This class will feature the next wave of pass rushers and run stoppers after stars such as Jerry Tillery, Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem move on to the NFL in the next two years.

“If you look at these (2019) guys, they have the ability to play (different places on the defensive line), if we need them to,” Kelly said. “That's really what we're looking for. So, this group of defensive (linemen), there's a lot more flexibility in their ability to play more than one position and that's why you're seeing more depth at that position.”

Defensive line coach Mike Elston, who has molded this year's line into one of the best units in the country, was effusive in his praise for the new group, which is led by 6-foot-4 defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah of Fort Worth, Texas, – the No. 138 player in the country and the No. 7 defensive lineman.

“I'm the most excited guy in the building today,” Elston said. “It's an exciting time to add to our culture at the defensive line with great talent and skilled players, but also guys that will represent Notre Dame in the right way off the field.”

The Irish signed a large class of “skill position” players in the 2018 class, loading up on running backs and wide receivers along with four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec. Those positions are comparatively light in this class so far, but Notre Dame did sign another quarterback: three-star pro-style passer Brendon Clark from Midlothian, Virginia, is the No. 21 quarterback in the country and could push Jurkovec for the starting job in 2020 or 2021.

Of the players the Irish brought in, 10 will enroll in January and be able to participate in spring practice and summer workouts. Kelly said the extra time on campus gives those players more opportunities to compete for playing time as true freshmen.