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Notre Dame's new focus may finally produce a return to prominence

The words have been uttered countless times over the past two decades, and each time they've proven premature. They elicit hope from a fan base desperate to reclaim its now-distant glory and groans from every other fan base in the country.

So brace yourself, because you're going to be hearing them again and again over the next 12 months.

Notre Dame is coming back.

Really.

You would have been hard-pressed to believe it late last October, when the Irish suffered back-to-back humbling defeats to Navy and Tulsa, dropping their record to 4-5 in coach Brian Kelly's first season. The tragic death of student assistant Declan Sullivan had cast a pall over the program. Two of the team's most important players, quarterback Dayne Crist and tight end Kyle Rudolph, had suffered season-ending injuries. The Irish appeared destined to miss a bowl game for the third time in four seasons.

But the Irish seemed to transform themselves following an early-November bye week, starting with a 28-3 rout of then 15th-ranked Utah. Two weeks later, they ended an eight-game losing streak to rival USC. And on New Year's Eve, they crushed Miami in the Sun Bowl to complete a season-ending four-game win streak.

"It's not like we had new players or a new scheme," said safety Harrison Smith, who had three interceptions in the bowl game. "We changed our mindset. We just got better and better every week."

As it turned out, the momentum was just beginning. On Feb. 2, Kelly announced a consensus Top 10 recruiting class that may signal a turning point for the program.

Sure, Notre Dame had its share of Top 10 classes under Charlie Weis, too. Brady Quinn, Jeff Samardzija, Jimmy Clausen, Michael Floyd and Rudolph were all considered top-shelf recruits. But all played on offense.

In a dramatic departure, Notre Dame's 2011 class included three five-star defensive ends (as rated by Scout.com) in Aaron Lynch (Cape Coral, Fla.), Ishaq Williams (Brooklyn, N.Y.) and Stephon Tuitt (Monroe, Ga.). Its last such get was Derek Landri nine years earlier. Lynch (Florida State) and Tuitt (Georgia Tech) both briefly committed elsewhere, while Penn State made a late run at Williams. (In a story that has already become legend in South Bend, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco showed up at Williams' home at 4:30 a.m. on a Friday to talk him out of taking an official visit to State College.)

All sealed their commitments over a five-day stretch last month, and Lynch and Williams have already enrolled.

"The excuse has been out there that Notre Dame couldn't return to prominence because we could never recruit those athletic defensive linemen," said Kelly. "We've taken that excuse off the book."

Upgrading the defensive line was paramount to the recruiting plan Kelly and his staff began formulating shortly after their arrival from Cincinnati a year earlier.

"When we got a chance to see our team work out that February, it was pretty clear we had to create competition on the defensive side of the ball," said Kelly. "We weren't athletic enough and we didn't have enough depth to create competition, in particular on the defensive line."

Even so, Notre Dame showed noticeable defensive improvement in Kelly's first season. With the exception of one woeful performance against Navy, in which the Midshipmen's triple-option attack rolled up 367 rushing yards, Diaco's unit played more disciplined and allowed fewer big plays than in years past. Over their final five games, the Irish allowed just four offensive touchdowns, improving from 63rd in scoring defense in 2009 to 23rd in 2010.

Notre Dame's defensive makeover, both on the field and in recruiting, came as a surprise to those who viewed Kelly primarily as a spread-offense guru. His last Cincinnati team ranked just 67th in total defense en route to a 12-0 regular season.

"In 21 years of being a head coach, most of the jobs I've had revolved around not just winning, but being exciting, being relevant, putting fans in the seats," said the former coach of Grand Valley State and Central Michigan. "None of those things matter at Notre Dame. I don't have to create an exciting offense, I just have to win football games, and defense goes hand in hand with winning."

Not that Kelly is forgetting his roots. His most important signee may well prove to be Everett Golson, a lanky (5-foot-11, 170 pounds) dual-threat quarterback from Myrtle Beach, S.C., whom Scout.com National Editor Allen Wallace describes as a "Tony Rice look-alike" -- a reference to Notre Dame's last national championship quarterback (also from South Carolina) in 1988.

Despite bringing back two starting quarterbacks from last season, veteran Crist (who started nine games before tearing his ACL against Tulsa) and rising sophomore Tommy Rees (who had a breakout game in the Sun Bowl), Kelly said early enrollee Golson will get a chance to compete for the job come spring.

"You have two very similar quarterbacks [Crist and Rees] -- they're not spread quarterbacks, they're modified spread quarterbacks," said Kelly. "We're going to give [Golson] an opportunity to be part of the first [team] and run the spread and be 100 percent committed to that. He won't be under center."

As with the defensive line recruits, Notre Dame coaches lured Golson away from an earlier suitor. He originally committed to North Carolina more than a year ago, but wavered due to the possibility of NCAA sanctions. Citing a close relationship with his primary recruiter, receivers coach Tony Alford (who also lured Lynch), Golson officially switched allegiances a couple of weeks after his late November visit to South Bend.

"I wanted to come here because I felt we can win a national championship," Golson said in an interview on Notre Dame's official website.

Ah yes -- that elusive national championship.

Over the years, many pundits (this one included) have questioned whether that goal remains viable for a contrarian, independent program with strict academic standards. In the two-plus decades since Notre Dame's last crown, the balance of power in college football has shifted heavily to the talent-rich South. That's why it's particularly noteworthy that Lynch and Tuitt hail from a region that's proven most prolific at producing elite defensive linemen.

Non-Notre Dame fans have every reason to be skeptical of yet another celebrated recruiting class. Several of Weis' most highly rated signees never came close to meeting the hype, fueling the theory that perhaps Notre Dame five-star recruits are like Duke McDonald's All-Americans: their status comes with the school.

But there's reason to believe this class will turn out differently than those before it.

"I think Brian Kelly will coach some of these guys better than Charlie Weis did," said Scout.com's Wallace. "He knows how to teach a college player better. He knows how to develop personnel at this level. He turned that team around [last year] and they're riding momentum."

Coming off their first eight-win season in four years, it's not unreasonable to think the Irish could earn a BCS bowl berth in Kelly's second season. They've earned three over the past 13 seasons. Much will depend on the development of whomever wins the quarterback derby, but Notre Dame will surround that player with as many as 18 guys with starting experience, including star receiver Floyd, All-America caliber linebacker Mant'i Teo and fourth-year starting safety Smith.

The difference between the Champs Sports Bowl and the Orange Bowl could come down to whether incoming freshmen like Lynch, Tuitt and Williams (who could become a hybrid linebacker in Diaco's 3-4 defense) can provide an immediate impact.

"If I didn't come here knowing I have the chance to start as a freshman, maybe I wouldn't be [working] as crazy as I am in the weight room," said early enrollee Lynch. "I'm going crazy because I want to play this year coming up."

Ultimately, it will take more than just a handful of recruits like Lynch for the Irish to again become a national power. The SEC's five straight national champs all boasted dominant defensive linemen -- most recently Auburn's Nick Fairley -- but those units didn't emerge overnight. Those programs, much like Ohio State, Texas and Oklahoma, have been churning out elite defenses for years.

"That's how it's been at Notre Dame the past few seasons," said Smith. "Everyone's been saying, 'If they had any kind of defense, they'd be one of the upper-level teams.' You hear that over and over. When you can silence what those people are saying, that's something we take a lot of pride in."

The Irish have taken the first few critical steps in the right direction.

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