SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly wasn't about to quibble with recruiting experts who called the recruiting class he signed Wednesday his best.
"I love agreeing with experts," he joked.
Most recruiting services had the Irish ranked in the top five in the country. Kelly said the 23 players signed by the Irish show that Notre Dame has returned to elite status this past season, being ranked No. 1 for the first time in nearly 19 years and playing against Alabama in the BCS title game, which the Irish lost 42-14.
"It's a recruiting class that when you're looking at it from my perspective, it meets the time and place as to where we are right now. We're a team that has gone from unranked to top 10 ranking, top five ranking, at times we're the No. 1 team in the country, and I think your class begins to reflect that as you move forward," he said.
Running back Greg Bryant of Delray Beach, Fla., was an example of that. Bryant, who rushed for 1,447 yards and 17 touchdowns on 186 carries last season, had committed to Oklahoma and the Irish hadn't contacted him since May. But after Bryant decommitted from Oklahoma and the Irish were off to an 11-0 start and ranked No. 1, recruiting coordinator Tony Alford decided to give him a call just before Thanksgiving and quickly found there was interest.
"The season, 11-0, we were first in the country, that certainly had an impact with him as far as piquing his interest," said Alford, who also is the running backs coach.
Among the other highly touted players in the class are linebacker Jaylon Smith of Fort Wayne, running back Tarean Folston, who rushed for 1,186 yards and 13 touchdowns for Cocoa (Fla.) High School, and safety Max Redfield of Mission Viejo, Calif. The Irish were still waiting to hear from defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes.
Smith won the Butkus Award as the nation's top high school linebacker, the same award Manti Te'o won four years ago.
"He's got all the things that you're looking for, that quickness, that ability to strike," Kelly said.
Redfield is one of four defensive backs who will add depth in the secondary. After starting cornerback Lo Wood and safety Jamoris Slaughter went down with season-ending injuries, the Irish had to depend on sophomore safety Matthias Farley and freshman cornerback KeiVarae Russell, two players who were recruited on offense.
The Irish also added depth along the offensive line with five recruits: 6-6, 290-pound Hunter Bivin, 6-5, 300-pound Steve Elmer, 6-7, 280-pound Mike McGlinchey and 6-5, 305-pound John Montelus. Kelly said the Irish were so thin along the line that at times as the Irish practiced to get ready for Alabama he only had five healthy linemen at some practices. The Irish are expected to be at the 85-player scholarship limit for the first time since Tyrone Willingham was coach, which Kelly said should help.
"That impacts your program, I'm telling you," Kelly said. "It impacts the way you practice. You don't get a chance to tackle quite as much, and all those things begin to show themselves when you're below the scholarship numbers."
The Irish also added two wide receivers with well-known fathers: wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr., whose father plays with the Detroit Tigers, and Corey Robinson, whose father, David, played basketball with the San Antonio Spurs.
Recruiting analyst Tom Lemming of CBS College Sports called the recruiting class Notre Dame's best since 2008, when the Irish had the consensus No. 2 class. That class featured Michael Floyd, tight end Kyle Rudolph, defensive back Robert Blanton and linebacker Darius Fleming. Each was an NFL draft pick.
Lemming said the key for the Notre Dame coaching staff is to follow this year's class up with another strong class next year.
"If you want to be in Alabama territory that means you have to put four great classes back-to-back-to-back-to-back. Notre Dame has not been able to do that. So depth-wise, talent-wise they're not able to practice as hard as Alabama is because one guy goes out they have another guy just as good to come in. Notre Dame didn't have that luxury," he said.
Kelly said the priority for 2014 will be adding offensive and defensive linemen.