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Notre Dame Football

The Reality of Recruiting at a School Like Notre Dame

January 27, 2021

After another disappointing playoff loss, I’ve been reading ND fan comments for the past few weeks and Irish fans seem to be on a mission:  we need more 5-star players and we want them now.

That’s a good plan.  If it were only that easy…

If it were that easy, everyone would be doing it.  If it were that easy, Brian Kelly would be over the hump right now.  So would Kirby Smart.  So would Lincoln Riley.  So would Texas, and Florida and USC and Oregon and everywhere else.  It’s not that easy.  I want to explain.

First, it’s extremely important to remember how Brian Kelly got Notre Dame to this point.  A complete “reset” after the 2016 season.  Did ND suddenly land a bunch fo elite players and that’s how they got into the playoff?  No.  

What Kelly did do was come up with a plan on how to fix this, and the first, most important part of that plan was to fix the culture at Notre Dame.  Matt Balis was brought in to help ND train better.  People were brought in for better nutrition.  Many new coaches were hired.  Kelly, himself, made changes.  

All of these changes pointed to one thing…fix the culture at ND.  

What was wrong with ND was a lot.  Bad conditioning.  Bad coaching.  Bad personnel evaluations.  Bad follow through by the head coach.  Lots of bad.  Most of it was addressed and a lot of it was fixed.

That’s why ND has made it to the playoff two of these past three years.  They didn’t do it by signing a ton of elite players.  They did it be fixing what was already there, and this is important. 

What is already here, thanks to Kelly, is a winning culture.  While it’s not perfect, it’s far better than it was.  What is here is player accountability and leadership…something that wasn’t there in 2016 and at times before.  What is here is a new way of thinking in regards to how and who to recruit.  What is here now is a program on very stable ground and an improving one.  

It may not be improving at the pace everyone wants, but nobody can deny it is improving.  

True, if ND landed a bunch of 5-star guys, it would certainly give them a chance to compete with Bama and Clemson, but it would only be a chance. ND has had five-star guys before.  Aaron Lynch, Greg Bryant and  Max Redfield were all elite guys coming out of high school, and ND signed all three.  What good did that do them?  

What ND has to do is sign some elite talent, but just as important, they need to be the right kind of program guys that fit the culture ND has created.

Bad apples will ruin a bunch, especially if it’s a 5-star player who doesn’t feel like he’s being handled the way he wants to be handled.  

And thus is the rub for ND recruiting.  ND has to recruit nationally to find enough elite prospects to try to compete with the best teams, but they’re also competing against the very best teams, often times teams who have that elite talent in their own backyard.  

If you’re a team like USC, they may recruit 10 kids a year out of the state.  10 total kids out of state tops, and the vast majority of their class will come from 100 square miles around Los Angeles.   When you only have to recruit a very small area, and a handful of high schools in that area, it’s pretty easy to be “good” at it.  If you have 9 assistant coaches, and very small area to cover, it’s pretty easy to cover that area.  Not only can you cover the current crop of potential seniors, you likely already know every top junior in the area, and sophomore, and their parents, and all their high school coaches.  You know all the “it” trainers and 7-on-7 coaches in the area.  And, chances are they’ve already been to your campus multiple times, not just the prospects, but their families, coaches, trainers, etc.  

As I’ve mentioned before, high school coaches and such get paid to work at football camps at schools like ND, or USC or Arizona.  A lot of these coaches work a lot of these camps.  It’s much needed income for these high school coaches and their families.  If you are hired to work these camps, but none of your kids ever sign with those schools you work the camps at, will you be invited to work these camps in the future?  Many of these high school coaches and such are also looking for ways to move up the ladder to college football as well.  

Then here comes ND.  They send in 1 coach to try to compete with all the 9 USC assistants in the same area.  I was terrible at math, but even I can figure out that 9 is a lot greater than 1.  

Not only is it just 1 guy for ND, but USC can use all their time recruiting these areas.  ND’s 1 assistant has to also head to Hawaii, and Arizona, and Oregon and recruit all those schools as well.  

How many high schools do you think are in the state of California, Arizona, Hawaii and Oregon?  USC is likely at all the Southern California schools 7-8 times per year.  Notre Dame is lucky to get to a school once if they’re not recruiting anyone there.  And, relationships are formed with these USC coaches.  Formed with the high school coaches, the assistant coaches, the academic people, the principal…everyone.  Formed with local trainers.  Formed with 7-on-7 coaches.  Lots of relationships are formed and bonds are created.  

Same thing for the state of Texas, or Florida, or really, anywhere.  

Notre Dame doesn’t have 100 prospects who will play Power 5 football within 100 miles like many of these elite teams do, so they need to get out there and find them, qualify them, offer them and then recruit them.  

Some might say: “well, Ohio State lands a lot of these top kids from out of their area.”   

This is true, but Ohio State also won the National Championship in 2014 and 2002.  A lot of these kids, and even a lot of their parents, don’t remember the last time ND won the National Championship.  Ohio State is 198-33 since 2002.  7 of those losses came when Jim Tressel was fired and Luke Fickell coached OSU to a 6-7 season that year as an interim coach.  Even including that terrible season, Ohio State has won 85 percent of their games since 2002.  Notre Dame is just 147-82 in that time, or has won 64 percent of their games.  

Ohio State’s consistency the last 20 years has allowed them to become an elite program.  Notre Dame hasn’t had that kind of consistency or anywhere close to it.  

Winning games like that attracts elite talent to your campus.  Recruits visit Ohio State because they win and win consistently.  They’re there for game visits or camps as freshmen and sophomores, and they develop a relationship with the football and admin staff.  It becomes familiar and family-like because they’ve been there often.

Also, Ohio has at least 15 players who can play for Ohio State every year in the state of Ohio and Ohio State usually signs at least 10 of them.  A quick look at the Ohio State roster, and 51 players are from Ohio.  Now, some are walk-ons, but a good number are starters and scholarship players.  

Eight players on ND’s roster are from Indiana.  Three were scholarship players, but one of them (Skowronek) transferred into ND for his final season.  

If ND could sign 5-6 more players as good as Blake Fisher and Jack Kiser every year from Indiana, how good would they be?  

Since 2016, Ohio State has had 31 players drafted in the first three rounds and 15 first round draft picks.  They also had 7 second round picks.   In that time, Ohio State’s 15 first round picks is more than ND’s first, second and third rounds picks total of 14 in those same years.  ND has had 5 first round picks since 2016.  This all makes a big difference in recruiting.  

I say all of this so people can get an understanding of what Notre Dame is up against when they’re trying to recruit with these elite teams, and often times for players in their own backyards.  

The Irish do have a much tougher row to hoe than a lot of these teams, and reading all of this may be depressing, but the good news is the Irish can get enough of these top players to be competitive in these games.  Yes, it’s harder, but ND just needs to work smarter and harder at it, and they need some help from the administration to get it done.  Will it be done?  We will have to wait and see.

Tomorrow I will offer my thoughts on what I feel needs to be done to get Notre Dame over the hump in recruiting.  


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