SOUTH BEND — There was never a written decree that kept Notre Dame festering in its own stubbornness when it came to early enrollment for its football players, just a wall of fear and hesitancy perpetuating an outdated stance.
Before Charlie Weis was able to finesse a trial run in the winter of 2006, his second recruiting cycle as Irish head football coach, Notre Dame was losing an average of five recruits a year because of the unwritten policy, many of whom were slotted toward the top of individual recruiting rankings.
Greg Mattison, a longtime assistant coach during the Bob Davie and Tyrone Willingham regimes that preceded Weis’, told the Tribune at the time that his marching orders, when encountering a player with early-enrollment aspirations, was to simply stop recruiting that player.
On Tuesday, Notre Dame welcomes its 15th set of early enrollees — a record-tying 10 deep and with a much larger diversity of reasons for starting their Irish football journeys in January over June than the original 2006 trio of George West, Chris Stewart and James Aldridge had.
Two grad transfers are included in the group, wide receiver Ben Skowronek from Northwestern and safety Isaiah Pryor from Ohio State, the latter of whom has two years of eligibility remaining. None of ND’s previous four grad transfers arrived early enough to take in spring practice.
The other eight early enrollees are high school cornerbacks Caleb Offord and Ramon Henderson, defensive ends Alex Ehrensberger and Jordan Botelho, defensive tackle Riley Mills, wide receivers Jay Brunelle and Xavier Watts, and quarterback Drew Pyne.
That puts ND’s early enrollee count at 72 in 15 cycles, with 27 of those coming in the past three classes. In the first 12 cycles, there had never been more than five mid-year enrollees in a single year.
“We (actually) have to slow some guys down,” Notre Dame recruiting coordinator Brian Polian said of the 2020 mid-year group that could have been larger. “Coming here at this semester is not an easy thing. And only certain guys can handle it. We feel a debt to the university in that they, every year, continue to grow more and more comfortable with this.”
Early enrollment in modern times has been around college football for roughly three decades. Initially, it was a trickle and mostly limited to quarterbacks, then eventually players at other positions expected to play early during their college careers started to swell the numbers.
Quarterback Brady Quinn, who came to ND before the policy softened, chose ND despite not being able to fulfill his desire to enroll early. Former Florida quarterback Chris Leak, in the same recruiting cycle, eliminated the Irish for the same reason.
Both were college seniors when West, Stewart and Aldridge became ND’s pioneers.
And they knew they were pioneers. They knew they were expected to set some sort of standard. What they didn’t know was each other before they arrived on campus that winter.
“I read online about Chris being this really good offensive lineman from Texas, and James was supposed to be the next Adrian Peterson, right?” said West, back at ND these days as a senior regional director who manages fundraising efforts on the East Coast. “It was exciting to be getting a chance to play with that caliber of athlete.”
In time, the most exciting facet became the quality of person. To this day, they count the other two among their best friends.
“It’s funny I just talked to James last week and I saw George when I was on campus a few weeks ago,” said Stewart, an associate with international law firm White & Case's energy, infrastructure, project and asset finance group in New York.
“We had that unique experience together, and we spent time with each other,” West said. “We had conversations with each other. We shared our good and bad times with each other.
“When we made decisions, we kind of made them together, so that was part of our relationship that started there and that’s still alive today.”
Collectively the trio was part of a 28-man class that was one of the highest-ranked Irish recruiting classes — seventh — of the Rivals Era (2002-present). The fact that Weis was able to push past the NCAA limit of 25 recruits in that class was one of the benefits of the early enrollment policy.
Three of the recruits could be counted in the smaller 2005 class.
Aldridge, currently a girls basketball coach with wife Lindsey in Aspen, Colo., was one of two five-star prospects in the class, the other June-enrolling offensive tackle Sam Young. The Merrillville (Ind.) High School running back had been plotting early enrollment — somewhere, anywhere — since eighth grade.
Yet Stewart was the one closest to no early enrollment being a deal-breaker. West had no idea that he would get the opportunity but was thrilled when Weis informed him that he did.
“Looking back it changed the trajectory of my football career and my life outside of football, and for the better,” said West, whose football career was truncated by a series of knee injuries that began during his junior year.
Stewart says the same of his paths, both when it comes to football and even more so getting into law. That extra semester start allowed him, he says, to align with taking law school classes during his final football season at Notre Dame.
“If someone were to ask me if I would recommend early enrollment, if they’re ambitious enough to do it and the resources are clearly there to do it, why not? I think it’s become more part of the collegiate norm. When we did it, it was more controversial.”
Quarterback Jimmy Clausen, running back Armando Allen and cornerback Gary Gray, all top 100 prospects were in the next class. And their arrival — particularly Clausen’s as the No. 1 overall prospect nationally in that class — helped the Irish set an attendance record in the spring game … mere months before Notre Dame would suffer through its losingest season ever (3-9) in 2007.
Clausen eventually became the first Notre Dame early enrollee to be selected in the NFL Draft. Only five mid-years have done so since. That includes defensive end Aaron Lynch, who finished his career at the University of South Florida.
Here are some other trends that have emerged among the early enrollees:
• Of the 45 mid-years in the first 12 classes (where data is complete), 31 percent redshirted, 53 percent started at least eight game in their careers, and 36 percent ended up transferring.
• Counting all 72, wide receivers comprise the largest position group contributing to early enrollment (10), followed by defensive ends (9). The smallest group, beyond kicking specialists, is tight ends (3).
• Six mid-years made more-than-subtle position switches.
The rising number of mid-year enrollees is in line with a larger national trend. At Notre Dame, specifically, that includes players not projected to make an early impact on the field. In fact, sometimes the decision to enroll in January is built around having surgery and/or rehab done on campus for a pre-existing injury.
The old company line before early enrollment became reality was that mid-years would face limited course selections and odd course sequencing, the bite of South Bend's brutal winters and social concerns that they’d have a tougher time making friends.
West, a wide receiver from Oklahoma City who accumulated some college credits while still in high school, found none of those things to be true.
“Emphatically no,” he said, “because I think they went over the top to make sure we were positioned as best as we could be as the first early enrollees. So we had support across the board.
“We had support academically. We had support socially, with folks checking on us making sure we were being integrated in our dorms, integrated into our team. We had folks from our positions who were not exactly mentors, but people we could count on if we had questions.
“Even with coach (Weis) I would say I felt a little more compassion from him during that first semester than I felt at other times. I think it was an overall team effort to pull it off. We felt everyone at the university supported us to make sure we were going to be successful.”
And maybe someday it will be business as usual, which would please current head coach Brian Kelly.
“We like the fact that these young men have accepted that opportunity to come here early,” he said of the 2020 group. “Doesn't mean that they're better. It just means that they are accepting a challenge that is a bit different.”