It starts with a math problem.
Every argument. Every hope and every doubt.
Every legitimate thread and every half-baked one about Notre Dame’s possible path to its first national championship in football since 1988. Every debunked piece of recruiting mythology that clutters the thinking of those either trapped in a bubble of nostalgia or those unable to see past the necessary growing pains of evolution.
Wednesday it started and continued with Mike Elston, the only Irish assistant coach who has been with head coach Brian Kelly since his first season at ND, in 2010.
Notre Dame’s associate head coach/defensive line coach was pressed Wednesday to provide the latest raw number in the recruiting calculus that has defined the on-field expectations of the Irish program, fairly or not, for decades.
How many of the nation’s top 100 players, in a given recruiting cycle, can Notre Dame reasonably pursue, who can get into school at ND and who would be considered fits at Notre Dame?
“It varies per recruiting cycle,” Elston said during a sort of pop-up recruiting symposium involving four key Irish assistant coaches and essentially emceed by Kelly, the only one who didn’t take questions from the media.
“I would say less than half are guys that we can target and go after for one reason or another.”
Less than half.
If you ask CBS Sports recruiting analyst Tom Lemming, who’s been evaluating players and classes since before both Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees (28) and defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman (35) were born, his response would be in the 60-70 range.
If you ask former Notre Dame assistant Mike Denbrock — currently the offensive coordinator at Cincinnati and one of the top recruiting assistants, past or present, in the Kelly Era at ND — his answer would be closer to 25-30.
And they could all be right, when you consider they may be looking at the question through different prisms.
The highest number could conceivably be representative of those who simply clear the admissions bar, but perhaps couldn’t sustain that in the classroom over the long term at a school with no soft majors.
The low number could reflect players who could be fits, but subtracting those who would come with some risk, culturally or otherwise.
Whatever the real number is in reality, it’s reasonable to assume it will fluctuate from recruiting cycle to recruiting cycle. And it’s wise to consider that the academic bar question is not where the queries that matter end. The possible solutions don’t end there, either.
Truth be told, Notre Dame’s path to the next increment in its renaissance — winning big-stage games in January — is more of a labyrinth than a path. A navigable labyrinth, at least by those who have it in front of them, but a labyrinth, nonetheless.
Notre Dame recruiting coordinator Brian Polian, during his media give-and-take Wednesday, revealed that the Irish coaching staff between the Jan. 1 season-ending CFP loss to Alabama and Wednesday’s relatively quiet “late” National Signing Day spent considerable time and effort doing some self-scouting on Notre Dame’s recruiting process.
What Polian said they came away with was an acknowledgement of the progress they’ve made in an ever-changing facet of college football, and yet the need to press for evolved methods and strategies that will coax them to greater heights.
“It is different (here),” Polian said of the recruiting blueprint. “I'm not saying it's better or worse, but it has to be different.”
Because the perpetual recruiting math problem and the ensuing questions it generates ultimately lead to how can Notre Dame join or break up the Alabama-Clemson-Ohio State bloc, that’s the lens that will be used to examine the reformulation and state of Irish football recruiting.
• Of the 99 high school players reigning national champ Alabama has signed in the past four recruiting cycles, including the one completed Wednesday, 52 of them come from three states — Alabama, Florida and Texas. Twenty-one states and Washington, D.C., are represented overall, but just nine states have as many as three players contributing to the 2021 Crimson Tide roster.
The biggest contributing state is Alabama, with 21 signees.
• Of the 89 signed by Ohio State in the past four cycles, the most (24) come from Ohio. And of the 87 signed by Clemson, 23 come from neighboring Georgia, followed by nearby Florida (17), homestate South Carolina (10) and bordering North Carolina (8).
• The top contributing state among Notre Dame’s 93 signees? California (11), a state three time zones away.
Next is Georgia (10), closer but still a flight for Kelly and his assistants unless they were up for a 10-hour, 12-minute Uber ride to Atlanta. Then comes New Jersey (8) — 10 hours and 40 minutes by car to twin defensive linemen Jayson and Justin Ademilola’s high school — and Florida (6), farther than both Georgia and New Jersey.
The Irish signees come from 31 states as well as D.C. Ohio State drew from 22 states and Australia. Clemson counts 16 states and D.C.
How and why that ties into the original math problem is that Notre Dame has to go to more places to offset its smaller recruiting pool — and more faraway places to get the quality.
When Lou Holtz won a national title in his third year as head coach at ND, in 1988, Illinois was the dominant talent contributor.
“The Chicago Catholic League in the ‘70s and ‘80s was the most dominant league in the country,” analyst Lemming said. “Now it’s not top 10. Back in 1986, the year Notre Dame took 10 guys out of Chicago, 141 kids from the Chicago area signed to play Division I ball. Now you’re lucky to get 60.
“Some of it’s population moving. Some of it’s the steel mills in Pennsylvania shutting down and blue-collar people who play a blue-collar sport have to move to find new blue-collar jobs. The Chicago public schools produce one or two guys a year that would be considered Power 5 kids. In the ‘80s, you’d get 25 or 30.
“They’re still there. They didn’t just all of a sudden stop developing the great athletes, but they don’t have the money to fund football programs. If you do have a head coach, the assistants are volunteers. You can’t afford to pay them anything. Down in the south, football is everything and they find the money to fuel that reality.”
Notre Dame’s reality is there apparently has to be a tradeoff, in structure, in time management in day-to-day strategy.
“I think it's unfair to think that as we begin to vet our board, that coach Kelly's going to text every recruit on our board six times,” Polian said. “It's just not reasonable, not with the amount of ground that we have to cover.
“When you compare other places where you're going to build the roster out of two states and they're not vetting the way that we are, I just think it's a little bit different.”
That's not to say being different can't be equally effective and that tweaks can't be made, including retaining some ideas and digital elements born out of and honed during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Kelly factor
Kelly knew the math problem when he succeeded Charlie Weis in December of 2009. From the very start, he wanted to use Notre Dame’s academics as a recruiting advantage rather than try to camouflage the challenges to recruits.
And yet almost 14 months ago, in a press conference that preceded a Camping World Bowl rout of Iowa State, Kelly — unprompted — vowed out loud that the Irish needed to and would find a way to be consistently better in recruiting. Not that something was broken, but the formula wasn't good enough.
Hiring Marcus Freeman as defensive coordinator last month may turn out to be the most profound of the moves put in motion since Kelly's public declaration.
One of the more subtle and perhaps surprising ones is being better discerning when the best move is to move on.
“The conviction to walk away from an elite player,” Polian said, “that you know in your heart is not interested in what we have to offer or may not fit here. So that we can then be more efficient in terms of where we dedicate our resources, to the guys that do fit our profile.”
Kelly becoming more involved at critical key junctures instead of working mostly as a closer is also part of the plan, even when there’s anecdotal reports and message board hysteria intermittently to the contrary.
“All I can tell you, as the recruiting coordinator," Polian said, “is every time I've gone to coach Kelly and said, 'This is where we are in process and here's what we're asking from you in order to get this thing over the top or keep us moving forward,' he's always been there and he's always energetic and enthusiastic about it.
“There was a daily hit list. ‘Coach, We'd like you to do XYZ,’ and he was phenomenal. So, I can only speak to my experience.
“And, look, in the end the anecdotal stuff will be out there. I don't think it's fair. I think sometimes it's a little sensationalized, but it's the world that we live in. But again, from my experience, I thought he killed it in this class.”
Ratings flaws and hit rate
Blake Fisher is the new fanbase obsession, just as wide receiver Jordan Johnson was last season.
Because they’re Rivals five-star prospects, and Notre Dame has corralled just 20 of them since Rivals.com started its individual player rankings in 2002. Alabama, for the record, had six in its starting lineup when it eliminated ND from the national title chase on Jan. 1. Clemson had two at the quarterback position alone.
And the only thing worse, it seems, than missing out on a five-star is for one — like Johnson — to largely ferment. Johnson finished 2020 with 26 total game snaps and zero catches.
Why a player of that caliber couldn’t be worked in significantly more during at least low-leverage game situations is puzzling. Fisher sitting more than plowing over defensive linemen in 2021 would be less so, because offensive linemen don’t tend to play as true freshmen, with few exceptions.
But looking at the top 50 recruits of the Kelly Era (actually 51 with ties), based strictly on their Rivals.com individual national rankings, it all starts to look suspicious immediately after you get past No. 1, linebacker Jaylon Smith.
Next, Nos. 2 through 4, are perceived underachievers defensive end Ishaq Williams, running back Greg Bryant and quarterback Gunner Kiel.
Among the 272 high school players Kelly has signed from the 2010 recruiting cycle to the one in 2021, there have been eight consensus/unanimous All-Americans produced. Six of the eight aren’t among the top 50 Irish recruits.
Only Smith and offensive guard Quenton Nelson are.
To make sure it’s not Notre Dame’s fault a player doesn’t live up to his ranking and to improve the Irish hit rate in recruiting across the board, the Irish have recently teamed up with sports technology company AgDiago.
Per its website, AgDiago provides a “customized assessment tool, based on applied behavioral science, advanced psychometrics benchmark data, and predictive analytics, to enable coaches to identify athletes who best fit the core values and culture of their program.”
Still, Elston and Polian both said Notre Dame uses individual rankings from the recruiting services as a reference point — to an extent.
“We do all of that stuff that the national media does, but here at Notre Dame we have to dive deeper,” Elston said. “We can't just, off the 247(Sports) rating, say, ‘This is a four-star prospect.’ There's more to it for us in this evaluation process and coach Kelly's evaluation process.
“For example, those things are a young man's academic foundation, his academic core curriculum. Does he have the support system to be successful at Notre Dame? And there's a rating on that for our football staff that coach Kelly's put together.
"Is he a good citizen? Does he make great decisions? Is he a leader?
“So, we put ratings on all of that stuff — work ethic. We’re talking to people that are around them on a daily basis. And what's missed inside the national rankings … are those components.”
Just as the pandemic eliminating official and unofficial campus visits — a Notre Dame recruiting strong suit — forced the Irish to adapt to digital recruiting and created the concept of unguided campus tours, two unknowns loom that could help the Irish if they harness each of them properly.
That’s the impending name/image/likeness allowances that will change the amateur sports model forever and the less-restrictive version of the transfer portal, with no more one-year sitting-out period.
“When that occurs, teams are going to have to consider a dedicated staffer just to monitoring the transfer portal,” Polian said, “in the way that an NFL franchise will have a director of college scouting and a pro personnel office, where their job is to know all the people that are playing in the league currently.
“It could get to the point where staff is going to have to be dedicated to knowing who's in the portal and having some sense of academic background, years of eligibility, amount of time that they played.
“If we're going to function in that world, we're going to have to dedicate resources to making sure that whatever decision we make is as educated as possible.”
Where exactly the name/image/likeness movement is headed and what it might ultimately look like seems to get more muddled than clarified the closer it gets to reality.
But Polian is confident it will be a boon to the Irish once the exact structure and details get worked out.
“I believe we are not going to get into recruiting battles with another school because they can have a guy go to a car dealership and sign autographs for $10 an autograph,” he said. “If you're picking Notre Dame, something like that is not going to be the difference in picking this education and this atmosphere and this incredible campus.
“If you want that, a card show is not going to be the difference. So obviously as the rulings come out and the parameters are set, we will work with our athletic administration, with (athletic director) Jack Swarbrick, with (university president) Father John (Jenkins).
“It will give us an idea of how we're going to move forward, and we'll be competitive. And frankly, the power of the Notre Dame brand is national; it’s not regional.
“I have no doubt as the rules are put in place that we will be able to capitalize on the power of that brand and our student-athletes will as well.”