Notre Dame football recruiting: Winning, staff continuity aid Irish efforts
SOUTH BEND -- Tony Alford no longer has to convince high school football players that Notre Dame can compete for a national championship.
Before last season, the current generation of college football prospects was left to use their imagination and listen to stories of past Notre Dame glory. Now, the Irish are in the national conversation for both pundits and high schoolers.
“Now, every time a kid flips on ESPN, Notre Dame's showing up on the scene,” said Alford, Notre Dame’s recruiting coordinator. “Subliminally they're starting to see that ND flash at them all the time. Then their parents are saying you need to look at this place, and we’re winning.”
So when Alford and the rest of the Irish coaching staff hit the recruiting trail, part of their pitch is already in the minds of prospects. More of a focus can be placed on identifying fits for the program and then continuing to present Notre Dame for its athletic and academic prowess.
The coaching staff hasn’t changed since it signed a top six recruiting class in February. The continuity of coaches who have been working with each other for a number of years makes recruiting more efficient.
“When I go into my geographical area to recruit, I know what Bob Diaco's looking for as a linebacker,” Alford said. “I know what Mike Denbrock is looking for in receivers. So all of a sudden you don't have to say, 'Hey, I gotta go back and really try to sell this to our staff.' We know what one another are looking for because we've been together for some time now. We know the messages that are going to be delivered.”
Campus visits have been Notre Dame’s most consistent recruiting tool, and the past summer continued that trend. The Irish have received seven commitments for the 2014 class and one commitment for the 2015 class since June 1. Each of those players visited during the summer and four of them committed within a week of their visit.
The Irish also hosted a number of remaining targets, including defensive end Lorenzo Carter and defensive tackles Matt Elam and Thomas Holley. Overall, Alford said he was pleased with the talent they brought in during the summer months.
“I think we brought in a pretty good number of guys,” Alford said. “It's not necessarily always the volume that you bring in, but are you bringing in the right ones? Are you bringing in the ones that you want and want you? Or are you spinning your wheels at some things? I think we had a decent number of guys in. Can it be better? Sure. It can always be better. But that's why we'll continue to evaluate and reevaluate where we're at and see how we can enhance things.”
One topic of discussion has been the on-campus summer events that have become a recruiting staple across the country. Programs like Florida, Ohio State and Georgia have utilized these events to bring in a huge number of prospects all at once with camps and drills being held inside their stadiums. They’ve become a red carpet of sorts for their programs to roll out for one night during the summer with the focus solely on recruits.
“I think that's something we'll sit down as a staff here in the short order and find out how we want to go about it,’’ Alford said. “How do we want to construct it? That's not something we've really done here in the past — right, wrong or indifferent,” Alford said. “That is something we're going to visit. I think that you're always looking for an advantage, always looking for how we can tweak what we're doing.”
Any future changes will be employed by a shuffled recruiting office. After Tim McDonnell left his role as director of player personnel to join the NFL’s Giants this offseason, Dave Peloquin was named as his replacement. Peloquin has served in various roles in the player personnel and football development departments at Notre Dame since 2004.
"Dave's kinda the old bird here. He knows where all the skeletons are,” Alford said. “He's been around this place for a long time and has been a part of some very successful recruiting classes through the years. He's kind of a conduit to the people on that campus. He knows a lot of people on that campus and the personalities that go along with it. He's been great.”
In addition, Notre Dame brought in a new face, J.R. Sandlin, into the recruiting office to assist Peloquin and the Irish coaching staff. Sandlin was hired as a recruiting analyst after a short stint as Tennessee’s director of recruiting. Sandlin also worked in Alabama’s recruiting department from 2010-12.
Alford said Sandlin, a 2009 graduate of Central Florida, has brought in some fresh ideas. Most visibly, Sandlin’s been an active Twitter user, promoting Notre Dame.
“He's been around the block a little bit. He's seen a lot of things,” Alford said of Sandlin. “His ability to bring new ideas to help interject the new with the old traditions, that's probably been the biggest thing.”
Though the Irish have found success on the field, the program has not been immune to the wishy-washy ways of high school prospects. Since January, the coaching staff has seen three players back out of verbal — and in one case signed — commitments to Notre Dame. The issues with each player vary, but the trend seems unavoidable if the Irish continue to recruit nationally for top talent. All three of those players — linebacker Alex Anzalone, defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes and running back Elijah Hood — were ranked as five-star prospects by Rivals.com.
"Everyone's got their own reasons,’’ Alford said. “To say, 'Well, this man didn't come because of a girlfriend, a family member, because of distance from home.’ Everyone's got their reasons behind it. I'm not going to spin my wheels trying to put my finger on all the percentages of why. It's got to be right for guys.
“We're going to go after and get the guys that want to be here with us, that are completely invested in the University of Notre Dame, completely bought in and invested to the messages articulated starting with our head football coach all the way down through the assistants. That's who we're going to get and that's who's going to be successful here. For those that don't want to do that, they can go somewhere else.”
Alford doesn’t anticipate the recent decommitments changing the way the staff recruits. They will continue to show recruits the football, academic and post-graduate success they believe Notre Dame offers.
“We're going to present our program. We're going to present this great institution. We're going to present who our players are in that locker room,” Alford said. “It's not going to be a facade. We're not going to lie and connive and try to pull the wool over your eyes. This is who we are.”