Notre Dame football recruiting: Chance for Irish to make an impression

TYLER JAMES
South Bend Tribune

Steve Elmer stood in Michigan Stadium in 2011 and realized he wanted to go to Notre Dame.

The now-freshman offensive lineman for the Irish visited the Big House for the prime-time game between Michigan and Notre Dame in September 2011 as a high school junior. A week later the Midland, Mich., product verbally committed to Notre Dame.

Recruiting misses for Michigan don’t get much bigger, literally, than the 6-foot-6, 317-pound Elmer committing to a Wolverine opponent. Notre Dame was able to impress despite a dramatic 35-31 loss that day. With a better showing this weekend, the Irish could sway the minds of some junior prospects once again.

Saturday’s night game at Michigan has become one of the marquee recruiting events of the year for the U-M football program. Branded as Under the Lights II, the Michigan coaching staff has put together an impressive visitors list. Two of its top remaining targets in the 2014 class – defensive linemen Da’Shawn Hand and Malik McDowell – are schedule to make a visit to Ann Arbor, but neither has shown much recent interest in Notre Dame despite offers.

The list of 2015 visitors should have even more overlap with Notre Dame and Michigan recruiting targets. Four recruits with Notre Dame offers – defensive end Jashon Cornell, linebacker Justin Hilliard, defensive tackle Tim Settle and offensive tackle Matthew Burrell – have all confirmed plans to attend Saturday’s game.

Each player has varying interest in the Irish, but the game played at Michigan Stadium could play a role in future decisions. Parlaying an impressive performance on the field into visits to South Bend would be a major win for Notre Dame.

“Notre Dame will follow up with the guys that visited Michigan if they have a great showing and ask them what they thought,” said 247Sports national recruiting writer Steve Wiltfong. “These guys are going to get a chance to see Notre Dame play as much as they're going to get to see Michigan play on Saturday night.

“For a lot of unofficial visitors, the game is a lot of the visit. Although they'll be getting a taste of Michigan's atmosphere and what it's like on game day in Ann Arbor, they're going to get a sense for how Notre Dame plays. If Notre Dame goes into what's going to be an amazing atmosphere and zips it up, that's going to make an impression on some of these top prospects.”

Two of Michigan’s visitors – Cornell and Hilliard – have already shown substantial interest in the Irish. Cornell, a 6-3, 235-pound junior at Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul, Minn., has visited Notre Dame multiple times and has a close relationship with former teammate James Onwualu, a freshman wide receiver for the Irish.

Cornell has earned early praise by recruiting services. ESPN ranks him as the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2015 class. 247Sports slates him at No. 18 overall and the No. 2 weakside defensive end as a five-star prospect. Rivals.com rates him as a four-star player.

Hilliard, a 6-2, 225-pound junior at St. Xavier High in Cincinnati, visited Notre Dame in June for a camp. A consensus four-star prospect, Hilliard ranks as the No. 3 outside linebacker and No. 43 player overall according to 247Sports.

Saturday provides the Irish an opportunity to continue to make ground on both prospects and pique the interest of Settle, Burrell and others watching in the stadium or on ESPN’s national TV broadcast.

“Notre Dame can really make a lot of hay even though the kids are at Michigan,” said CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming. “A great showing by Notre Dame could really be worth its weight in gold especially for the juniors. They're going to have a good number of juniors at that Notre Dame game. They'll start seeing the Irish in a different light if the Irish look explosive.”

The game will continue the battle for Cornell, who has Michigan and Notre Dame emerging as leaders on his always-expanding offer list.

“Jashon's a type of guy that will probably end up going to a school like Notre Dame or Michigan,” Lemming said.

Elmer isn’t the only 2013 Irish recruit to be swayed while visiting another school. Freshman cornerback Cole Luke visited Oklahoma last year when the Irish went on the road to defeat the Sooners. Saturday’s game could help Notre Dame in the long run with 2014 recruits, but when it comes to the visitors at Michigan, the targets have a longer way to go until their signing day.

“It's all about 2015 and making an early impression on some guys that maybe haven't seen Notre Dame play much or want to continue to see Notre Dame build off what they had last season,” Wiltfong said.

Spoiling Michigan’s big recruiting weekend would be an added bonus for Notre Dame’s last game in Ann Arbor in the foreseeable future.

Steve Elmer