Scouring the States: North Carolina a key area for Notre Dame football recruiting

South Bend Tribune

The topic frequently comes up when high school football coaches get together.

Conversations about X’s and O’s might be more secretive, but when it comes to sharing stories about recruiting, every coach has something to tell.

For Shane Laws, his experience with Notre Dame always makes its way into the discussion. Head coach at A.C. Reynolds High School in Asheville, N.C., Laws had a front-row seat in 2010 for the recruitment of linebacker Ben Councell, who signed with the Irish in February of 2011.

“I tell other high school coaches when we talk about it — when you have a player that Notre Dame recruits, it’s different,” Laws said. “The whole recruiting atmosphere, the whole deal, was different. They’re just very professional with the way they do things. I was comfortable throughout the whole process.”

Not long before 2010, Laws didn’t have a relationship with Notre Dame. He coached in Asheville for more than a decade with little sign of the Irish coaching staff.

“Before coach (Brian) Kelly and those guys took over, I had met one Notre Dame assistant, and I’ve been at A.C. Reynolds High School for 15 years,” Laws said. “I met one Notre Dame assistant out recruiting and he wasn’t even at our school. It was at a Shrine Bowl practice. But when coach Kelly got there, they hit the South pretty hard, especially North and South Carolina.”

The numbers show the emphasis put on North Carolina by Kelly’s staff. Only four states — Ohio, California, Florida and Indiana — have produced more signees in Kelly’s four recruiting classes at Notre Dame. The Irish signed six players from the Tar Heel State in Brian Kelly’s first three classes before securing zero in 2013.

With the new relationship with the Atlantic Coast Conference, Laws expects the Irish to continue to have success recruiting in the area.

“For a lot of kids in this area, Notre Dame seems like a million miles away,” Laws said. “They appreciate it, and they understand what it is and what it means, but as far as they’re concerned it could be in California. But I think with them being here, playing games and seeing them play Carolina or play Wake Forest or play State or some of the other schools in the ACC, it becomes a little more real to them.”

Beyond the locations of its future games, the relationships the Notre Dame coaching staff, led by defensive line coach Mike Elston, has made in North Carolina continue to be the strongest link between the high school programs and the university in South Bend. Elston maintains communication with coaches and players in the state — Charlotte Christian head coach Jason Estep being one of them. His program produced Irish safety Matthias Farley and currently boasts Georgia tight end commit Jeb Blazevich, a previous target for ND.

“Coach Elston does an unbelievable job with the relationship part,” Estep said. “He’ll text me every once in a while to see how I’m doing. I know he’s busy and he doesn’t have to do that. It’s a part of his job too and he does that well.

“We might not have a guy every year that could go to Notre Dame, but I know that he thinks that the kids that come out of our program are the kind of kids that they would like to recruit. He does an unbelievable job recruiting here.”

Estep learned what to expect from Notre Dame’s coaching staff during Farley’s recruitment.

“They do a great job of communicating. They’re up front and honest with their evals,” Estep said. “It just makes your job a lot easier.”

Because of Notre Dame’s reputation for honest evaluations, Ardrey Kell head coach Adam Hastings pointed Kelly and Elston in the direction of a young defensive end following the 2010 season. That player, Romeo Okwara, now plays outside linebacker for the Irish as a sophomore.

“At the time, I thought he could play, but a lot of other people had been real skeptical about him and backed off,” Hastings said. “Clemson came in and didn’t offer right away. A lot of other schools came in and really showed no interest in him at all. I said, ‘I’ll send you his film, but I promise you he’s a good looking kid.’ They walked out of there and that started Romeo for them. That was pretty neat.”

Hastings said he could tell Elston spent a lot of time sizing up Okwara on and off the field. Now he’s come to expect such detailed work from the Irish coaching staff consistently.

“It means more when a guy comes in and really spends time evaluating and makes an offer or continues to recruit,” Hastings said. “With Mike, you know you’re going to get that. And you know that Mike’s going to give an honest look. He’s done it with other players we’ve had that they’ve not recruited, but he’s been upfront about the offers. We appreciate that.”

Elston helped Hastings set up a visit to Notre Dame this past spring, his first trip to the campus. He watched a practice and was impressed by the number of North Carolina players on the roster.

“Even with all the in-state schools, they probably do as good of a job, if not the best job, recruiting our area,” Hastings said.

The signing of Councell may be the most impressive of Notre Dame’s recent efforts in North Carolina. The Irish plucked Councell, a four-star prospect ranked just inside the top 100 on both and 247Sports, away from a number of nearby ACC and SEC programs including North Carolina, North Carolina State, Auburn and Vanderbilt.

“It’s a big deal for a kid, especially a Southern Baptist kid from North Carolina, to go to Notre Dame,” Hastings said. “As you can imagine, there’s a lot of apprehension that Ben had, as well as I had for him, because it was a totally different situation that he was going to be in the middle of.”

That’s where the efforts of Kelly and Elston kicked in.

“I always felt like they were very honest with me and Ben,” Hastings said. “When you deal with college coaches all the time like I do, there are some guys you can trust and there are some that say one thing and you know they mean something else. They’re always playing these games with coaches and kids. I never felt that way in dealing with Notre Dame.”

Notre Dame failed to sign a recruit in 2013 class from North Carolina and has zero commitments from the state currently in the 2014 class after running back Elijah Hood reneged on his verbal commitment. But with the type of praise Laws and other coaches in the state have for Elston, there’s reason to believe that recruiting success in North Carolina will continue for Notre Dame.

“He’s an honest person and he’s in the coaching business for the right reasons,” Laws said. “That’s one of the best compliments you can give a coach. We all enjoy football and we all want to win games, no matter what level you’re at, but at the end of the day, you’re there for the players. You’re there for the kids. I think he’s one of those guys that’s there for the right reasons.”

North Carolina recruits to sign with Notre Dame during Brian Kelly's tenure:

2012: Prince Shembo (Charlotte), Kendall Moore (Raleigh).

2011: Matthias Farley (Charlotte), Ben Councell (Asheville).

2010: Romeo Okwara (Charlotte), Mark Harrell (Charlotte) | 574-235-6214 | Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Ben Councell tackles a ball carrier as a junior at A.C. Reynolds High School in Asheville, N.C. Photo courtesy of Citizen-Times.
SBT Graphic/Todd Merchant