Scouring the States: Notre Dame football recruiting deep in the heart of Texas

South Bend Tribune

Notre Dame didn’t need to play a home game in Texas to prove how important the state’s fertile recruiting ground has become to its football program.

But when the Irish coaching staff can invite more than 50 top recruits to watch a Notre Dame game at the home of the Dallas Cowboys, the opportunity had to be exploited.

Notre Dame’s 37-34 win over Arizona State in Arlington came in front of eyes that may start paying more attention to the Irish program in the coming years. Notre Dame’s roster shows the Irish have been attentive in Texas for a while now. Only four states — Ohio, Florida, California, and Indiana — have produced more signees for head coach Brian Kelly at Notre Dame than the six Texas prospects to join in the last four recruiting classes.

In recent years, the Irish have found success by identifying talented players in the state with an affinity for Notre Dame. Tight end Durham Smythe and running back Cam McDaniel expressed praise for the Irish program early in the recruiting process.

Smythe, now a freshman tight end at ND, held a verbal commitment to Texas before backing out and eventually choosing Notre Dame. The Irish, led by cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks and tight ends coach Scott Booker, made Smythe aware that he could fulfill a dream at Notre Dame.

"The mystique of Notre Dame, the tradition and all those other words you use, I think had a lot to do with Durham,” said Rodney Southern, Durham’s head coach at Belton High School. “Durham is a traditional type kid. He knows the history of college football and obviously he knows the history of Notre Dame because that's where he wanted to go all along.”

The recruiting process was quick and simple with Notre Dame and Smythe. Cooks visited campus, spoke with Southern and Smythe and the deal was sealed after the tight end made an official visit to South Bend.

The decision isn’t always so easy for prospects from Texas. David Smith, head coach at Klein Oak, said Notre Dame faces some challenges recruiting in the Lone Star State, but none that hindered the recruitment of safety Nicky Baratti.

“It's cold up there. Our Texas kids don't always like it unless they have somebody related to them or some tie,” Smith said. “The Catholic Irish connection for Baratti was huge. It was real huge. That was a dream come true for him. So he had no problem whatsoever.”

Smith, who’s coached at Klein Oak for 19 years, has had sporadic communication with Notre Dame spanning back to Bob Davie’s tenure in South Bend. The Irish offered running back Joey Harris, who ended up at Purdue in 2000, and come back to Smith’s program occasionally to look at top recruits. As a former college coach at Northern Illinois and Oklahoma, Smith understands the Irish have too much ground to cover in Texas to be showing up at his school all the time.

His current relationship with Cooks, who leads Notre Dame’s recruiting in the state, remains solid.

“He's been really upfront and very personable,” Smith said. “He's a hands-on guy.”

Some programs, like Bishop Dunne in Dallas, have become frequent stops for Notre Dame. Head coach Michael Johnson said at least four different Notre Dame coaches have stopped by his school in the past couple years.

With the talent — the Irish have offered four players on Dunne’s current roster including 2014 cornerback commit Nick Watkins — comes the attention. Throw in the Catholic connection and Cooks has the blueprint to start a sustained pipeline in Texas.

“It's a pretty good relationship that we've accumulated over the two years they've been coming to our school and recruiting,” Johnson said.

The relationship strengthened when Johnson was invited to speak at the annual Notre Dame Football Coaches Clinic in April. The trip was Johnson’s first to Notre Dame. He left equally impressed with the campus as he’s been with Cooks.

"The good thing that he does is explaining the importance of Notre Dame,” Johnson said. “You would think that he's an alum of Notre Dame the way he speaks of Notre Dame and the atmosphere of Notre Dame. Being able to talk and communicate that to me so I communicate to our players. He does a great job of making me feel comfortable sending our kids out there to play for him and Notre Dame.”

Cooks, who attended Nimitz High School in Irving, Texas before playing at Iowa, has the ability to relate with athletes in the state through his own experience. He knows what it’s like to play far from home, a common concern for prospects.

“The challenge is the distance,” Johnson said. “But when you play on national television every game, it's an easy sell for the kid. Even if their parents can't make it, they know they're going to play on national television each and every week. The brand of Notre Dame is important to those students as well.”

The Irish reemerged on the national scene with a trip to the national championship game in January. They made noise in Texas with the Shamrock Series in October. Now the Irish appear set to capitalize in a state that’s already been relied on under Kelly.

“With coach Kelly's success and getting to the national championship game, that obviously helps,” Southern said. “Looking at recruiting now in the state of Texas from a high school coach's perspective, it's become a national recruiting scene for a lot of the bigger schools — obviously Notre Dame being one of them. I don't think it's out of the question now for those schools to come into Texas and recruit.”

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

2013: Torii Hunter Jr. (Prosper), Corey Robinson (San Antonio), Durham Smythe (Belton).

2012: Nicky Baratti (Spring).

2011: Cam McDaniel (Coppell), Jalen Brown (Irving).

Notre Dame safety Nicky Baratti intercepts a pass from Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson in the end zone for a touchback during a NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012, at Notre Dame. Baratti is from Klein Oak High School in Spring, Texas. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER
SBT Graphic/Todd Merchant