Scouring the States: Notre Dame football gets warm welcome recruiting in California

South Bend Tribune

The message didn’t have to be decoded. Brian Kelly’s presence alone explained the significance.

Less than 48 hours after beating USC in Los Angeles last November, the Notre Dame football coach started making stops at local high schools.

"I remember it being fairly significant that the Monday after they played USC, at 8 a.m. he was at our place,” said Scott Altenberg, head coach at Junipero Serra High School in Gardena, Calif. “He was trying to say, 'Listen, this is important to me.' He wanted to make sure that we knew that. They want (five-star prospect) Adoree (Jackson). For him to stay — not go back after that big win and basically clinching the national championship game — said a lot.”

The presence of Kelly and other staff members in California that week underlined the continued emphasis of recruiting in the state. Only two states, Florida and Ohio, have produced more signees than the eight prospects from Kelly’s four recruiting classes at Notre Dame.

The sight of Notre Dame coaches in California hasn’t always been consistent, at least from Altenberg’s experience.

“In the past, it's been different. I didn't see the last staff very much,” Altenberg said. “I saw coach (Tyrone) Willingham a lot because I had a relationship with him from Stanford. Before that, (Bob Davie) was around a lot too. The only one I really didn't get was the last one (Charlie Weis). I've met coach Kelly a couple times already. They've been pretty active out here."

La Mirada High School also made the list of schools to receive visits following last year’s USC game. The Irish made an impression on tight end Tyler Luatua and wide receiver Dallis Todd, but also head coach Mike Moschetti and other members of the school.

“When coach Kelly and (wide receivers) coach (Mike) Denbrock were here right after the USC game, that was a big win for Notre Dame football to go into the Coliseum and secure a national championship bid,” Moschetti said. “And they just walked through the office greeting everybody from the janitor to the secretary. It didn't matter who it was.”

Moschetti might be a little biased. As an Italian Catholic, he grew up cheering for the Irish. He’s been to a number of games at Notre Dame Stadium, including the 1993 loss to Boston College that left him in tears. Past feelings aside, his experiences with the current Notre Dame coaching staff color his existing view.

“They're just very outgoing, professional, and their personalities kind of captivate you,” Moschetti said.

“They sit down, they talk, you listen and you can tell that they want to be here. They're just good people and great personalities. Listening to their stories and what they do, it's interesting. That's what separates Notre Dame from a lot of other schools.”

Mission Viejo head coach Bob Johnson has built relationships with a number of staffs at Notre Dame over the years with the recruitment of players like tight end Konrad Reuland, quarterback Mark Sanchez and most recently safety Max Redfield, a freshman at Notre Dame. He described each experience as being pleasant.

“They've all been great,” Johnson said. “The present one is no exception. They're very organized and it's a pleasure having them out here.”

He praised the work of Denbrock, who heads the Irish recruiting efforts in California and the West Coast.

“He's honest. He's on time. He's efficient on everything,” Johnson said. “He always follows through, always makes a phone call before and after. He's just a classy guy. Everybody likes Mike and I'm no exception. I think he's the best."

Recruiting pitches and philosophies can evolve the longer a staff remains intact. Tim Silva, who coached Josh and George Atkinson III at Granada High School, said he witnessed a simple, yet effective, pitch from the coaching staff.

“I think Notre Dame sells itself,” Silva said. “I don't think it's a hard sell, and they don’t try to fake it.”

Altenberg’s seen a change in style with Notre Dame. Their presence in the state, combined with a winning product, has made a turn for the better.

“Notre Dame in the past seemed to recruit a little more like Stanford does with a real small list of guys that they're looking at. It just was different,” Altenberg said. “Now I see Michigan. I see USC — those kinds of schools. I see Notre Dame doing the same kind of stuff. They’re very active, very aggressive, but selling a really good product.”

Two consecutive wins over USC and last year’s success has changed the perception of the Irish in the backyard of their Trojan rivals.

“Here in L.A., Notre Dame's recent struggles with USC and stuff like that, the name hasn't been as powerful without a doubt,” Altenberg said. “Now, though, I think this last season beating SC here in L.A. then going to the national championship game has been huge. It's put them as one of those schools that you want that offer from. That wasn't always the case.”

Now the top prospects won’t have to be history buffs to know about Notre Dame’s prominence. When a coach enters a California school with an ND on his shirt, the image is connected to more recent success. The views of the recruits could start to mirror the memories of their coaches.

“Don't get me wrong, there are other great coaches and assistant coaches, but there's just something special about that ND and that Golden Dome,” Moschetti said. “When you have the head coach walk in and he represents it, people stop what they're doing. Not to take anything away from Alabama or Georgia or Florida State or USC, but there's just something about that ND. It's awesome."

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

2013: Max Redfield (Mission Viejo), Eddie Vanderdoes* (Placer).

2012: Tee Shepard* (Fresno).

2011: George Atkinson III (Livermore), Josh Atkinson (Livermore), Troy Niklas (Anaheim).

2010: Justin Utupo (Lakewood), Cam Roberson (Newbury Park).

* – Neither Vanderdoes nor Shepard actually played at Notre Dame. Vanderdoes enrolled at UCLA this fall. In January, Shepard landed at Holmes Community College in Goodman, Miss.

Notre Dame's Max Redfield, right, brings down Navy's Marcus Thomas during the Notre Dame vs. Navy football game on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Redfield is from Mission Viejo, Calif. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN.
SBT Graphic/Todd Merchant