Scouring the States: Alford a recruiting force for Notre Dame in talent-rich Florida

TYLER JAMES
South Bend Tribune

Tony Alford had the right to be nervous.

One of his prized running back recruits, Tarean Folston, started looking closely at Auburn on an official visit in late January. He leaned on Folston’s head coach at Cocoa (Fla.) High, Jon Wilkinson, for updates.

“I think there were some tense moments, there's no doubt,” Wilkinson said. “I just kinda always had a feeling. Obviously, coach Alford was a little nervous. I tried to just calm him down and tell him there's nothing to be nervous about.”

At some points, Wilkinson said he and Alford, Notre Dame’s running backs coach and recruiting coordinator, were exchanging text messages almost hourly. The drama didn’t die down until mid-afternoon on signing day, when Folston’s faxed letter-of-intent reached Notre Dame after 17 others had arrived.

Months of time and effort paid off for Alford.

"We built a tremendous relationship,” Wilkinson said. “Coach Alford's a real good guy. He puts in a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of phone calls, a lot of texts. It's built up over time.”

Such suspense is the price of poker when recruiting in Florida against SEC powers, ACC stalwarts Miami and Florida State, and plenty of schools in the North looking to export players from the talent-rich state.

Under head coach Brian Kelly, Alford and the Irish coaching staff have shown a willingness and knack for pursuing top recruits in the Sunshine State. Only one state, Ohio, has produced more signees than the 11 prospects from Kelly’s four recruiting classes at Notre Dame.

The ace of Notre Dame’s recruiting staff, Alford plays a pivotal role in the success the Irish have found in Florida. He has built relationships beyond the ready-made match with state power and Catholic school St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale.

Bob Hudson, head coach at East Lake High School in Tarpon Springs, said Alford made his presence felt regularly on campus. The work Alford had done connecting with his players via phone and social media was evident.

“There were times when he was here and couldn't talk or anything, but he could walk by with me on the field and wave at them,” Hudson said. “The kids know that he was here. He's done a real good job. Some guys don't follow through with it. Some guys just haven't done the homework before they come in.

“He's thorough. Whatever follow-up they're allowed to do by their regulations, they do it,” Hudson said. “He comes through and he spends his time. He follows through with what he's says he’s going to do and everything he needs to do."

The Irish offered scholarships to three of Hudson’s players in the 2014 and 2015 classes. All three have verbally committed elsewhere — senior offensive lineman Mason Cole (Michigan), senior wide receiver Artavis Scott (Clemson) and junior wide receiver George Campbell (Michigan) — but not due to a lack of effort on Alford’s part. Like Michigan’s staff, Hudson said, Alford remained consistent in his communication with his players.

“Those guys are great (at keeping in touch),” Hudson said. “And there are other guys that just throw the offer out there, and they see them when they see them — especially some of the kids that get offered when they're younger. It's a long road to continue that relationship.”

Alford has cultivated relationships with a number of talent-laden programs in Florida, specifically University School and American Heritage as of late, in order to stay close with potential prospects.

The Irish staff has also kept intact ties with coaches of current players like with head coach Chris Merritt of Miami Columbus, who coached Irish linebacker Anthony Rabasa.

“I'd say it's pretty good,” Merritt said of his relationship with Notre Dame. “We're not St. Thomas Aquinas. There was a time where that's all Notre Dame would recruit was the Catholic schools back in the old days. But that's not the way anymore.”

Merritt has attended Notre Dame bowl practice in Florida. Since Rabasa’s recruitment, Merritt has come to better understand the student-athlete the Irish staff searches for.

He had a chance to work with defensive end Stephon Tuitt, running back George Atkinson III, and cornerback Josh Atkinson through USA Football.

“It takes a special kind of kid,” Merritt said. “One of the things I like about the way they recruit, they recruit a specific type of kid, too. Anthony fit that mold perfectly.”

A number of ND coaches made an impact in Rabasa’s decision, including defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and defensive line coach Mike Elston. Merritt grew to appreciate their willingness to communicate with him throughout the process.

“They do everything through the high school coach,” Merritt said. “They communicate. To me those are the best recruiters, the guys that communicate with you quite a bit. They don't mess around with a lot of the street agent guys or anything like that.”

Instead, Notre Dame’s staff creates connections with the recruit at the top of their list, like the one Alford developed with Folston

“He got close to Tarean real quick and kept in touch with him and kept checking on him,” Wilkinson said. “You have some people that will be real hot for a couple weeks and then cold for a couple weeks and then try to get hot again. He kind of stayed pretty heated up the whole time. I think Tarean recognized that."

Wilkinson noticed Alford’s ability to relate through the countless conversations he had with him.

“He gets beyond the recruiting, and the kid gets to know you,” Wilkinson said. “We started talking about things other than football and other than Tarean. He builds a relationship outside of football.”

But in the end it all comes back to football, and the state of Florida knows a thing a two about that. Some of the nation’s top talent resides in the fertile peninsula, where the Irish found defensive tackle Louis Nix and ex-Irish defensive end Aaron Lynch.

Recently, Notre Dame has found success in the southern part of the state. With Alford charged with finding the talent, odds favor the Irish sustaining their hold in Florida.

"South Florida kids can't play everywhere in the country,” Merritt said. “They're a different type of kid. Notre Dame has been very selective. They've gotten the good kids.”

A look at Notre Dame’s recruits from Florida during Brian Kelly’s tenure:

2013: Greg Bryant (Delray Beach), Tarean Folston (Cocoa), Mike Heuerman (Naples), Michael Deeb (Plantation).

2012: Justin Ferguson (Pembroke Pines).

2011: Aaron Lynch (Cape Coral), Anthony Rabasa (Miami).

2010: Lo Wood (Apopka), Spencer Boyd (Cape Coral), Louis Nix (Jacksonville), Bruce Heggie (Mount Dora).

Notre Dame's Tarean Folston picks up yards during the Notre Dame vs. Navy football game on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN
SBT Graphic/Todd Merchant