Scouring the States: Kelly values Ohio contacts in Notre Dame football recruiting

TYLER JAMES
South Bend Tribune

Brian Kelly only needed to impress a few people when recruiting quarterback Malik Zaire.

Like any other recruit, only a handful of people had voices of value when it came to sharing with Zaire their thoughts on Notre Dame and Kelly.

But that didn’t stop Kelly from impressing a whole lot more people when he visited Archbishop Alter High School in Kettering, Ohio. Alter head coach Ed Domsitz said Notre Dame’s head football coach spent nearly an hour greeting anyone who wanted to meet him.

“He said hello to everybody,” Domsitz said. “We have secretaries who wanted to have their picture taken with him. We had kids who were getting restroom passes to get out of class who wanted to get their picture taken. He was just amazingly accommodating. He went out of his way to be friendly.”

As Kelly has shown in his four seasons at Notre Dame, he values the connections he’s made in Ohio through more than two decades coaching college football in the Midwest. From Grand Valley State to Central Michigan to Cincinnati and now Notre Dame, Kelly has learned to appreciate the deep talent pool of the Buckeye State.

Kelly and the Irish staff continue to rely on its neighbor to the east to find recruits. No state has provided more signed prospects in Kelly’s four recruiting classes than the 12 from Ohio.

By the time Zaire’s recruitment ended, Kelly had formed a strong relationship with many at Alter.

“It’s a good relationship. It’s never been a bad relationship, but it does vary from coach to coach,” Domsitz said. “I think right now it’s not just the coaching staff, but I think the kids and the school in general feel pretty good about Notre Dame and the way that everything was handled with Malik.”

That’s less a product of Notre Dame’s success last season and more the result of well-received interaction that leaves a lasting impression on the recruiting trail. In a heavily-recruited state, each positive footprint matters.

“One of the Big Ten coaches that’s pretty well known in this area, he didn’t even bother to say hello,” Domsitz said. “He just wanted to meet with the player. Not that they have to come say hello to me, but when you’re the head coach you’d like to at least know if that person’s in your building. With coach Kelly, we knew when he was going to be there. It was a very positive experience.”

With Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Michigan’s Brady Hoke also fighting for a recruiting stronghold in Ohio, a three-way battle has started to emerge. In the 2013 cycle, Ohio State (10) signed more prospects from Ohio than Michigan (nine) and Notre Dame (two) and all three ranked in the top five recruiting classes on Rivals.com and top seven on 247Sports.

As the three continue to jockey for the state’s talent, comparisons between coaching staffs and recruiting philosophies are bound to play roles, even if high school coaches aren’t willing to publicly show a preference to one of the schools or coaches. Even when the coaches change, Dublin Coffman head coach Mark Crabtree doesn’t expect the competition for prospects to simmer.

“Ohio State, Notre Dame and Michigan have always had a strong influence in the state and will continue to,” Crabtree said. “I don’t care who the coach is, it’s just the way things are and the way they’ve been for a long time. I don’t think that’s going to stop anytime soon.”

A host of Irish assistant coaches have built relationships at different programs in recent years alongside Kelly. Crabtree, who sent former Irish lineman Brad Carrico to ND in 2011, has met multiple times with Kelly, defensive line coach Mike Elston and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin. The current coaching staff continues to regularly check in on the program that sent quarterback Brady Quinn and Chinedum Ndukwe to Notre Dame in the recent past.

“They’ve done a good job,” Crabtree said. “They have so many places to go nationwide, we’re lucky enough to get them in here briefly. I’m very impressed with what they do and how they do it.”

Crabtree had specific praise for Martin.

“I think his intensity shows when he’s talking to you or talking to one of your players - whether it’s on Notre Dame’s campus or at a camp. The guy is really sharp. He’s very polished as a very solid recruiter. He’s had incredible success as a head coach himself. I like him. I like his delivery.”

In the recruitment of Jimmy Bryne, a 2014 offensive lineman from St. Ignatius in Cleveland, offensive line coach Harry Hiestand flashed his recruiting prowess. Hiestand bonded with Byrne, but also enhanced his relationship with head coach Chuck Kyle.

“I really appreciate Harry Hiestand,” Kyle said. “He’s a good recruiter. He’s been to a lot of places. He even came and did our local clinic for us. He’s very visible in our recruiting area. When assistant coaches do that, that helps. That helps show that they care and they want to meet people. That’s definitely positive.”

Catholic schools have proven to be a breeding ground for Notre Dame recruits in Ohio. Of the 12 prospects to sign with Notre Dame during Kelly’s tenure, seven have come from Catholic schools. The draw to a Catholic university played a role in the recruitment of freshman defensive lineman Jacob Matuska.

“Our Catholicity is the central idea of who we are as a school,” said Brad Burchfield, head coach of Matuska’s alma mater, Bishop Hartley in Columbus. “We’re more attracted to that than anything. Notre Dame or any of the Catholic schools that come through, we have a great appreciation for them and a great identity with them already because of the teachings and what’s close to their culture.”

Elston helped deliver the recruiting pitch to Matuska and his head coach. Matuska, who described Notre Dame as his dream school, didn’t need much convincing. Nonetheless, the work of Elston impressed Burchfield.

“He is what you would expect out of a Notre Dame football coach,” Burchfield said. “I’m a pretty young coach. When I grew up thinking about the way Notre Dame coaches act and the way they go about their business, he was that and then some.”

Elston’s dedication to recruiting Matuska reflected on the same hard work Burchfield now sees Notre Dame’s staff doing across the state.

“On the outside looking in, you would think maybe they could just select and you don’t know how hard they would even have to recruit,” Burchfield said. “These guys recruit really hard and they recruit really well.”

A look at Notre Dame’s recruits from Ohio during Brian Kelly’s tenure.

2013: Malik Zaire (Kettering), Jacob Matuska (Columbus).

2012: Will Mahone (Austintown).

2011: Jarrett Grace (Cincinnati), Brad Carrico (Dublin), Chase Hounshell (Kirtland), Eilar Hardy (Pickerington).

2010: Alex Welch (Cincinnati), Andrew Hendrix (Cincinnati), Luke Massa (Cincinnati), Matt James* (Cincinnati), Derek Roback (Waverly).

*James passed away before joining the Irish

 Notre Dame's Jarrett Grace is from Cincinnati, Ohio. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN
SBT Graphic/Todd Merchant.