Mike Elston likes Notre Dame's position in 2016 class

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Nearly six months into his stint as recruiting coordinator, Mike Elston likes where Notre Dame sits in the 2016 class.

The summer recruiting period, headlined by the Irish Invasion, helped push the class to 14 verbal commitments. It took time to get the class rolling, but the Irish found momentum after the assistant coaches settled into their new roles on the staff.

Notre Dame had to replace four assistant coaches — recruiting coordinator and running backs coach Tony Alford, defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks, quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur, and outside linebackers coach Bob Elliott — at the start of the recruiting cycle. Elliott remained on Notre Dame’s staff as a special assistant to the head coach, but his role as a recruiter has become limited.

Filling those roles required replacing the relationships the departed coaches had with recruits and high school coaches across the country.

“When we took over in late February, early March, the challenge for us was we lost four full-time coaches,” Elston said. “The relationship that they had built prior to with all of these prospects, it just evaporated. (We were) playing catch-up.”

New defensive backs coach Todd Lyght had never recruited college football players before coming to Notre Dame. The few seasons of recruiting running backs coach Autry Denson had under his belt came at a lower level than Notre Dame. More recruiting expertise came with defensive line coach Keith Gilmore and his 30 years of experience, and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford, a former recruiting coordinator himself.

“Playing catch-up has been the biggest challenge,” Elston said. “The only way to really do that is to try and accelerate the process of building relationships because that’s what recruiting is. It’s about relationships. We’ve done a really good job with that. To be where we are right now in the 2016 class is pretty remarkable considering we lost half of the staff.”

One of the ways the staff has tried to build better relationships with recruits is through social media. The coaching staff and members of the recruiting office are regularly using Twitter and Instagram or designing graphics to better inform the recruits.

“You can send a letter to them but they’re not getting it for three or four days, and really, within our mail system, sometimes seven to 10 days," Elston said. "We wanted to be able to engage in a conversation with them and build a relationship with them via the social media. That’s really paid off for us.”

Elston explained how the recruiting staff uses an acronym to make sure every piece of the recruiting pitch stays on message. Any social media or mailing campaign should highlight the Facilities, Apparel, Coaches, Excellence, Tradition or Scholastics (FACETS) at Notre Dame. When the Irish unveiled the Shamrock Series uniforms for this season, recruits received information on the apparel.

A frequent message the Irish want to give to players is that coming to Notre Dame is more than a four-year decision. It’s a decision that impacts the next 40 years of their life, they say. Thus the creation of a 4 for 40 campaign, which highlights the value of a Notre Dame education. It can fall into a number of the FACETS categories.

“It’s kind of a hierarchy of what we’re doing,” Elston said. “It’s very detailed, and our recruiting office is doing a really good job with it.”

Notre Dame’s recruiting office continues to transform with a number of new titles and the increased utilization of Notre Dame students. The Irish now list four members of the staff in their media guide for the season: Director of player personnel David Peloquin, coordinator of recruiting operations Aaryn Kearney, recruiting creative lead Luke Pitcher, and recruiting assistant Jasmine Johnson.

The Irish have plenty of work left to do in the 2016 recruiting class, thanks to roster attrition in the offseason. An estimated class of 18 recruits will now likely end up closer to 23 come signing day. The Irish lost several scholarship players from medical disqualifications and transfers in the past six months. Elston said the Irish recruiting staff is constantly evaluating the number of scholarships it will have available for the coming recruiting classes.

“It’s not an exact science, unfortunately,” Elston said. “There’s always attrition. You never know for what reason. It just seems like there’s been more than what we had expected.”

The shifting total trickles down to the position coaches where the Irish have to decide how many players they need at each position and how to go about adding that many commitments. On the offensive line, for instance, coach Harry Hiestand hasn’t needed to extend a lot of offers to fill his position. At other positions, like the defensive line, the Irish can’t seem to send out enough offers.

“At the end of the day, each position is a little bit different,” Elston said. “The evaluation process is if you feel like he can play championship football for you and he can compete academically, you have to check on his character and everybody around him and make sure they give him the thumbs up and then move forward with him.”

While working toward a strong finish in the 2016 class, the Irish already have an eye on the 2017 recruiting cycle. Elston wants to bring more visitors on campus this fall, and discussed creating another recruiting event in July as a follow-up to the Irish Invasion.

“We’ve grown that to something pretty special,” Elston said. “We have to add more. We have to do more things. End of the summer, bring everybody back and enjoy another day together and just celebrate and do something. We’re planning something like that. The Irish Invasion is just the beginning, but it’s been a big event for us.”

Elston hit a number of other recruiting topics Tuesday.

• On negative recruiting: “We always deal with negative recruiting. The biggest pitch that people use against us is the academic piece. It’s challenging here. ‘It’s too difficult for you to go to Notre Dame. Why would you choose to do that?’ That’s a piece that we get negative recruited on and then the spirituality piece, which is crazy to me. There are misconceptions out there with people of what the spirituality piece will be here for our student-athletes. It’s misguided. That’s something that we have to combat all the time.”

• On the decision to not take part in satellite camps: “Talking to (head) coach (Brian) Kelly, we were talking about, 'should we do some satellite camps?' To me and to him — it was unanimous — it’s silly because we want to get kids here on our campus. We want to show them what we have to offer. To go down to Indianapolis or to go down to Atlanta, they still don’t know Notre Dame. They might know Mike Elston a little bit more, but they don’t know Notre Dame. We want them to come up and see what we have up here, because it’s so different and so unique from anywhere else they’ve been. We feel like we have to get more kids on our campus throughout the summer, and we did.”

• On whether the potential to enroll early affects a recruit’s evaluation: “It could per position, absolutely. For example, linebacker. We’re going to lose quite a few linebackers. We lose Joe (Schmidt). We lose Jarrett (Grace); guys that have played a lot of football. If you could get an inside linebacker that could come in mid-year, then maybe that guy moves up the board just based on that purpose.”

“You never take a kid just because he’s a mid-year guy. We don’t anyway. You recruit him and if he’s able to come mid-year, he’s able to come mid-year. If you can’t — that’s a big sacrifice for a senior to say that he’s going to do. Coach Kelly doesn’t stress out about whether a kid can do it or not. If the kid wants to do it and he wants to try to do it, then great. If we can get him in school and he’s got the academics to get him in mid-year, let’s try to do it. But there’s some schools that that’s the main priority. They’re bringing 10, 11, 12 guys. You won’t ever see us do that.”

• On having associate head coach Mike Denbrock and offensive coordinator Sanford recruiting on the West Coast: “It’s been great. Very impactful. The relationships are so critical and they already have relationships on the West Coast. That’s been very good. We’ve had a lot of good visitors because of it. That will continue to show up.”

• On defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder traveling with defensive backs coach Todd Lyght during the spring evaluation period: “We made an emphasis early the first week out. We need so many defensive backs that we wanted to make an impact that both the defensive coordinator and the defensive backs coach were in your school the same day at the same time in the first week.”

tjames@ndinsider.com | 574-235-6214 | Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Linebacker coach Mike Elston Saturday, August 15, 2015, at the Notre Dame football practice at Labar Practice Complex. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ