Brian Kelly learns to thrive in twisted game of wavering commitments

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Less than 48 hours after Brian Kelly made his first media splash as Charlie Weis’ successor, what seemed like a cornerstone piece to his future as Notre Dame’s head football coach wiggled out a trap door.

That former five-star defensive end/outside linebacker Chris Martin, who flipped his commitment to Cal, would end up never playing a down at the FBS level, and would go on to transfer three times (Florida, City College of San Francisco, Kansas) and have a fourth move — to Div. II New Mexico Highlands — aborted by that school before his first practice took place, is a tidy postscript to the first perceptual crisis Kelly had to navigate.

But in that moment, Martin’s subtraction from Kelly’s 2010 recruiting class fed the angst in his new fan base over whether a guy who made his living for so long finding and polishing diamonds in the rough could consistently land polished, coveted, big-rep, big-ego prospects such as Martin.

It didn’t help that freshman prodigy Manti Te’o, the highest-rated recruit to land at ND in the post-Holtz Era until Jaylon Smith came along four cycles later, spent Kelly’s first two weeks on the job contemplating whether he would take a two-year Mormon Mission and step away from football in 2010 and 2011.

A little more than a month later, and with his first National Signing Day as ND’s coach just days away, two more touted ND commitments, defensive end Blake Lueders and running back Giovani Bernard, defected to Stanford and North Carolina, respectively.

Weis had faced a similar affront three years earlier, when offensive lineman Chris Little, wide receiver Greg Little, defensive lineman Justin Trattou and silent receiver commit Arrelious Benn all exited the 2007 recruiting class late in the cycle.

An indignant Weis, who actually flipped three commits to ND in that cycle, drew up a hard-line policy to drop future commitments with wandering eyes, but also made a plea on a grander scale.

He implored the membership of the American Football Coaches Association at its annual convention to push the NCAA for an early signing period, to theoretically cut down on the player movement nationwide.

Kelly, at Cincinnati at that time, was one of the coaches nodding in agreement that day. To this day, he remains a proponent of the early signing period.

But in the meantime, he’s more than adapted to the chaotic and warped game of musical chairs, seemingly becoming larger and more cut-throat with each passing recruiting cycle. In fact, he’s learned to thrive in it.

In 2010, Kelly offset the loss of the three decommitments, with eight admittedly largely lower-profile flips of his own. As of Wednesday morning, the first signing day at ND in which digital signatures replace the whir of a fax machine, Kelly had converted 37 players, who had spent some time in someone else’s recruiting class, into Irish commits.

Barring any 11th-hour reneging, that’s 24 percent of Kelly’s recruited players coming to ND as flipped commitments. A 38th could join the group if five-star wide receiver Demetris Robertson of Savannah, Ga., a former Alabama pledge, ends up in South Bend.

“Even though there seems to be more switching schools across the country every year, with this year the highest I can remember,” said Mike Farrell, longtime director of recruiting for Rivals.com, “that (24) percent figure for Kelly seems very high. Especially for a program like Notre Dame, where kids make decisions more based on academics and the 40-year decision more so than some other programs.”

Meanwhile, Kelly has lost just 19 players to other schools over those same seven cycles.

The in-out ratio has spiked in ND’s favor considerably in the last two recruiting runs, with a combined 12 flips coming to ND and just two leaving the past two cycles. In fact, as of Wednesday morning, Kelly is on track to have the first decommitment-free class during his time at ND.

Here are some other trends involving those number of note:

• Players on both lists for ND tend to be more transient, even once they’ve made a final recruiting decision.

In the 2010-2014 classes, eight of the players Kelly flipped ended up transferring from ND, out of 24. That’s a 33 percent rate. That compares to 22 percent transfer rate overall in those classes. The figure includes grad school-style transfers, such as Everett Golson.

Of the 14 players who decommitted in the 2010-13 classes, only five stayed — or are on track to stay — at the school they flipped to for four years (or more). Jordan Prestwood actually transferred to Notre Dame before an academic fallout started his descent completely out of college football.

• Of the overall 19 decommitted players, only seven have gone on to start more than a handful of games in their careers.

• The schools that have lost the most flips to ND are Penn State (4) and Stanford (4), followed by USC (3).

Florida has taken the most away from the Irish during Kelly’s time (3). North Carolina, Ohio State, Florida State and Oklahoma are the only other schools with more than one takeaway, each with two.

• Of the 37 flipped players to ND, 23 have been defensive players. Defensive end is by far the most popular position (8), followed by quarterbacks (5).

Speaking of QBs, when Washington State decommit Ian Book signs with the Irish Wednesday, he’ll tip the scales in that Kelly will have signed more decommitted QBs than those who chose ND first (Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix, Malik Zaire, DeShone Kizer) during his ND tenure.

Of the overall 19 players who decommitted out of ND’s class, five of them were running backs.

• Most of the battles, incoming (59.5 percent) and outgoing (57.8 percent) have involved tugs-of-war with schools in that player’s home state or an adjoining one.

And those tend to be some of the most contentious ones.

The popular narrative involving nose guard Louis Nix, a member of Kelly’s first class, is that he flipped from Miami and committed to Notre Dame when the Irish were between head coaches.

Nix later revealed he secretly told Weis he was coming to ND weeks before, afraid to make his intentions public — and with good reason.

Some members of the coaching staff at Nix’s high school, Jacksonville (Fla.) Raines, tried to pressure Nix into staying with the Hurricanes, to the point one assistant came over to Nix’s house and told the player’s father that Nix would be ruled ineligible by the NCAA if he signed with the Irish.

“You had people he trusted trying to talk him out of Notre Dame and telling lies to justify it,” Nix's mentor, Renzer Bell, said. “You may not like Notre Dame, and that’s fine, but it shows a lack of depth in their thinking to try to do what they did.

“The kids on the team and in the hallways looked at him strange, but they were taking their cues from what adults were saying.”

But Nix persevered and helped start a trend that persists to this day.

The why behind the high numbers for Kelly, especially when it comes to incoming switches, is the product of a confluence of trends, according to CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming.

It starts with a national trend of the recruiting calendar moving up drastically. Whereas once upon a time, ND’s December awards banquet was the pivotal date on the recruiting calendar, it’s largely irrelevant in the recruiting big picture, because it comes so late.

“Even in-season official visits are being replaced by junior year and summer unofficial visits as the most important contact with recruits when it comes to making their decisions,” Lemming said. “And those decisions are coming earlier and earlier.”

To wit, 34 of the top 100 Rivals.com players for 2017 have already made verbal pledges. Notre Dame has three of those top 100 commits and has five lined up overall for its next class already.

“In the early 2000s, kids would take visits for fun, but you knew they were going where they were going,” Farrell said. “They were committed to Miami, for instance, and they’d take four other visits, but you knew they were going to stick with that commitment.

“Now kids take these visits, and coaches are so creative and kids get so confused. And with social media, they get so much attention for taking the visits, that I think anybody who takes a visit is in danger of flipping. And that really never used to be the case about 15 years ago.”

Layered on top of that trend where Notre Dame specifically is concerned, is the Irish in years past have been more measured and deliberate in extending offers than a lot of other national powers.

“When you offer a lot of guys, like Michigan and Ohio State do, it gives them an advantage in one sense,” Lemming said. “Kids remember who was with them for the long haul when they make a decision. But the down side is you don’t know the character of most of those guys.

“I think Notre Dame does a better job than most schools of evaluating kids’ characters and grades, which is part of the reason they don’t offer as many. I still think there can be a happy medium. But because they offer later, they have to go after guys in other people’s classes.”

Both Farrell and Lemming believe an early signing period would curb the national trend. Farrell went a step further, saying kids should sign a binding financial aid agreement when they commit. Currently that option exists, but it’s only binding for the school, not the player.

“The players have too much power in this system,” he said. “There has to be more balance.”

But until then, Kelly will play the game with the rules that are in place.

“The irony of that Chris Martin situation is that Kelly did turn out to be a really good recruiter when it comes to big-time prospects,” Lemming said.

Also ironic, Martin ended up briefly with Weis at Kansas. But he was arrested in 2013 before he could suit up for his first game for the Jayhawks. And in 2014, Martin pleaded guilty to felony robbery and was put on three years’ probation.

“Perception is a funny thing,” Lemming said. “In this case, it never matched up with reality.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly walks into the locker room after the first half against Pitt at Heinz Field Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015, at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ

The 37 players during the Brian Kelly Era at Notre Dame who spent time in another school’s recruiting class are listed in the column on the left. The 19 Kelly Era decommitments are listed in the column on the right.

Flipped to Notre Dame  Decommitments  
2016 (7)  2016 (0)  
Ian Book  QBWashington State None  
Daelin HayesOLB USC   
Khalid Kareem  DEAlabama   
D.J. MorganArizona State   
Ade OgundejiDE Western Michigan   
Spencer PerryFlorida    
Troy Pride Jr.CB Virginia Tech    
      
2015 (6)  2015 (2)  
Josh BarajasLB Penn StateBlake BarnettQB Alabama
Shawn CrawfordCB Michigan Prentice McKinneySOklahoma
Alizé Jones  TEUCLA   
Ashton WhiteCBVirginia Tech   
Dexter WilliamsRB Miami (Fla.)   
Brandon WimbushQB Penn State    
       
2014 (3)  2014 (3)  
Pete MokwuahNG RutgersMatt DickersonDT UCLA 
Drue TranquillPurdueElijah HoodRB North Carolina 
Jhonny WilliamsDE Missouri/Toledo Richard Yeargin IIIDE Clemson
      
2013 (6)  2013 (3)  
Greg BryantRB Oklahoma Alex AnzaloneLB Florida
Will FullerWR Penn State Jamel JamesRB Texas State
Doug RandolphLB StanfordDanny MattinglyOLB Oregon
Max RedfieldUSC    
Durham SmytheTE Texas    
Eddie VanderdoesDT USC    
      
2012 (2)  2012 (4)  
Jarron JonesDE Penn StateRonald DarbyCB Florida  State 
Gunner KielQB LSU/Indiana Taylor DeckerOT Ohio State
   Deontay GreenberryWR Houston
   David PerkinsRB Ohio State
      
2011 (5)  2011 (4)  
Everett GolsonQBNorth CarolinaClay BurtonLB Florida
Chase HounshellDE Florida Justice HayesRB Michigan
Aaron LynchDE Florida StateBennett OkotchaCB Oklahoma
Nick MartinOL Kentucky Jordan PrestwoodOT Florida State 
Stephon TuittDE Georgia Tech    
      
2010 (8)  2010 (3)  
Chris BadgerStanford Giovani BernardRB North Carolina
TJ JonesWRStanfordBlake LuedersDE Stanford
Luke MassaQB Cincinnati Chris MartinDE Cal 
Tate NicholsOL Stanford   
Louis NixNGMiami (Fla.)   
Derek RobackTE Toledo   
Kona SchwenkeDE BYU   
Danny SpondLB Colorado