Mike Sanford transformed how Notre Dame recruits QBs

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Mike Sanford wants to recruit quarterbacks differently.

In his first year as Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, he’s done exactly that.

Before Sanford arrived in South Bend, the approach to recruiting the quarterback position wasn’t much different at Notre Dame than many of the top football programs nationally. The Irish coaching staff would extend several offers to some of the top prospects in the country and try to see if anything stuck.

With Sanford, the approach has been much more methodical. The offer lists have been shorter and the priorities have become clearer.

“I really do believe that the way we go about our recruiting at Notre Dame should be different than a lot of places,” Sanford said on National Signing Day. “This is a place that stands for integrity, it stands for relationships on campus, the community that we have on campus.

“To me, recruiting the quarterback position in particular, which is typically a one-recruit type of position per class, I want to develop a great relationship with that potential prospect. If it’s not a fit for the young man or for us, then, of course, we’ll extend another offer.

“What we don’t want to do is offer 10-15 quarterbacks, get to know very few of them and then all of a sudden we’re out there trying to grab bag at the end or during camp.”

According to the Rivals database, Notre Dame offered nine different quarterbacks in both the 2015 and 2016 classes. Brandon Wimbush signed in the 2015 class, and most of the offers in the 2016 class were extended before Sanford was hired.

A day after Notre Dame announced his hiring last March, Sanford extended his first quarterback offer in the class to Matt Fink, who he previously recruited at Boise State. Fink, a three-star recruit from Glendora, Calif., committed to USC in May.

Dwayne Haskins, who had already received an Irish offer, quickly became the main priority. He visited in March, but eventually committed to Maryland in May. The four-star quarterback later flipped his commitment and signed with Ohio State.

After Sanford evaluated more quarterbacks, he shifted his focus to Ian Book. The three-star Washington State commit was also a former recruiting target of Sanford’s at Boise State. Following a Notre Dame visit and offer, Book flipped his commitment to the Irish in August and has since signed with ND. Book’s relatively short offer list and standing in the national recruiting rankings did not affect Sanford’s opinion of Book.

“I’ll be perfectly honest. Myself, (associate head) coach (Mike) Denbrock and (head) coach (Brian) Kelly, in evaluating that position, we do not care about the big name. At all,” Sanford said. “We care about the fit for the University of Notre Dame. We care about the fit for our quarterback room. We’re looking for the best football player that fits our needs.”

With Book committed, Sanford turned his attention to the 2017 class. And while Sanford might not be worried about the big name, his first priority in the class was the biggest name in the country at the position. Hunter Johnson, a five-star recruit out of Brownsburg, Ind., received Notre Dame’s first quarterback offer in the 2017 class. It stayed that way until after Johnson, the top pro-style quarterback in the country according to Rivals, 247Sports committed to Tennessee in August. He has since flipped his pledge to Clemson.

Avery Davis became Sanford’s next target in the class when he received an offer in October. Like Book (6-foot, 190 pounds), Davis is an undersized, three-star quarterback. He also may be under-recruited. The 6-0, 190-pound Davis played his first season as the starting quarterback at Cedar Hill (Texas) High last fall. Davis completed 128 of his 197 passes (65 percent) for 1,966 yards and 22 touchdowns and also rushed 110 times for 934 yards and three touchdowns.

Many of the top programs in the area, including Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Baylor and TCU, already landed 2017 quarterbacks commitments. That’s left Davis with fewer options. His recruiting rating could rise through the offseason camp circuit, but that’s not likely to influence Sanford’s opinion. He’s not worried about what anyone thinks of his quarterback targets.

“I want to find the absolute best quarterback in the nation that fits Notre Dame and that fits what we’re looking for offensively,” Sanford said. “The national landscape of the quarterback position, to me, means absolutely nothing. The camp circuit means nothing to me. Absolutely nothing.”

The Irish sit in a good position with Davis, who visited in November for the Wake Forest game and plans to return on March 19 for Notre Dame’s next junior day. If Davis trends away from the Irish, Sanford could turn to Hendon Hooker, a three-star quarterback from Greenboro (N.C.) Dudley. The 6-4, 200-pound prospect reported an Irish offer earlier this month.

But don’t expect Sanford to panic if a commitment doesn’t come in the next couple months. He’s more concerned with building relationships with his top quarterback targets than making sure one picks his school before he may be ready. Having extended only three offers to quarterbacks in the 2017 class allows Sanford to be transparent about his priorities with the recruits.

“Getting a commitment early, to me, is probably not as important as developing the relationship early,” Sanford said. “The fact that I’m going to be in a coaching relationship with this player and he’s going to be a player for me, for our staff, and for coach Kelly, it’s important that relationship begins because I want to get to know you. I want to get to know the good, the bad and the ugly. I like to find out where I need to potentially push the buttons for you as a coach.

“Of course the commitment component is important, but we want that to happen organically. We want that to be reached upon because the kid’s ready to say ‘I’m all in.’”

While early commitments haven’t been a priority, early evaluations have. Notre Dame has already extended a scholarship offer to a quarterback in the 2018 class, Phil Jurkovec of Gibsonia (Pa.) Pine-Richland, and the 2019 class, J.T Daniel of Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei.

Notre Dame has taken criticism for being slow to offer some recruits in the past, but that won’t be the case at quarterback. Sanford said coaching at Notre Dame has allowed him to be proactive recruiting the position.

“That’s the great thing about coaching here is we have the resources. We have the time in the month of December and January to go around and really get to know this 2017, 2018 and even 2019 crop of quarterbacks,” Sanford said. “That was a leg up we had on some of our competition for me and coach Denbrock and even coach Kelly to travel around and see these young prospects at quarterback.”

The recruiting process has accelerated in the past decade and the quarterback position is no exception. A scholarship offer to a 14- or 15-year-old kid is no longer uncommon. The evaluations of those quarterbacks are even tougher, but Notre Dame tries to rely on varsity production as a barometer for those recruits.

“What we don’t want to do is offer quarterbacks that have junior varsity experience or eight grade experience,” Sanford said. “That’s just not what I deem to be good business. These guys have all played meaningful snaps on varsity. That’s helped us with our evaluation.”

Both Jurkovec and Daniels are coming off stellar seasons. As a sophomore, Jurkovec threw for 2,560 yards and 20 touchdowns and rushed for 1,250 yards and 11 touchdowns in 12 games. Daniels completed 174 passes for 3,042 yards and 33 touchdowns with just four interceptions in his 12-game freshman season.

There’s still a long checklist that young quarterbacks, even freshmen, have to meet for Sanford to consider an offer.

“The No. 1 thing is when you’re a freshman playing you have to really own that position. You have to own that football team. Very few kids as 14-year-old kids can really own a football team especially with the magnitude of some of these high school programs they’re playing at,” Sanford said. “If a kid can own it as a freshman and not be tentative and not be a guy who’s looking around and trying to figure out on the run if they can do it, then that’s somebody to keep your eyes on.

“Secondly, you want to see a guy as a young player that can make all the throws. Is he an accurate quarterback? Is he guy who already has the arm talent to make the throws?

“Then lastly, toughness. We want to see is this kid a tough player? Has he already demonstrated toughness as a young player? If they have, then it should set a pretty good trajectory for the rest of their career in high school.”

Notre Dame reserves the right to back away from a scholarship offer if a player doesn’t continue on the path the coaching staff has projected for that quarterback. The demands in the classroom and on the field still need to be met.

If the revamped process helps Notre Dame land future star quarterbacks, it’s well worth the time dedicated by Sanford, the recruiting office, and the rest of the coaching staff. Kelly supports the movement. Check back in 2020 to review the results.

“I think it's like anything else,” Kelly said. “Look, if your son aced his PSATs, he's going to get some mail from Harvard and Stanford, right? When he's a ninth grader, and he should, right? It's the same thing.

“If you’re an incredible ninth grader or 10th grader, and you are somebody that is elite, and there are just a few of them, they need to hear from you. That doesn't mean it's across the board, but that's just where that position, the quarterback position, is so central to the success of football teams that I think you're going to see that kind of recruitment at that position moving forward.” | 574-235-6214 | Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Notre Dame offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford has transformed how the Irish recruit quarterbacks. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)