Notre Dame returns to recruiting roots in western Pennsylvania
Josh Lugg made a literal first impression.
Then a second, and a third.
Lugg’s North Allegheny Tigers met the Pittsburgh Central Catholic Vikings twice last football season, and each time, the imposing offensive tackle’s job consisted of two primary responsibilities:
1.) Hit middle linebacker David Adams, or
2.) Hit defensive tackle Kurt Hinish.
Of course, it was a little more complicated than that, but Lugg — a 6-foot-7, 280-pound consensus four-star prospect and Notre Dame commit — is certainly adept at delivering a blow. He made a lasting impression.
His targets did, too.
"Kurt was the best player that I played against this year, hands down,” Lugg said on Monday. “He gave me really tough games and really made me work. Almost every single play I was hitting one of them. Both are outstanding players.”
Lugg is going to have to get used to hitting Adams and Hinish for years to come — this time, in practice. The pair of Central Catholic standouts committed to Notre Dame within 24 hours of each other on Sunday and Monday, after visiting South Bend for junior day last weekend.
Together, Lugg, Adams and Hinish represent Notre Dame’s first recruiting successes from western Pennsylvania since signing athlete E.J. Banks out of Pittsburgh in 2009. The Irish have netted four players from the state of Pennsylvania in the Brian Kelly Era, most notably Philadelphia’s Will Fuller and Mike McGlinchey in 2013 and Warrington’s Josh Adams in 2015.
But the state’s more football-rich region eluded them — for a while, at least.
"A lot of people thought that all the local recruits would be going to Pitt, and I kind of started it early, saying, 'I'm not going to Pitt. I'm going to Notre Dame,'” Lugg said. “At first it ticked off a lot of Pittsburgh fans. They didn't understand, even though it is Notre Dame.
“Now a lot of other recruits are starting to see how great Notre Dame is and what it has to offer."
Of course, it wasn’t always this way. Once, western Pennsylvania was an Irish stronghold, a pipeline that sent prolific passers and All-Americans west to the golden dome. At some point, the pipeline rusted.
Now, it’s being rebuilt.
“It’s an exceptionally big deal,” said CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming. “Western Pennsylvania is always loaded. Notre Dame’s history, as much as it’s Chicago, it’s western PA also.
“You’re talking about Tommy Clements and Leon Hart and Johnny Lujack, Terry Hanratty and Joe Montana and some of the great guys that have come out of western PA. All of a sudden they stopped recruiting it under the last two regimes.”
Thanks to offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, recruiting coordinator Mike Elston and tight ends coach Scott Booker, a Pittsburgh native, Notre Dame has made a triumphant return to its recruiting roots. Three of Notre Dame’s nine 2017 commits hail from the Pittsburgh area, with both Lugg and Adams claiming consensus four-star rankings and a slew of national offers. The Irish are also in the mix for 2017 defensive tackle Donovan Jeter and 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec, both highly touted prospects.
There’s plenty of talent to be had, and Notre Dame is getting greedy.
“As of late, if it’s not Penn State or Pitt, it’s Ohio State and Michigan taking the players away from them,” Lemming said. “But it’s a loaded year in western PA, and Notre Dame right now has taken the lead over everyone.”
A few weeks ago, that may not have seemed like an inevitability. But last weekend’s Notre Dame junior day swung momentum decisively to the Irish, who scored commitments not just from Adams and Hinish but also Texas quarterback Avery Davis, Florida linebacker Drew White and Indianapolis linebacker Pete Werner.
Notre Dame’s coaches coaxed the visits, but their campus sealed the deal.
"When Ohio State started picking up recruits, everybody was like, 'Oh, no. They're going to get all the top guys,'” Lugg said. “I'm like, 'No, you just have to wait.' It's all about waiting. All these kids, they don't necessarily want to commit right away. Some kids do if they feel they're at home.
“As soon as we got all these kids on campus for junior day, the coaches did a phenomenal job of hosting one of the best days for all these players. This is the best school in the country, and it's going to be one of the best classes."
That class includes three prizes from western Pennsylvania — and counting. But though Lugg has two new teammates, they’ll still be targets in the fall.
"Off the field it's brotherly love, but once we play them again this year, I'm going to have to go back to that rival mentality — just hating Central Catholic,” Lugg said with a laugh. “It's nothing personal, but I still have to play for North Allegheny football as hard as I can."