How Notre Dame achieved its fastest recruiting start in Brian Kelly Era

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

First cause, then effect.

First, Brian Kelly stood at a podium on Feb. 3, 2016. It was signing day at Notre Dame, and the seventh-year Irish head coach welcomed 23 new student-athletes to his growing football family. He thanked all the coaches and staff members who allowed the celebration to happen.

And, he shared what a lot of hits and a few near-misses have taught him.

“What we now know definitively,” Kelly said, “is that we have to get you on campus in the summer months to move favorably towards that decision to come to Notre Dame.”

Then, the commits started rolling in.

As of July 29, Notre Dame has 17 verbal commits in its 2017 class, more than the Irish have ever had this early in a recruiting cycle in the Brian Kelly Era. Even more impressive, the Irish hold five commitments in the 2018 class, more than they’ve had this early in the last seven cycles combined.

Notre Dame’s staff has made a point of presenting scholarship offers earlier, recruiting earlier, getting their most prized targets on campus earlier.

The results are a reward, not an accident.

“It’s everything. The more you can encourage kids (to visit) early and often, the more likely you are to have a great class,” said Tom Lemming, recruiting analyst for CBS Sports Network. “That seems to be what they’re doing now.”

Justin Ademilola is living proof. The 2018 outside linebacker committed to Notre Dame alongside his brother, 2018 defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola, after taking an unofficial visit to South Bend in late June.

Without the visit, there wouldn’t have been a commitment.

“For me, I’ve been all around the country,” Justin Ademilola said. “I’ve been to many different schools. I’ve sat down with many different coaches. When I got to Notre Dame, it just shocked me. The norm for Notre Dame is different from anywhere I’ve been.”

Notre Dame has refrained from embracing the current satellite camp culture, Kelly says, because the best way to sell his program is to let recruits experience it for themselves. Instead, the staff has moved up junior day visits and devoted attention and resources towards Irish Invasion, the annual recruiting camp held on Notre Dame’s campus.

In turn, six recruits who attended the Irish Invasion camp in June have since committed to the Irish.

“That camp is very, very important, to get you on this campus,” Kelly said on signing day. “You really can't truly get to that yes in our opinion if you're reading about Notre Dame on the Internet. You've got to get on this campus.”

All 17 2017 commits and five 2018 commits have visited Notre Dame’s campus.

Once you visit, chances are, you’ll choose to stay.

“I told myself, ‘If this visit goes as expected, I’m going to commit here.’ The visit was excellent,” Justin Ademilola said. “I sat down with all of the coaches. I even camped there, so I got to be coached by my position coach, coach (Keith) Gilmore. It was awesome.”

Of course, the coaches aren’t the only recruiters responsible for the early Irish haul.

Historically, if you can nab a quality quarterback early, the rest falls into place.

“When Notre Dame had a great class with Brady Quinn, that was the only great class that Tyrone Willingham had,” Lemming said. “Brady came early and helped recruiting. Then Charlie Weis’ great class was Dayne Crist’s class with (Kyle) Rudolph and (Michael) Floyd. Crist was actually their best recruiter that year.

“It’s very important to get a quarterback, but the key is a very personable, talkative quarterback, like a Phil Jurkovec. He’s a really good personality kid. He’s a kid that’s got confidence and I think can really help Notre Dame.

“When you get the quarterback active (in recruiting), particularly with offensive ballplayers, you’re definitely going to end up with an outstanding class, and that’s the way it’s looking right now.”

A 6-foot-5, 202-pound quarterback and consensus four-star recruit, Jurkovec became Notre Dame’s first commit in the 2018 class in May.

He didn’t have to wait long to get some company.

“Along with my brother and Markese (Stepp) and Phil, we’ve been recruiting heavy for the 2018 guys,” Justin Ademilola said. “I feel that our class is going to be really strong. We recruited (linebacker commit) Ovie (Oghoufo). We’re talking to (2018 running back) Jaelen Gill.

“We’re talking to a lot of kids and we’re hearing a lot of really good things. I think we’re going to get a lot more commits early.”

“Early” is the key word. Nationally, the beginning of each recruiting cycle creeps earlier every year, as programs race to nab key recruits and stay ahead of the competition. Though Notre Dame’s 17 2017 commits are its most by this date in the Kelly Era, 15 programs nationally currently tout more than 17 commits.

The earlier programs recruit, the earlier recruits commit.

“Now it’s not unusual to be offering eighth graders,” Lemming said. “I would imagine it’s going to go all the way down to the crib. You’ll get a football player marrying a volleyball or basketball player, and they’ll be offering the kid in the crib.”

Notre Dame hasn’t gone that far (at least not yet), but thus far, earlier recruiting efforts seem to have paid off for the Irish. Notre Dame’s five 2018 commits are more than all but one school, Miami, which boasts seven.

If the cause is getting prospects on Notre Dame’s campus earlier, the effect is clear as day.

“It’s very exciting,” Justin Ademilola said. “I think that we’re going to get at least two or three more 2017 commits and a lot more 2018 commits early, too.”

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly talks about National Signing Day during a press conference on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016, at Notre Dame in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

Number of Notre Dame verbal commits on July 29 in Brian Kelly Era:

2017: 17

2016: 13

2015: 16

2014: 15

2013: 15

2012: 8

2011: 10

2010: 11

Number of Notre Dame verbal commits for 2018 class, compared to previous classes 18 months before signing day:

2017: 5

2016: 0

2015: 1

2014: 2

2013: 0

2012: 0

2011: 0

2010: 0