Summer proves Notre Dame doesn't need satellites to pull in stars

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

While college football coaches across the country hit the road this summer, Notre Dame stayed home.

As satellite camps became the latest fad in the ever-evolving recruiting landscape, the Irish took a calculated risk in devoting hours elsewhere. That gamble paid off in a big way.

Since the start of June, Notre Dame has landed 12 verbal commitments from recruits in the 2017 and 2018 classes. All but one of those commitments came following a visit to South Bend during that timeframe.

Two priorities informed Notre Dame’s decision to avoid satellite camps: allowing the coaching staff to work with the current roster during the summer and putting an emphasis on recruits visiting Notre Dame.

“The whole month of June we were able to work with our guys along with when the freshmen came in,” said recruiting coordinator and linebackers coach Mike Elston. “Instead of being in Florida where Jonathan Jones lives and working a satellite, I could be here spending time with him teaching him how to play linebacker at Notre Dame. That was a huge piece. We wanted to be on campus for our current players.”

The coaching staff also ran a number of camps at Notre Dame in June with the Irish Invasion serving as the centerpiece event for top targets and prospects. But Notre Dame didn’t stop there.

The Irish hosted more players in July and early August than in recent years. Without having to travel for satellite camps, the coaching staff was less constrained on when it could invite players to campus. If a recruit was going to be in the area, Elston wanted to make sure Notre Dame could take advantage of it.

“We had so many kids coming in this summer that were planning to be here, that if (head coach) Brian Kelly wasn’t here because he was working a camp or Mike Elston wasn’t here because he’s working a camp, who is going to host him?” Elston said. “Who is he going to see? It wasn’t a difficult decision for us to say, ‘Well, we’re going to go this route with the satellite camps.’”

And while satellite camps became a national debate — Should they be allowed by the NCAA? Are they useful events for recruits? — the question of their value for programs has yet to be answered either. Sure, Michigan and head coach Jim Harbaugh made plenty of headlines with their extreme travel schedule, but the publicity has far outweighed the commitments. The Wolverines scored seven commitments since the start of June, yet only two of them attended a satellite camp.

Other programs that have embraced satellite camps to varying degrees have received similarly tepid results. Penn State added nine recruits this summer, but only one attended a satellite camp. Ohio State has built one of the top recruiting classes in the country, but of its eight commitments since the start of June, only one attended a satellite camp. Nebraska has yet to net a commitment from this summer’s satellite camp series, but the Huskers are set to host a big recruiting weekend around its season opener on Saturday.

The few success stories that can be connected to satellite camps usually don’t start or even end at the camp. Ohio State set up shop at St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in June with five-star wide receiver Trevon Grimes as one its top targets. Grimes attended the camp, but he also made a visit to Ohio State in July before committing to the Buckeyes a month later. Many believed Grimes would end up at Ohio State before the satellite camp occurred.

Four-star offensive tackle Kai-Leon Herbert became the biggest prize of Michigan’s latest satellite spree. He attended a Michigan camp at St. Thomas Aquinas, visited Ann Arbor later that month and committed in early July.

Satellite camps don’t seem to be replacing unofficial visits, but they can be a tool to encourage a future campus trip. The opposite could also be a concern. If a recruit receives a visit from a college coach and works with him at a satellite camp, he might feel he doesn’t need to make an unofficial visit or official visit to get to know the program better.

“If we go to California and have a camp and we want to offer a kid, he knows no more about us at Notre Dame and he’s not able to make a decision about it unless he comes here,” Elston said.

It wasn’t an easy decision to skip out on the opportunity to evaluate more recruits at satellite camps, Elston said. In theory, Notre Dame could discover recruits that weren’t previously on its radar at camps across the country. But the anecdotes of major programs doing so are still limited. Penn State’s lone satellite camp commitment came from three-star wide receiver Mac Hippenhammer, who received an offer after his performance in front of the Nittany Lions at Bowling Green.

The bulk of Notre Dame’s evaluations will come during the typical evaluation periods — August to late November and mid-April through May — when coaches can visit high schools. Evaluations have also become a top priority for director of player personnel Dave Peloquin. Those assessments aren’t only football-related. The staff has to learn early in the process if a prospect is an academic and cultural fit at Notre Dame.

Tweaks in that process have allowed the Irish to successfully host more recruits for visits, Elston said. Notre Dame has a better gauge on the interest level and the feasibility of a visit.

“We’re recruiting the right kind of guys,” he said. “The evaluation that we’ve switched and we've targeted the right guys earlier and talking to family members and coaches that are influential in getting them to places. We’ve done a better job with that.”

No matter how much the recruiting landscape changes, the campus visit will always be the crossroads of a recruitment for Notre Dame. Showing a player around campus will always beat traveling to his home state.

“You have to get here to see it. They have to see it with their own eyes,” Elston said. “They have to be around our players, around our coaches, around the faculty. When they do that, they know whether it’s a fit for them or not.”

SUMMER SUCCESS

Notre Dame secured 12 verbal commitments since the start of June. Eleven of those recruits gave the Irish their pledge following a summer visit to South Bend.

RECRUITCAMPUS VISITCOMMIT DATE
 2017 DE Jonathon MacCollister Irish Invasion June 17
 2017 WR Jordan Pouncey Irish Invasion June 18
 2018 RB Markese Stepp Irish Invasion  June 19
 2017 CB Paulson Adebo March Junior Day  June 20 
 2018 DT Jayson Ademilola  June 24-26 camp  June 26 
 2018 OLB Justin Ademilola   June 24-26 camp  June 26 
 2017 RB CJ Holmes  Irish Invasion  July 8 
 2017 OL Robert Hainsey  Irish Invasion July 10
 2017 DT Darnell Ewell  June 24 camp  July 15
 2017 WR Michael Young  Irish Invasion July 20 
 2018 LB Ovie Oghoufo June 24 camp; July 22 July 22 
 2018 LB Bo Bauer  Irish Invasion; Aug. 3  Aug. 3 

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

Mike Elston, recruiting coordinator and linebackers coach, during Notre Dame football practice on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016, at LaBar Practice Field at Notre Dame in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

The Big Ten has been a major player in the satellite camp movement, but the summer trips have yet to pay major dividends this year.

Penn State, Michigan, Nebraska and Ohio State have added 29 commitments since the start of June, but only four attended satellite camps for those schools.

• Penn State: Nine commitments, one via satellite camp - 2017 WR Mac Hippenhammer.

• Ohio State: Eight commitments, one via satellite camp - 2017 WR Trevon Grimes.

• Michigan: Seven commitments, two via satellite camps - 2017 OL Kai-Leon Herbert, 2018 DB Otis Reese.

• Nebraska: Five commitments, zero via satellite camps.