ACC ties don't always yield recruiting wins for Notre Dame

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

When Notre Dame’s football partnership with the ACC began in the 2014 season, the relationship was lauded by many as a shrewd recruiting opportunity.

With road games scheduled annually on fertile recruiting ground, the Irish would increase their visibility in states with talented prospects. The partial membership has been successful for recruiting at varying levels in the nine other states that feature ACC programs. Florida and Pennsylvania have been particularly fruitful for Notre Dame.

The story hasn’t been the same in North Carolina, home to four different ACC teams. But Saturday’s game against North Carolina State in Raleigh will be the first time the Irish have played in the Tar Heel State since the ACC started to account for a large chunk of the schedule. The last time Notre Dame made a trip in North Carolina came in 2012 for a 38-0 victory over Wake Forest.

Only two North Carolina products — freshman defensive end Julian Okwara and junior linebacker Greer Martini — have signed with Notre Dame since the ACC partnership was announced in September 2012. None of the 24 recruits committed to the Irish in the 2017 and 2018 classes hail from North Carolina.

“North Carolina is loaded,” said CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming. “There are always a lot of good players there, so you can spend a lot of time there. They have a lot of impact players there, it’s just that Notre Dame hasn’t landed an impact player from there.”

The results in the state haven’t been for a lack of effort.  Notre Dame did have a verbal commitment from five-star running back Elijah Hood in the 2014 class before he ditched the Irish for the Tar Heels. For the Irish, it was an unfortunate case of a top recruit wanting to stay closer to home.

“This decision has nothing to do with football or academics,” Hood wrote in a statement when he withdrew his commitment to Notre Dame. “This decision has everything to do about my family.”

Hood’s decision hasn’t prevented the Irish from continuing to push for recruits in the state. Four North Carolina recruits in the 2017 class — outside linebacker Justin Foster, quarterback Hendon Hooker, athlete Germane Crowell and safety Hamsah Nasirildeen — reported offers from the Irish.

Both Foster and Hooker made visits to Notre Dame before finding better fits elsewhere. Foster is set to announce a commitment to Clemson, Georgia or Tennessee on Friday night. Hooker (Virginia Tech), Crowell (Virginia) and Nasirildeen (South Carolina) have also wrapped up their recruitments.

Notre Dame has already offered the top two 2018 prospects in North Carolina — running back Zamir White, who visited in June, and defensive end KJ Henry.

“They’ve always seemed to get a player out of South Carolina every once in a while, but academically North Carolina is a bit better fit,” Lemming said. “You get more from the academic side and there are more top athletes in abundance.”

The rankings back that up. In every recruiting class since 2010, Rivals has given at least nine prospects from North Carolina a four-star grade or higher. From the 2010 class to the current 2017 class, the state has produced 85 four-star recruits and eight five-star recruits.

Playing in North Carolina should help Notre Dame rekindle some interest in the state, though many recruits may have their eyes on the Tar Heels thanks to a 4-1 start to the season.

“Once they see the Notre Dame brand and what Notre Dame can do, it does help to be in those states and to play there,” Lemming said.

Notre Dame actually had more success recruiting in North Carolina under head coach Brian Kelly prior to the ACC agreement. Six players from the state signed with the Irish in his first three recruiting classes in South Bend. Recruiting coordinator Mike Elston, consistently one of Notre Dame’s best recruiters, still leads the Irish efforts in the state — as he did then.

The job of a recruiter will always come with more losses than wins and many trends seem to come in cycles. A resurgence in North Carolina seems likely to come with a continued focus, but maybe recruiting pundits put too much value in the ACC connection?

“That state and Maryland and Virginia are three states that you’d think Notre Dame could have some great success in because of the ACC,” Lemming said. “Even though Maryland is in the Big Ten now, it’s a loaded state where a lot of kids will leave the state.”

After all, Notre Dame isn’t likely to be identified by many recruits as an ACC school. The Irish will always trumpet their independence. The benefit of playing one or two road games in a recruit’s home state while he’s at Notre Dame could be vastly overblown.

But it seems more than a coincidence that Notre Dame has landed commitments from six recruits from Western Pennsylvania since playing in Pittsburgh last November.

Many times in recruiting, the answers seem obvious. But sometimes, the numbers just don’t add up.

ACC FOOTPRINT

Notre Dame has signed or received commitments from 42 players from one of the nine other states that feature an ACC school since the conference announced a partnership with the Irish football program in Sept. 2012.

Thirty of those players signed with Notre Dame starting in the 2013 class. The other 12 are committed to the 2017 or 2018 classes.

Florida: 18 (14 signees, 4 commits)

Pennsylvania: 10 (3 signees, 7 commits)

Virginia: 3 (2 signees, 1 commit)

New York: 3

Massachusetts: 2

North Carolina: 2

Georgia: 2

Kentucky: 1

South Carolina: 1

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

Notre Dame’s Julian Okwara (42) celebrates after a turnover during the Notre Dame-Michigan State NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN