Notre Dame recruits set to enroll early keeping faith in Brian Kelly

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

You don’t have to look too hard on the internet to find people proclaiming the ship is sinking at Notre Dame.

The criticism of head coach Brian Kelly’s football program is at an all-time high following a 4-8 season, the NCAA’s untimely announcement of sanctions and disputed reports that Kelly’s looking at other jobs.

And yet there are some people with an unwavering faith in Kelly and the college decision they’ve made. Twenty-three recruits in the 2017 and 2018 classes have maintained their commitment to the Irish program. At the top of the list are four recruits who instead of changing their minds have chosen to enroll at Notre Dame as soon as possible.

Tight end Brock Wright, offensive lineman Robert Hainsey, running back C.J. Holmes and safety Isaiah Robertson are not obligated to Notre Dame in any way more than their word. But each said this week they’re ready to embark on their careers at Notre Dame by enrolling next month.

No matter how dark this season has been, they insist on sticking to their commitment.

“I’ve been steadfast the whole time,” said Wright, a four-star recruit from Cypress, Texas. “Going early is really crucial at a time like this. I know it’s going to be a great offseason. Everyone’s going to be fired up trying to get the ship rolling again. Going up early will be really cool to see that this offseason and spring.”

Wright, the top-ranked tight end in the country according to Rivals, became the second commitment in Notre Dame’s 2017 class back in June 2015. He’s seen how a Notre Dame season can run in completely different directions over the last 18 months.

“It seems like most people, especially people in the media, are looking at it so negatively,” Wright said. “But really you have your ups and downs, and this was just a down year. Notre Dame is still such an amazing program. Things are going to get back on track. It didn’t bother me. People are kind of losing faith when they shouldn’t be. I think we’re going to do some really big things in the next few years up there.”

Wright took an online science course and an extra English class this semester in order to graduate early from Cy-Fair High School. For Hainsey, working out a path to early graduation was more of an expected plan. When he chose to enroll at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., he knew he would be on track for mid-year enrollment at the college of his choice. Hainsey said more than 20 of his teammates are graduating early this month.

Watching Notre Dame’s season was tough for Hainsey, but it made him believe he could make an impact in short order in South Bend.

“Since I committed, I’ve been nothing but into the program 100 percent,” said Hainsey, a four-star offensive lineman. “I’m really excited to get there and start helping make a difference no matter what it is. I don’t like losing. That’s the toughest part. I’m not even on the team yet, but to have your school lose, it’s just not a good feeling and it makes you want to work harder.”

Asked how much faith he has that Kelly can turn Notre Dame’s program back around, Hainsey quantified it as 100 percent. He rattled off the slim margins of defeat in six of Notre Dame’s seven losses this season and noted how the reverse helped Notre Dame to a perfect regular season record in 2012.

“Next year has to be better,” Hainsey said. “There’s a standard at Notre Dame of excellence. Everyone’s going to do everything they can this offseason to reach that standard.”

Holmes, a four-star recruit at Cheshire (Conn.) Academy, has been the most vocal with his support of Notre Dame in a barrage of tweets throughout the season. He’s even clashed with defensive end Donovan Jeter, who left the Irish recruiting class in October to commit to Michigan. The pinned tweet on his Twitter profile reads, “Captains don’t jump when a ship gets a hole… #LOYALTY.”

“It’s just really hard to watch a team that you love so much and a program that you love so much struggle the way they’re struggling,” Holmes said. “I don’t find it hard to be positive because I feel so strongly about Notre Dame. All that you see on Twitter is 100 percent genuine. I just want the nation to know that I never quivered in my belief in coach Kelly. I never quivered in my belief in the coaching staff.”

Notre Dame’s recruiting class has remained relatively steady through the 2016 season. But the Irish have lost more commitments (linebacker Pete Werner and Jeter) in the 2017 class than they’ve gained (cornerback Elijah Hicks) since the start of August.

The last two months of the recruiting cycle will be crucial in the completion of Notre Dame’s class. The committed players could play an important role with so much uncertainty and speculation surrounding the Irish program. Losing Werner on Tuesday could be the start of a trend or it could just be an outlier.

Holmes has trust in his fellow recruits and trust in Kelly.

“He coaches a great program,” Holmes said. “We’re going to make adjustments. We’re going to bring personnel in. We’re going to be fine. This is just a bump in the road, and we’re going to get over it.”

Many of Notre Dame’s commits, including Wright, Hainsey, Holmes and Robertson, are expected to be at Notre Dame next weekend for the team’s annual awards banquet. The recruits regularly communicate in a group text message chain, but the banquet will allow for them to get together and reaffirm their commitment to each other and the program in person.

“We’re always talking about how we can’t wait to get up there,” Hainsey said. “Me, Isaiah, C.J., and Brock are getting up there in less than two months. We can’t wait.”

“We had Pete, who just decommitted, but he let us know. He told us first. We really respected that. At the end of the day, people have to make the best decision for themselves, and we respected that completely for him. We all feel we’re doing the right thing, and we’re all excited to help the university win again.”

tjames@ndinsider.com

574-235-6214

Twitter: @TJamesNDI

CJ Holmes runs a drill during the Irish Invasion at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday, June 18, 2016. ND Insider Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA