Analysis: How Notre Dame can find successful finish to 2017 recruiting class

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

The final weeks of the 2017 recruiting cycle are so important to Notre Dame football, the coaching staff has created a hashtag for it.

The @NDFootball Twitter account released it, #FightSZN, on Wednesday with an accompanying definition.

“The final push at the end of each Fighting Irish recruiting cycle, marked by relentlessly pursuing and securing the next class of elite prospects who will carry on the pride, traditions, and legacy of Notre Dame Football for generations to come.”

Whether the hashtag resonates with recruits remains to be seen. It’s a solid attempt at being hip — “SZN” is Internet slang for season — while drumming up interest on social media.

An important step in recruiting is presenting a program that recruits want to be a part of and join. A hashtag is just one of the smaller details in creating the image.

The challenges sitting in front of Notre Dame’s coaching staff, between now and the Feb. 1 national signing day, are both real and perceived. With 15 verbal commitments in the 2017 class, the Irish still need more prospects on the defensive line, in the secondary and at wide receiver. A coaching staff with plenty of new faces will be put to the test right away.

The tasks started Thursday, when the NCAA-mandated dead period ended and the coaching staff was allowed to hit the road for in-home visits and to start hosting recruits on campus. The perception hanging over Notre Dame following a 4-8 season and the growing criticism of head coach Brian Kelly will no doubt be the toughest obstacles.

But recruiting for Notre Dame football doesn’t change much based on the previous season. The pitch remains the same, whether it works or not: Come play football at a historically rich program while getting a top-notch education.

This list of priorities for the Irish should allow them to make the 2017 #FightSZN a successful one.

1. The closer needs to close.

Ask enough recruiting analysts about Brian Kelly’s reputation as a recruiter, and it won’t take long until someone describes him as a closer. His greatest strength, many will argue, is his ability to impress recruits and their parents during face-to-face conversations.

Unfortunately for Kelly, the recruiting calendar has sped up so much in recent years that many recruits are making college decisions before he can get a chance to meet with them during official visits on campus or trips to their homes.

Yet the work left to be done in the 2017 recruiting class gives Kelly an opportunity to make a significant impact. During in-home visits, as he travels the country, and on campus for the final recruiting weekends before signing day, Kelly has to live up to his recruiting reputation as a closer.

For example, Notre Dame’s most recent commitment, four-star offensive lineman Aaron Banks, received an in-home visit from Kelly before making his announcement in December. Recruitment closed.

Kelly spent the first night of the contact period with three-star wide receiver Michael Young, whose importance to the class has increased as the lone wide receiver currently committed to the Irish.

Only Kelly can best answer questions about the stability of his program and the direction it’s heading. If recruits like what they hear, the Irish can finish strong.

2. Allow me to (re)introduce myself.

All five of Notre Dame’s new coaches — either officially announced or still waiting to be formally hired — have jumped from other college programs. They shouldn’t be strangers to recruiting.

But some of the coaches will be introducing themselves to specific recruits for the first time. The players on special teams coordinator Brian Polian’s radar at Nevada will likely differ from his new targets with the Irish. Offensive coordinator Chip Long probably wasn’t in communication with many of the same recruits at Memphis that he will be at Notre Dame.

Other coaches should be able to use their new positions in South Bend as a chance to get back in the picture for a recruit. Defensive coordinator Mike Elko and linebackers coach Clark Lea might find recruits more receptive to answer their messages at Notre Dame than at Wake Forest.

If any of their former recruits at other schools are a fit for Notre Dame, the new coaches should lean on those relationships.

The recruitment of Tre Norwood has already provided a blueprint. Elko had recruited the three-star cornerback at Wake Forest, but Norwood ended up committing to Louisville. Upon receiving an offer from Notre Dame this week and a visit from Irish defensive backs coach Todd Lyght, Norwood backed off his Louisville commitment.

Without those prior relationships, the new coaches will have to work fast to establish connections and make sure their new recruiting targets know who they are and what they represent. Rebranded Twitter accounts have already started the process.

Kelly, ND recruiting coordinator Mike Elston, and the leadership in the recruiting office will need to make sure each new coach is properly prepared to deliver a recruiting pitch consistent with the rest of the staff. A lot of learning will be done on the fly by the coaches and the recruits.

3. Balance talent with need.

The ability of Notre Dame’s staff to find overlooked talent will be tested in the coming weeks. The work started during the dead period, with the coaching staff and recruiting office evaluating the current class of commitments, weighing the remaining needs by position and finding the right candidates to fill those holes.

Some discretion is required with new offers. The Irish have to find players who are not only talented enough to play at Notre Dame but are willing to take a close look at the program so late in the recruiting cycle.

The equation brings some give and take. The Irish have nearly exhausted their options with their initial top targets this recruiting cycle. Most of the new targets will be rated as three-star recruits by recruiting services and could need significant development at Notre Dame.

Late offers have been hit or miss under Kelly. The Irish could end up with another Daniel Cage or another Pete Mokwuah.

4. Identify and exploit weaknesses.

Notre Dame knows all too well how players can be poached from a recruiting class. Michigan pushed for four-star defensive lineman Donovan Jeter. Ohio State coveted four-star linebacker Pete Werner. Both ended up as former Notre Dame pledges.

If the Irish want to add several commitments by signing day, it’s likely they’ll have to do some poaching of their own. A close evaluation of the college football landscape should help inform those decisions.

Notre Dame needs to find programs that struggled in 2016 and/or have undergone significant coaching staff changes. A look at some of the recently reported Notre Dame offers shows the Irish have already done their homework.

Players committed to Arizona (3-9), Illinois (3-9), Oregon (4-8 and a new head coach), California (5-7 and no head coach until possibly this weekend) and TCU (6-7) have all been targeted by the Irish.

5. Keep commitments together.

There’s not enough time left in the 2017 recruiting cycle for Notre Dame to spend much of it worrying about flaky commitments. The class shrank by two this week, with cornerback Paulson Adebo removing himself from the class and the Irish parting ways with cornerback Elijah Hicks.

Hicks, who had already made visits to Michigan and Cal after committing to Notre Dame in October, seemed likely to sign with another program (which will reportedly be Cal, according to Scout’s Greg Biggins) regardless of the coaching staff’s decision to move on. But the situation showed the staff’s acceptance that its time could be better spent elsewhere.

The remaining recruits in Notre Dame’s 2017 class provided a commitment check of their own Monday night, when almost every pledge tweeted the same image of a Notre Dame huddle with the words, “Trust the process.”

The only two commits who didn’t? Quarterback Avery Davis and defensive tackle Darnell Ewell.

Davis said as recently as the last week in December that he remains fully committed to the Irish in an interview with the Tribune. Kelly visited Davis in person on Friday in Texas. On Thursday night, Ewell, who doesn’t tweet, indicated the same.

“I’m pretty much good where I’m at,” Ewell said. “I got the best education in the world. I’m going away from home. It’s free. I get to wear gold every game. Plus it’s my choice. It’s what makes me happy. Screw anybody else.”


Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Head coach Brian Kelly's ability to close will play a major role in how Notre Dame finishes the 2017 recruiting cycle. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)