What Todd Lyght learned from Notre Dame's nonexistent 2017 cornerback recruiting class
SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame’s 2017 recruiting class ultimately consisted of one quarterback, one running back, two wide receivers, two tight ends, four offensive linemen, two defensive ends, three defensive tackles, two linebackers, three safeties and a kicker.
But zero cornerbacks.
And so, on National Signing Day last week, each of Notre Dame’s assistant coaches waited for the players in their specific position group to send their national letters-of-intent, then met the media to discuss the fruits of their years-long labor.
Offensive line coach Harry Hiestand introduced Josh Lugg, Robert Hainsey, Aaron Banks and Dillan Gibbons. Offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Chip Long predicted immense production from Brock Wright and Cole Kmet. Linebackers coach Clark Lea lauded the instinctiveness of throwback middle linebacker David Adams and the speed of Drew White.
But on the subject of Notre Dame’s cornerbacks, Todd Lyght didn’t have a name to announce.
“It was tough this year,” said Lyght, who is technically the defensive backs coach but will focus on the cornerbacks while defensive coordinator Mike Elko oversees the safeties. “We had a couple guys on our board that were committed that ultimately went somewhere else due to proximity. That’s going to happen in the recruiting process.
“One thing that I’ve learned in the recruiting process is that you can’t really fall in love with players, because sometimes you lose them, sometimes you get them.”
This time, Notre Dame lost them — one after another. It started with consensus four-star cornerback Paulson Adebo, who withdrew his Irish commitment on Jan. 9 and quickly flipped to Stanford. A day later, the news broke that Notre Dame had parted ways with California cornerback prospect Elijah Hicks, who had been openly visiting other programs.
He ultimately enrolled early at Cal. Four-star prospect Thomas Graham, who multiple outlets reported as a silent commit to Notre Dame, also enrolled early, at Oregon.
In the 2017 cycle, commits didn’t yield signees. That was a reality Lyght and Co., grudgingly accepted on Signing Day.
“There’s different critical factors for each student-athlete going through the recruiting process — whether that’s proximity to home, academics, athletics, tradition — all of these different factors. Even apparel is a factor,” Lyght said.
“You have to take each student-athlete one by one, and you can’t take it personal. Because at the end of the day, the student-athlete has to see himself at that particular school, doing the work, playing the game at a high level, and trying to further his education at that particular program.
“So you can never take it personal, but it is tough, because you do spend several months trying to get a guy to come to your school, and you develop a relationship and you think things are going to work out, and sometimes they don’t.”
Added new defensive coordinator Mike Elko, when asked of his recruiting focus in 2018: “The obvious thing will come up in the secondary, that we’ve got to do a little bit better job at corner in this next recruiting cycle. We’ll do that.”
But … how? For Lyght, who just wrapped up his second recruiting cycle at Notre Dame, the most important adjustment is to develop more of a contingency plan in case Irish commits don’t ultimately wind up on campus.
“Moving forward, I know that, for me, it was a great experience, because I’ll do a much better job of making sure that we have plenty more guys on deck and ready to go,” said Lyght, a former Irish All-America cornerback. “I think that, my first year here, we pretty much got 90 percent of the guys that we wanted.
"This year it didn’t work out that way, but next year it will. So you just have to take it in stride, learn from it and improve.”
In the 2017 cycle, Lyght learned the hard way. Once Adebo, Hicks and Graham all fell off the board, Notre Dame did scramble to identify a new class of 2017 cornerbacks. Senior prospects Noah Daniels, Terrell Bailey, Tre Norwood and Russ Yeast all reported Irish offers in January, and all ultimately signed elsewhere.
If there is some consolation, it’s that Notre Dame’s 2016 cornerback haul somewhat offsets the disintegrating 2017 returns. Of the seven Irish defensive back signees in 2016, three were cornerbacks — Julian Love, Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride Jr. All three contributed last season, combining for 79 tackles and two interceptions.
The numbers suggest Notre Dame can live without a fresh crop of cornerbacks this fall.
But on National Signing Day next February, Lyght better have a few more future contributors to introduce.
“I think that having a heavy DB class in 2016, young DBs look at that and say, ‘They brought in six or seven DBs. Maybe that’s not the school for me, because there’s going to be a lot of competition,' ” Lyght said.
“So this year, bringing in only two guys (both safeties), the class of 2018 is going to be great, because they’re going to look at the board and say, ‘Oh, they only got two guys in that class. So they have a lot of room for me to come in and potentially play early.’
“So that’s going to be very favorable for us going into the recruiting process this year, so I’m really excited about that.”