How Notre Dame battles top programs, SEC prestige for premier Georgia recruits

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

What is Notre Dame?

That’s what Isaac Rochell was asked by a grown man at a barbecue a few months after he committed to the school in 2012. Not, “Where is Notre Dame?”, or “Is Notre Dame in a conference?”, or “What colors does Notre Dame wear?” This man had never heard of the university, let alone its supposedly prestigious football program.

“People were so naïve to Notre Dame,” said Rochell, who grew up in the Atlanta suburb of McDonough, Ga., and recently finished with 167 tackles and 22 tackles for loss in his four-year Irish career. “They didn’t understand how great of a decision I was making. For me, I didn’t really care. I had a great support group with my parents and my brother, so it didn’t really matter to me.

“But I just remember at that particular moment being like, ‘Man, I’m really doing this for myself and for my family, because there’s not that many people supporting me right now.’”

This is the challenge Notre Dame faces when recruiting the state of Georgia — or, really, any of its SEC-obsessive neighbors. It’s not just that Alabama is the country’s foremost power, and Georgia is a national brand, and LSU touts “Death Valley” and Florida is renowned for “The Swamp.” It’s not just that these schools offer sparkling facilities, colossal fan bases and documentable NFL pipelines. It’s not simply a matter of proximity, either.

It’s all of those things, and it’s more.

Former Notre Dame safety Jamoris Slaughter chose the Irish in 2008 over in-state power Georgia and many others (Tribune File Photo).

"If you know anything about the South and the SEC when it comes to football, everybody loves those southern schools. You grow up only thinking about them,” said Jamoris Slaughter, a safety from Stone Mountain, Ga., who made 98 tackles in his Irish career from 2008 to 2012. “I didn't know anything about Notre Dame until my junior year in high school. That's how locked in I was with SEC football.”

When asked to clarify his level of Irish ineptitude, Slaughter added: "The only thing I knew about Notre Dame was the Hunchback of Notre Dame until I got an offer. I remember when I decided to commit there, a lot of people didn't know what Notre Dame was.

“In the South, people don't even think about Notre Dame, to be honest.”

That helps explain why, in Georgia’s 2017 recruiting class, 18 of the Bulldogs’ 26 signees hailed from within the state. Moreover, 17 of Rivals’ top 20 high school seniors in Georgia signed with an SEC or ACC program.

In the last 10 cycles, Notre Dame has signed six players from the Peach State, four of which also owned a Georgia offer.

It isn’t easy, but it can be done.

“When I went to Notre Dame for the first time, I fell in love with it. It was a no-brainer,” said Rochell, who also earned scholarship offers from the likes of Alabama, Florida, Tennessee and Georgia. “I had no indecision, because I knew that Notre Dame was such a unique school and such a unique place that I wanted to be there.”

Last month, Derrik Allen came to the same realization. A 6-foot-1, 204-pound safety, Allen is the premier commit in Notre Dame’s budding 2018 class, which is currently ranked No. 2 nationally. The standout from Marietta, Ga. — yet another Atlanta suburb — is heralded as a four-star recruit and the No. 40 overall player in the 2018 class by Rivals, as well as a four-star prospect and No. 93 overall by 247Sports.

The U.S. Army All-American, who did not respond to multiple interview requests, chose Notre Dame over offers from Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Florida, Florida State, Georgia, LSU, Michigan, Ohio State and many more.

But though he committed, Allen’s recruitment is far from over.

Defensive end Isaac Rochell, from McDonough, Ga., committed to Notre Dame despite a persistent pull to stay in the SEC (Tribune File Photo).

“There’s an enormous amount of pressure, and it isn’t as much about staying in-state and going to Georgia or Georgia Tech as it was, ‘Hey, you need to be playing in the South in SEC country,’” Rochell said. “I guess, in a way, that’s understandable, because that’s all people are really used to. But everybody was just like, ‘Man, you need to be going to school down here.’ Everybody had something to say.”

Allen has had his say, but National Signing Day is still nearly a year away. And while a verbal commitment is encouraging, it’s far from binding — especially in the state of Georgia. Back in 2011, five-star defensive end Stephon Tuitt — who grew up in Monroe, Ga., also near Atlanta — committed to Notre Dame, flipped his commitment to Georgia Tech, then flipped back to the Irish a day later after receiving an emergency visit from the Irish coaches.

Just last year, Suwanee, Ga., standout Robert Beal — a consensus four-star defensive end — withdrew his Notre Dame commitment and ultimately signed with Georgia.

According to Rivals, Georgia touts 25 four- or five-star prospects in the 2018 class, behind only Texas and California. CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming called the state “absolutely loaded for this coming year.”

The Peach State should qualify as a priority for Notre Dame — starting, of course, with Allen.

And to keep the safety committed, the staff would be wise to convey success stories that will (literally) hit close to home.

“My advice to him would just be, look at me. I’m from Georgia and I’m here training for the NFL,” said Rochell, whose hometown is about an hour’s drive (with traffic) down I-75 from Allen’s. “Looking back on my decision, I think it was the best decision that I ever made. At no point do I wish that I listened to these people that were critical of my decision.

“I would tell him that I understand that sometimes it might be tough having to go against what people might think, but at the end of the day you just have to stay true to your decision and know that you’re making the best decision.”

Notre Dame defensive end Isaac Rochell, here celebrating a big stop last season with teammate Jaylon Smith, is giving Irish head coach Brian Kelly reason to celebrate lately. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

Slaughter, like Allen, was a highly touted safety. The 6-1, 185-pound standout — who went on to be selected by the Cleveland Browns in the sixth round of the 2013 NFL Draft — was ranked by Rivals as a four-star prospect and the No. 181 overall player in the 2008 class.

Unlike Allen, it was relatively easy for Slaughter to stiff-arm the recruiting-related static.

"It's going to be a little different for him than it was for me because social media wasn't that big when I was coming out,” said Slaughter, who currently trains athletes at The Game Changer indoor sports facility in Orlando, Fla.

“You've got a lot of distractions nowadays, more so than when I was his age. For him, I would just say that you obviously picked Notre Dame and committed because you either saw something or felt something that was right about it. Maybe it was a little bit of both. I would just tell him to go with his gut, whatever (school) that is.”

Maybe it’ll be Notre Dame. Maybe it’ll be Georgia. Either way, both schools will meet for a home-and-home series, starting Sept. 9 in South Bend and concluding in Athens, Ga., in 2019.

For now, it’s uncertain whether Allen will play in that series — and if he does, which side of the field he’ll be standing on.

Four-star defensive back Derrik Allen, a 2018 recruit, committed to Notre Dame in February. Photo courtesy of The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Notre Dame has signed the following six players from the state of Georgia in its last 10 recruiting classes.

2008

S Jamoris Slaughter (Stone Mountain, Ga.)

2010

WR T.J. Jones (Gainesville, Ga.)

2011

DE Stephon Tuitt (Monroe, Ga.)

2013

DE Isaac Rochell (McDonough, Ga.)

2014

P Tyler Newsome (Carrollton, Ga.)

2016

S Spencer Perry (Newnan, Ga.)