Notre Dame's dilemma in recruiting out-of-profile schools

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

One word stuck out more than all the others.

Survive.

“Fit, to me, is just as important as anything here at Notre Dame,” second-year offensive coordinator Chip Long said on Wednesday, pounding the podium ever so lightly to emphasize his point. “The ability for kids to survive here is as big a criteria as we have in our evaluations.”

On Wednesday, those evaluations netted Notre Dame a grand total of 27 signees, 21 of which signed with the Irish during the NCAA’s early signing period in December.

No. 27, however, was without question the most dramatic.

That would be consensus four-star cornerback Noah Boykin, who surprised recruiting analysts and maybe even a few of Notre Dame's coaches by grabbing an Irish hat off the table on Wednesday afternoon and spurning fellow finalists Florida and Virginia.

On film, Boykin’s fit is undisputed. The 6-foot-2, 176-pound corner offers unnatural length and athleticism for his position, and he was ranked as the No. 21 cornerback in the 2018 class by Rivals as a result. Clemson, Florida, Michigan, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Tennessee and USC all sought Boykin.

But Boykin chose Notre Dame.

And, for him to do that, Notre Dame first had to choose Boykin.

Despite his athletic upside, that was no easy decision. The Washington, D.C., native hails from H.D. Woodson High School, a program the Irish rarely recruits. Because of Notre Dame’s rigid academic restrictions, the ND coaching staff highlights schools and prospects with similarly strict academic standards.

But, occasionally, they’ll take a chance on a prospect outside of that profile — just as long as the player shows the ability and willingness to survive.

“When they don’t come from a structured environment from an academic standpoint, where they’re being pushed to be the best they can be at times, where they can fail here is that they’re immediately put into the same classrooms as every student,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly explained in an exclusive interview with the Tribune and WSBT Radio's Weekday SportsBeat on Wednesday. “At times they’re swimming in the deep end without a life preserver.

“So we have to make certain that they’ve got grit, that they’re going to fight through adversity, that they’re going to utilize the resources. So when they’re out of that profile, they have to have strengths in other areas for us to take a chance on them.”

Some, like Louis Nix, ultimately reward that trust and utilize those resources. The 6-foot-3, 342-pound defensive lineman chose Notre Dame in Kelly’s debut signing class, after first starring at another out-of-profile program — Raines High School in Jacksonville, Fla. Nix finished his four-year Irish career with 122 tackles, most notably serving as a key ingredient in Notre Dame’s dominant 2012 defense. He was selected by the Houston Texans in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

But while Kelly and Co. hope to develop another Nix, these out-of-profile gambles could also yield a Kevin Stepherson. Like Nix, Stepherson hailed from Jacksonville, Fla., starring as a skinny, silky wide receiver at First Coast High School. And like Nix, Stepherson’s physical potential was undeniable. In 20 career games at Notre Dame, the 6-foot, 185-pound wide receiver caught 44 passes for 821 yards and 10 touchdowns.

But unlike Nix, Stepherson’s career collapsed under the weight of self-inflicted wounds. The sophomore was dismissed from the football program last month, along with running backs C.J. Holmes and Deon McIntosh and defensive tackle Brandon Tiassum. Stepherson has been arrested five times since first arriving at Notre Dame and is currently being held at Fulton County Jail after violating his probation.

Last week, Kelly told the Tribune that “we provided him with all the resources — the institution did as well — for him to be successful, and he continued to make the choices that he did.”

Of course, any college kid with a searing spotlight and a sudden wealth of independence can crash and burn, regardless of his background or his academic “profile." But how can a coaching staff predict whether a student-athlete will make the appropriate choices?

That’s the dilemma Kelly and Co. face at Notre Dame.

“Having been at one of the rival schools, I see the differences clearly,” said wide receivers coach Del Alexander, a USC alum. “Just speaking in terms of recruiting and mentality and the player you want to bring here, we want to go after the best players in the country, as does everyone else. But at the same time, there are unique qualities that the young man must possess to succeed here.

“So you have to sit down and develop a relationship beyond football. You have to sit down and see if this young man is forward thinking — if he’s thinking about his future in the classroom and in the community. At some places it’s not like that. It’s just straight about football. It’s about winning and losing. It’s about the NFL opportunity. This place is way more than that.

“So you have to recruit and you have to figure out how much substance a family and a kid has to know that he’s going to have success here and be comfortable.”

At this point, there’s no telling whether Boykin will be successful, whether he’ll be comfortable — whether he’ll not only survive, but thrive.

Still, Kelly will keep taking those occasional chances, as long as he’s sold on the student-athlete’s ability to survive and have success.

“We’ve had some misses as well,” Kelly conceded on Wednesday. “Obviously Kevin Stepherson comes to mind, from an out-of-profile school where we believed he had the right makeup, and it didn’t work out that way. But we have to have many more hits for us to continue to go down that road, and we feel that Noah (Boykin) is one of them.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly during practice at Culver Academies in 2017. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)