All goes to plan for Notre Dame on first day of early signing period

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Michigan and Alabama were among major programs to experience surprises on the first day of the early signing period.

Five-star safety Daxton Hill, who ditched the Wolverines for the Crimson Tide on Dec. 8, switched again and signed with Michigan on Wednesday. Quarterback Justin Fields’ decision to transfer from Georgia has appeared to send shock waves in the recruiting classes of teams courting him. Both Ohio State and Florida State lost quarterback commitments Wednesday.

Notre Dame endured no circus of sorts, as expected. By the time head coach Brian Kelly’s presser began, which was around 12:30 p.m. EST, all 21 Irish commits signed their national letters of intent. No drama. No surprises. At least not with those previously pledged to Notre Dame.

The Irish staff hauled in a 2019 class ranked No. 10 on 247Sports and No. 11 on Rivals as of Wednesday afternoon. Sixteen of the signees are rated as four-star recruits on at least one of those two sites. ND added two four-star recruits — on 247Sports or Rivals — at every defensive position.

“I have not seen all our operation work as efficiently in this process as it has with these 21 (signees),” Kelly said. “I think we’ve done a much better job of making sure that everybody knows exactly what their job is and how to do their job.

“People staying in their lanes, doing their job on a day-to-day basis and also working together to make sure that gets done. Mirroring what we are doing with our players, it’s really kind of been the same thing with our support staff.”

The early signing period had a major play in ND’s efficiency. While it was introduced in 2017, the full recruiting calendar didn’t change until this year. Previously, high school players could not take official visits until the start of their senior year.

But in 2018, players could take official visits as soon as April 1 of their junior year. This lasted until June 24. Ten of its 21 signees took an official visit to ND during that period. Seven of the eight uncommitted from those 10 pledged to the Irish within three weeks after those visits.

Brian Polian, ND’s special teams and recruiting coordinator, noted that offensive line signee John Olmstead was the only official visitor for the Dec. 7 Echoes awards shows, a typically popular recruiting weekend.

“The reality of it is, everybody in our class had been on campus already officially,” Polian said. “That took some adjusting in terms of how we are going to approach it, and I think that collectively, our staff did an unbelievable job.”

The Irish secured 17 pledges by July 4, allowing them to deploy attention on a smaller number of recruits down the stretch. Three-star wide receiver Kendall Abdur-Rahman, four-star cornerback Isaiah Rutherford and three-star linebacker Marist Liufau are the only signees that committed after official visits that occurred during the season. Four-star linebacker JD Bertrand, who committed Nov. 19, made unofficial visits for the Pittsburgh and Florida State games.

Rutherford, a Carmichael (Calif.) Jesuit product, even left ND out of his top four list late in the summer. He leaned toward California, which is where his father, Reynard, starred as a running back in the ‘90s.

“This was just a matter of getting him on campus,” Kelly said. “His dad went to Cal, obviously a great academic institution. So they value certainly the degree and what that stands for. We knew we had somebody here that if we got him on campus, we could do a really good job of showing him what our distinctions were. We were certainly able to do that.”

The Irish will welcome 10 signees in January, a school record. The previous high for early enrollees came last year with seven.

Seven of this year’s 10 are on the offensive and defensive line. Defensive tackles Jacob Lacey and Hunter Spears will join defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah on campus in January. Howard Cross III is the only offensive or defensive linemen signee that will not enroll early.

Offensive linemen Andrew Kristofic, John Olmstead, Zeke Correll and Quinn Carroll are each four-star recruits. Kristofic and Carroll initially project as tackles, but Carroll could slide to guard. Olmstead will begin his career at guard with Correll competing at center or guard.

“We were pretty clear about the kind of guy that we were looking for and they fit that model,” Kelly said. “The length, the ability to develop physically. They weren’t guys that we were looking to plug-and-play right away. They were all going to develop, but they had to finish. They all had to have an edge to them and I think that that’s the common theme to all of these guys is that they fit in well.

“All these guys, they got to spend time with our offensive linemen and I’m not kidding you, they give a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down on them. That is a close and tight group of guys. You either fit with those guys or you don’t. And so, they are like-minded in so many ways and one area was that we wanted physical guys that finished and that was the prevailing thing.”

In early July, safety signee Kyle Hamilton was tabbed as a three-star recruit and ranked as 247Sports’ No. 359 overall player. Once among ND’s lowest-rated players, Hamilton has since skyrocketed and is line for a five-star rating.

The Atlanta Marist product is the popular pick for ND’s highest upside player this class. 247Sports expert Barton Simmons projects him as an NFL first rounder and compares him to Kam Chancellor, a safety for the Seattle Seahawks.

“We just love his versatility, his no nonsense approach,” Kelly said of Hamilton. “He was not a big guy on social media; he wasn’t loving the recruiting process. He was just looking for the right fit. He was looking for academics and football. He sent all the right messages that this was a great fit for us. We loved his film, and we loved the fact that he fit.

“The star (rating) thing, we can’t control that. But what we can control is our evaluation of him. We really, really loved the way he played the game. Since that time, he’s obviously had a great senior year. (Defensive backs coach) Terry Joseph did a great job in the process of watching him play other sports. Basketball, we loved his ability to move on the floor. We had a lot of information that we really felt like he was the right guy for us.”

Twelve of the 85 players on scholarship for 2018 will expire their eligibility following this season. Adding 21 to the mix puts the Irish at 94 scholarships. It will take time before ND knows who will transfer, medically retire or forego their senior season for the NFL Draft.

The NCAA-mandated, 85-player limit doesn’t have to be met until the first day of the fall semester.

“We have some more room,” Kelly said of the 2019 class. “So before February signing is complete, we have created some more room to add to this list.”

Kelly declined to provide a number, however the options are seemingly down to two players for now. Concord (Calif.) De La Salle defensive end Isaiah Foskey and Carlsbad (Calif.) High linebacker Asa Turner are the remaining targets.

Foskey likely won’t officially announce anything this week, although 247Sports projects him to land with the Irish. Turner, a Washington commit, intended on making a decision on Wednesday. However, Turner opted to indefinitely delay his decision, according to a tweet from a Carlsbad High School account.

Any surprises will have to wait.

“The other good thing in my experiences of over 20 years of doing this is there is always a surprise or two on signing day. Thankfully today we had no negative ones,” Polian said. “All you have to do is follow Twitter or watch any of the recruiting services, their shows, to see that some people got surprised today.

“They thought they were going to get a guy, and he ended up somewhere else. I do not think that there were any surprises for us. There is always some work yet to be done and some answers still out there for us, but nothing happened to us today in a negative fashion.”

Four-star cornerback Isaiah Rutherford was only of only four commitments to join Notre Dame’s 2019 class since the start of the 2018 season. The Irish took advantage of the sped up recruiting calendar to build their 2019 class.