Notre Dame embracing early enrollee process

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

The early enrollee process requires a well-oiled machine.

At Notre Dame, it begins with its position coaches. When a recruit commits to the Irish, he’s often asked about early enrolling.

Brian Polian, ND’s special teams and recruiting coordinator, proposed the idea to Jay Bramblett, an Irish 2019 punter signee, in late May. Because Bramblett expressed interest, Polian turned it over to Dave Peloquin, ND’s director of player personnel.

Through conversations with school admissions and counselors, Peloquin and Polian found that Tuscaloosa (Ala.) Hillcrest offered a route through online classes. That process repeated for nine other signees, as the Irish will welcome a school record 10 midyears in January.

Just because a recruit is interested, though, that does not mean it will work. Take 2019 signee Howard Cross III for an example. The defensive end would have enrolled early, however Montvale (N.J.) St. Joseph Regional had no options available.

“A lot of the private schools won’t even go down this road of midyear enrollment,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “I think this year, there’s a case or two where it’s the first ever that they have had a student that has a midyear enrollee.”

This Irish vetting process has developed since former ND coach Charlie Weis helped initiate the early enrollee program in 2006. Previous ND officials once admonished the idea with refrain and cynicism, dismissing the notion that the pros outweigh the cons.

But not now.

“I think it has gone from, ‘Do you think you should be here?’ To, ‘We will embrace him,’” Kelly said. “Because we have had such great success with the midyear. When I say inside-out, the university has really embraced it and has taken the time to be so much more concerned with that transition. We have built classes and we have built transition now for the midyear enrollees.”

Kelly touted the Moreau First Year Experience classes. All first-year students are required to take the one-credit seminar across their first two semesters. The classes, which replaced the freshman PE requirement in the fall of 2015, aims to assist students in transitioning to college life and ND.

With university backing, ND’s staff now encourages a myriad of commits and targets to consider enrolling early. That was not the case until recently.

Former Florida quarterback Chris Leak, who led the Gators to a 2007 national title, dismissed the Irish as a recruit because enrolling early was not an option in 2003. ND produced 18 midyear enrollees in its first five years of the process. The Irish hauled in a combined 17 of the sort for 2018 and 2019.

“You are already fighting the fact that you are eliminating a subset of the candidates out there because either academically or character-wise, they are not going to make it,” Weis said on ND Insider’s Pod of Gold podcast in early December. “…Now, that does not mean you can’t still be successful — it just means you have less candidates.

“But to not be able to get a recruit because you don’t stay up with the Joneses — meaning you can’t compare apples to apples. As long as he fits the academic criteria to come to Notre Dame, I thought that was a very practical thing to change.”

Impact on the field

From ND defensive tackle Jerry Tillery to 2012 early enrollee Tee Shepard, early enrolling has produced a mixed bag for the Irish. The process is not immune to transfers, injuries and other negative developments.

“I have seen mid-year guys come in, and it has been a tremendous advantage for them, and they play a lot as a true freshman,” said Terry Joseph, ND’s defensive backs coach. “I have seen some guys come in, and they still end up in a redshirt situation. It really depends on the kid more than anything, and believe it or not, I think it depends on the position, too.”

Cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght and Joseph agreed that Houston Griffith, ND’s true freshman defensive back, was the biggest beneficiary among the 2018 midyear enrollees. Griffith was provided six additional months of workouts and 15 spring practices.

Griffith, a Chicago native that attended Bradenton (Fla.) IMG Academy, reacclimated himself to the cold weather. He also endured the inaugural Moreau seminar before seeing the field in critical situations at nickelback this season.

“He’s going to become a dominant player for us because of that experience,” Lyght said.

Although, there have been growing pains for Griffith.

“You have to know so much,” said Joseph of the safety position. “And you get the hands-on coaching right now, and then there’s spring ball and then you go to the summer where you are probably still a little rough. Then training camp starts, and you are like, ‘Oh, I’ve got it.’ Not a guy who gets there in the middle of June and he’s still reaching for it a bit.”

Derrik Allen, a 2018 signee, fits that profile. He joined the Irish in June as a four-star defensive back and has not seen the field this season. ND is flirting with moving Allen to linebacker.

“Yeah, I think Derrik to come in in June, it is different,” Joseph said. “To be at Power Five football from high school like that, it takes a lot. And then now, we are sitting there at training camp and the first game against Michigan. When you look at our schedule, it was not like there was any one (game) where you can say, ‘Alright, that’s going to be the game.’”

The OL, DL midyears

Of ND’s 10 early enrollees for 2019, seven of them are in the trenches. All four offensive linemen — Andrew Kristofic, Quinn Carroll, Zeke Correll and John Olmstead — will begin their collegiate academia on Jan. 14. Defensive linemen NaNa Osafo-Mensah, Hunter Spears and Jacob Lacey will join them.

The other three early enrollers are linebacker Jack Kiser, running back Kyren Williams and Bramblett.

“As a young player, the closer you get to the football, the harder it is to play young,” Polian said, “You can play corner, but it is hard to play a true freshman on the offensive or defensive line. Not that it does not happen, but it is a little bit more difficult. For seven of the 10 mid-year guys to be on the line of scrimmage players, that gives them a chance.”

Like Correll, who could be a three-year starter at center, with Sam Mustipher’s and Trevor Ruhland’s eligibility expiring in 2019 and 2020, respectively. It benefited Aaron Banks, a 2017 midyear enrollee who Kelly elevated to starting left guard midway through this season.

“I can’t see a down side to our early enrollees,” Kelly said. “In terms of acclimating to Notre Dame and from a football standpoint, I would say, yes, getting that extra semester certainly helped (Banks) accelerating. It could have been another year for him, for him learning and figuring it out if he didn’t have — I am such a proponent of that. That semester is really like a full year for some of these guys.”

Fear of missing out

Missing out on prom, graduation and other hallmarks of high school can be a tough ask for recruits.

“If it was my son, I don’t know,” Polian said. “But we are in the customer service industry. And if this is what is important to a young man, to come get a head start — there is no doubt that those 15 practices and the six months with your strength and conditioning program, there is no doubt that that’s invaluable. And if a guy is going to play early, that really gives them a head start.”

Bramblett, however, said ND’s coaches will allow him to walk the stage at Hillcrest’s May graduation. Senior linebacker Te’von Coney, a 2015 early enrollee, leaned on Jaylon Smith, a former star linebacker for the Irish, in his inaugural semester.

Coney also graduated a year early in May of 2018 with a degree in philosophy.

“It helped me get adjusted to the way things are done at Notre Dame,” Coney said. “It is a unique way — where classes are first, football is second. You have to have your priorities right.”

Freshman linebacker Ovie Oghoufo, a 2018 early enrollee who has not seen the field this season, had a message to anyone concerned about missing prom.

“I recommend it to everybody,” said Oghouofo of midyear enrolling. “It was hard. The semester was hard. But I learned so many things academically, I met so many people in terms of my career endeavors, as well as football. I’ve learned mentally how to take on water and keep going and keep pushing.”

Notre Dame’s Te’von Coney (4) celebrates after a big stop against Michigan. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN