Explaining Notre Dame's two toughest misses in the 2020 recruiting class

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

SAN ANTONIO — The first step to turning Notre Dame into a perennially elite recruiting operation became more apparent in the aftermath of the 2020 class.

The two toughest misses for the Irish were wide receiver Jalen McMillan (Washington) and safety Lathan Ransom (Ohio State). In interviews with the Tribune this week, both said head coach Brian Kelly’s lack of involvement in their recruitment influenced them into passing on Notre Dame.

The Irish considered McMillan and Ransom as two of their top targets last cycle, yet Kelly’s communication with them did not reflect that, according to the players. Washington and Ohio State signing those two required a collaborative recruitment, led by their head coaches.

“Washington, literally everyone on that staff, I have a relationship with,” McMillan said. “I have everyone’s phone number on that staff. I text them all the time, and it’s not even just about football. It’s about girls, food — anything other than football.

“With coach Kelly, he never texted me. He didn’t text my mom, my dad. So I didn’t feel like we had a relationship for me to actually want to go there.”

McMillan and Ransom are ranked among the top 85 overall players in the 2020 class by both 247Sports and Rivals. They will play in the All-American Bowl in the Alamodome in San Antonio at 1 p.m. Saturday (NBC), joining Notre Dame signees Tosh Baker, Michael Carmody, Jordan Johnson and Michael Mayer.

Fresno (Calif.) San Joaquin Memorial’s Anthony Goston, McMillan’s head football coach, heavily favored the Irish. His daughter attends Notre Dame’s law school. McMillan never took his planned official visit to his second-favorite school, however. He ended his recruitment with an unexpected commitment in June.

On the same day Chris Petersen stepped down as Washington’s head coach, Dec. 2, former Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long and wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander incidentally visited McMillan’s school. His lapse of vulnerability didn’t last long.

After McMillan learned Washington defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake would be promoted to head coach, several members of the Husky coaching staff contacted him.

“If (Kelly) would have texted me and my parents,” McMillan said, “there probably would be a relationship established and I’d be able to see myself looking more into Notre Dame. That would have been a good situation.”

Ransom trekked to Notre Dame twice in the offseason, including for a June official visit. Kelly had forged a closer relationship with Ransom than McMillan after visiting his school at Tucson (Ariz.) Salpointe Catholic last winter.

Kelly’s involvement in recruiting Ransom, though, still paled in comparison to that of Ryan Day. The Ohio State head coach contacted Ransom nearly twice a week even after he pledged to the Buckeyes.

“It definitely would have made a difference in my thinking at the end,” said Ransom on more communication from Kelly.

Notre Dame assistants Terry Joseph and Chris O’Leary continued their heavy pursuit of Ransom and nearly flipped him in the 11th hour. OSU co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley departed for Boston College’s head coaching job last month, leaving Ransom wondering if he should reconsider his No. 2 school.

An upcoming game in the College Football Playoff semifinal against Clemson didn’t keep Day from communicating with Ransom.

“That’s what I think the big difference was,” Ransom said, “coach Day was really talking with me a lot. Especially after the whole (Hafley) incident. He was calling me three times per day, making sure I was staying with Ohio State. After that incident, I heard from coach (Terry) Joseph.

“But I never heard from Brian Kelly.”

Tom Lemming, a recruiting analyst for CBS Sports Network, named eight head coaches who take the recruiting lead on their coaching staffs when pursuing the nation’s top players: LSU’s Ed Orgeron, Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, Georgia’s Kirby Smart, Alabama’s Nick Saban, Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, Oregon’s Mario Cristobal and Day.

Six of those eight programs comprise the top six recruiting classes nationally in 2020. All eight rank higher than Notre Dame.

“How to be a top six program recruiting-wise is to have the assistant coaches take the lead from the head coach,” Lemming said.

Notre Dame ranking No. 15 had more to do with taking its second-smallest class under Kelly with 18 signees. But the fact remains that only one of Kelly’s 11 classes at Notre Dame ranked in the top eight nationally on both 247Sports and Rivals: 2013.

Kelly alluded days before the Camping World Bowl that changes were coming.

“We have some things in the works that we want to establish from a recruiting standpoint that changes our view as it relates to national recruiting,” Kelly said. “We want to break out of the 15th-ranked or the 10-ranked. We want to get into that next echelon. Philosophically, we have to do some things to get to that level.”

With three consecutive seasons of 10-plus wins and the top-ranked recruiting class in 2021, Notre Dame appears on its way to rectifying previous underachievement. Replacing cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght and offensive coordinator Chip Long with elite recruiters, as they did with running backs coach Autry Denson in Lance Taylor, would keep momentum flowing.

Sustaining success may require a systemic shakeup. That Ransom and McMillan didn’t receive a scholarship offer from Notre Dame until late into their junior seasons — well after several other big programs — was the first red flag.

“Notre Dame has to start offering these kids earlier,” Lemming said. “They wait for the other big schools to offer them. I can’t remember one big kid that Notre Dame offered before those big schools and Michigan.

“Then if the other school’s head coaches are calling them on a consistent basis, that’s normally going to kill you.”

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Tucson (Ariz.) Salpointe Catholic’s Lathan Ransom, Notre Dame’s top safety target, signed with Ohio State in December.

WHO: Team East vs. Team West

WHEN: Saturday, 1 p.m. (EST)

WHAT: All-American Bowl

WHERE: Alamodome (72,000); San Antonio