Brian Polian on Notre Dame's recruiting approach, philosophy during pandemic

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

The one silver lining Brian Polian takes from the coronavirus pandemic is what his time spent at home means for his family.

“Short of my vacations that we get in July, this is the most time in the daylight I’ve ever been able to spend with my daughter,” Polian said. “It has not been a relaxing time, but being able to take a 15-minute break in the day, go out in the driveway and shoot some hoops with my daughter, that’s been a blessing.”

During a Zoom interview with the Tribune from his dining room table on Friday, Polian said he’s otherwise assumed more responsibilities as Notre Dame’s special teams and recruiting coordinator. He spends more time tracking and discussing academics with players than ever. Polian is pursuing recruits beyond his position group and geographic territories that he would hardly communicate with in normal circumstances.

Mornings include Polian studying Notre Dame’s first four opponents this season. He will self-scout the Irish, comb their playbook and make any necessary adjustments. Polian and his fellow assistant coaches maintain contact with the players, receiving updates on their exercises, academic work and overall health.

Once he shifts his efforts toward recruiting in the afternoon, Polian’s work becomes more unpredictable and can last until late into the night. Not to mention he has virtual meetings with head coach Brian Kelly and his assistants multiple times per week and helps with Notre Dame’s in-house content.

“I got a text from a guy (Thursday) at midnight, and my wife looked at me sideways,” Polian said. “He’s a kid, his day doesn’t end for another three hours. And then consistent film evaluation. Consistent board evaluation.

“I joke that I’m on my phone texting like a 15-year-old girl right now. I’m constantly staring at the thing.”

The one-on-one interview with Polian covered a wide range of recruiting topics. Here’s a look at Polian’s world and Notre Dame’s approach as college football programs perpetually hover in a realm of uncertainty.

2021 recruiting class

Clarkston (Mich.) High's Rocco Spindler (left), a top offensive line target in Notre Dame's 2021 recruiting class, wants to take all five official visits before verbally committing to a school.

That Notre Dame finished with its lowest class ranking on Rivals (23) in the Kelly Era last cycle didn’t matter much to Polian.

Signing offensive tackle Tosh Baker, running back Chris Tyree, tight end Michael Mayer, wide receiver Jordan Johnson and others left him content about the group. The Irish understood that more signees for top programs usually equates to a higher ranking, but their scholarship space called for a smaller class.

By tying their 2012 haul for the smallest class under Kelly with 17, the Irish were destined for a lower ranking than usual. The 2021 class could be headed toward a similar direction, in size and in ranking.

“We thought we got off to a great start,” Polian said. “We are excited about every single guy verbally committed. We have a sense of where the board is going and where the key battles are. At the end of the day, coach Kelly, myself and the rest of the staff are completely confident that we will end up with another really good group.

“Now, it’s worth mentioning that it’s probably not a 25-person class either. This is going to be back-to-back years where it could hover between 17 and 20.”

Quarterback Tyler Buchner, wide receiver Lorenzo Styles Jr., offensive linemen Blake Fisher and Pat Coogan, tight end Cane Berrong, safety Justin Walters and defensive linemen David Abiara and Gabriel Rubio comprise Notre Dame’s eight pledges.

Pegged No. 1 nationally late into last season, Notre Dame’s 2021 class dropped in the rankings over the last few months. Rivals and 247Sports now slate the group No. 5 and No. 9, respectively. Staying in the top 10 will require the Irish to at least land two of their top targets in four-star running back Will Shipley and offensive lineman Rocco Spindler.

In a Zoom interview with the Tribune on Friday, Fisher predicted that Notre Dame will receive several commitments in June and July.

“Just with the information I have, the knowledge I have and the things I know, we will be a top five class,” Fisher said.

The message

Four-star running back Will Shipley, left, announced his commitment decision Tuesday.

On the Tribune’s “Pod of Gold” podcast released Friday, Shipley said Notre Dame is recruiting him harder than any other school.

After the pandemic canceled Shipley’s March 20-22 trip to South Bend, the Irish looked to overcompensate through communication and setting up virtual visits. Polian feels that the loss of campus visits is one of the biggest challenges facing Notre Dame and other programs with a national recruiting footprint.

"That is going to be something that we have to adjust to," Polian said. "We’re not alone in that.”

Virtual visits are individualized to address the needs of each recruit. Having visited Notre Dame only once for the Oct. 12 USC game, Shipley wanted a better feel for the locker room and academics. Shipley, considered the top Irish target in the 2021 class, said he received those answers after hearing from Notre Dame’s coaches, players, commits, professors, academic advisors and notable alums within the last month.

That collaborative approach paid off in the short term. According to a source with knowledge of Shipley’s recruitment, the Matthews (N.C.) Weddington product nearly committed to Clemson earlier this month. Now Shipley’s decision is expected to come in the next few weeks, and Notre Dame appears to have pulled even with Clemson.

“What we are trying to do is be steadying and calming for the recruits and their families,” Polian said. “And then, we have to get creative. ‘You don’t know enough about us. What do you need to know? Let’s figure out how we can do it now.’ I think we’ve done a really good job of getting creative those ways and trying to provide what prospects and their families need.”

Patience has been the advice for those who haven’t visited Notre Dame, Polian said. If Notre Dame’s two official visit weekends planned in June need to be canceled, the Irish will have to ask recruits to wait until the fall.

“Unfortunately there are places that are using this as a recruiting tool,” Polian said. “‘Hey, if you don’t commit now, it might not be there when recruiting kicks back up.’ That’s unfortunate, but I know it’s a reality because we’ve had some athletes tell us it’s a reality.

“I think that their worlds have been turned upside down a little bit. I think as recruiters, we need to keep that in mind. We are trying very hard to the point where we will articulate to a kid, ‘Hey listen, please don’t mistake the fact that we aren’t texting you 14 times per day with we don’t want you. You are incredibly important to us.’

“But we are never going to be the guys that text you at 11 at night and say, ‘Hey man, I hope you sleep well.’ I didn’t text my wife that when we were dating.”

Talent evaluation

Cornerback Ramon Henderson looks back after running a drill during Notre Dame's first spring football practice at the Irish Athletics Center on Thursday March 5, 2020.

In collecting information on 2020 recruits, Notre Dame taking them and high school coaches by their word no longer worked.

The Irish wanted verified information, like track times and results on the camp circuit. With neither accessible in the coming months, Polian wondered if some schools will have to take chances on certain prospects.

“Recruiting, evaluation, the NFL Draft — it’s all an educated guess,” Polian said. “We are going to have to make the best educated guess that we can possibly make with as much data as we have. The reality of it is, if it doesn’t exist, we can’t make it appear from thin air. The reality of it is, we are going to have to offer somebody."

From March through May last cycle, 23 members of the 2020 class received Notre Dame scholarship offers. Zero Irish offers were extended during their senior seasons. In the trio of three-day early signing periods in December, Notre Dame’s handled most of its business before August.

That timeline could change.

“We could see more recruiting blossoming off senior film," Polian said. “That OK, a certain percentage of recruits could not get out to camps. If in fact that ends up being the case and the summer becomes a struggle, ‘All right, we are going to hold off and look at the first four games.’

“I think we could see a second wave of prospects being offered in the Power Five in the first month of their senior year. And frankly, that’s what it was like 10 years ago. I think senior film is going to become a little more important in this cycle.”

Report card

Cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens works with players during Notre Dame's first spring football practice at the Irish Athletics Center on Thursday March 5, 2020.

Cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens and tight ends coach John McNulty needed to step up on short notice after being officially hired on March 2.

Mickens inherited a dry cornerback recruiting board. Six defensive backs have garnered offers since his arrival. McNulty may just take Berrong, but he’s currently looking to pair him with another tight end this class.

“I think the most impressive thing is that both guys have a distinct personality, they have a distinct way of doing things and they have not changed,” Polian said. “They understand who we are. I think they’ve adjusted quickly to the profile that we’re looking for, both off the field academically and on the field.

“But at the same time, they are comfortable in their own skin. They know who they are. They know their recruiting style. They’ve both hit the ground running.”

The rest of his staff members — from Fighting Irish Media to fellow assistant coaches — and Kelly were also lauded by Polian.

“Coach Kelly is the one who leads our football program — our players, our staff, our support staff, everybody,” Polian said. “He has been exceptional during this time. The amount of communication. His honesty. He’s steadying. He’s calming. For somebody who would like the opportunity to do (head coaching) again, it’s been a learning experience watching him do this.

“The collaboration that’s going on and the creativity, I think we are all very proud of it. I do know it’s paying dividends because people are paying attention to it. I know they are.”

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Notre Dame special teams coordinator Brian Polian congratulates Jonathan Doerer (39) after a field goal against Iowa State on Dec. 28.