Q&A Part 1: Recruiting coordinator Brian Polian on Notre Dame's 2021 class and approach
Enduring today's obstacles presented by the coronavirus pandemic figure to be half the equation for Notre Dame’s football recruiting operation.
For the Irish coaching staff and recruiting/special teams coordinator Brian Polian, it must also account for the hypotheticals. How Notre Dame approaches recruiting this fall will depend on several factors that have yet to play out.
In a Zoom call with the Tribune on Thursday, Polian touched on several topics related to the present and future of Irish recruiting. The recruiting landscape has significantly changed since Polian's one-on-one interview with the Tribune in April.
The two-part Q&A series begins detailing Notre Dame’s current situation, while Friday’s account will explore more of the what-ifs going forward.
Q: How is the staff feeling about the 2021 class, and what are the remaining priorities?
Polian: “I think we are happy with the class. The challenge has been adjusting, trying to be ahead of what we thought was happening in terms of NCAA dead periods, what’s the recruiting landscape going to look like and trying to stay ahead of that so we were prepared as things started to change. I think we’ve done a great job of that.
“The staff has been terrific. There truly has been recruiting-by-committee going on in terms of four, five or six coaches being engaged in one recruitment. Very grateful for the job that our support staff has done in our recruiting. (Director of football performance) Matt Balis with strength and conditioning, (director of sports nutrition) Kari Oliver in nutrition, (associate director of academic services for student-athletes) Adam Sargent in academic support.
“All these meetings that would normally take place on our campus, we have not stopped having those meetings. We’ve been doing them digitally like we’re talking now. But the willingness of our support staff to get engaged in this recruiting in the way that they have has been terrific. (Head) coach (Brian) Kelly’s leadership through the whole thing, he’s been engaged daily in recruiting. He’s been great, and I think he’s been impactful. So I think collectively, we feel good about where we are at.
“Just as an aside, this is an interesting year in terms of the recruiting rankings. Who really knows what these guys are right now? There have been no camps. No showcases. There was no spring football at a lot of places. So the thought that, ‘Hey, this guy is this as opposed to this guy, who is this,’ I don’t think anybody knows. So I think the value of the class has always been: what do we think about it? Obviously we pay attention to how it’s ranked and viewed. I think that any school’s value of their own class this year is more important than ever. Because the reality of it is, it’s all about how you feel about the guys. Nobody else really has the answers this year.”
Q: Virtual visits became critical once official and unofficial visits were prohibited. What do Notre Dame’s virtual visits look like now compared to April?
Polian: “From April to now, it looks dramatically different. That has been a collaboration of our recruiting office and Fighting Irish Media. The vision for it was actually coach Kelly’s baby. He had a vision in his mind of exactly how he wanted this thing to look. It took some time in terms of the technology and how we wanted to present it. But I’m proud of what we put together.
"We knew exactly what we needed to highlight through all facets of the program. We knew we had to keep it between 30 and 45 minutes to be respectful of people’s time and understanding the attention spans of our audience. I think what we produce collectively, we are really proud of it. And it’s gotten tremendous feedback. I think the way that we adjusted to recruiting in a digital world, I think we’ve adjusted very well.
"It’s still not ideal, but everybody across the country is facing the same challenges. So there’s no sense fussing about it. It is what it is. We can’t change it, so we can only adjust to the best of our ability. And I believe that we have. I think the process we have now — because there have been a number of prospects who we started their recruitment, in earnest, after the pandemic hit and the restrictions were put in place — we now have a really good path that we go on. We have a structure. It has been really effective thus far.”
Q: What does the average virtual visit look like, how many are held during a typical week and what all goes into them?
Polian: “I would tell you that we probably did between 40 and 50 in four weeks after we rolled it out. What does it look like? I don’t want to share that (laughs). I’m certainly not in the business of trying to share ideas. Someday, Carter, when we can have (recruits) back on campus, I will show you what the virtual visits look like (laughs).
"But we have to touch on every facet. You have to touch on an introduction on what makes Notre Dame special. You have to touch on campus life. You have to touch on facilities. And obviously, we aren’t interested in a PowerPoint presentation. We need video. We need music. We need art. We had to find a way to bring our campus to somebody else through a shared screen in a Zoom meeting. That’s not easy to do, and it takes a lot of creativity. I think our staff did an unbelievable job of putting that together, and it was very collaborative.”
Q: Several recruits have managed to visit college campuses while satisfying the NCAA’s dead period rules. A few recruits have done that at Notre Dame over the past few months. What is Notre Dame’s philosophy on these “informal” visits? Are they encouraged?
Polian: “It’s very important that we state it very clearly: this is a dead period. That’s a serious thing. When a prospect chooses to come to this campus on their own, we are not in any way involved in that. They don’t see us. They don’t talk to us. We take that very seriously. I can’t speak to other places, but here, we take that very seriously.
"In terms of do we encourage or discourage? We aren’t engaging that. We are not saying, ‘Hey, you need to get here.’ But we’ve had families say, ‘Hey listen, we are willing to get in the car, drive and walk around.’ Our answer to that is very simple. As long as you understand that we cannot have any interaction with you, and as long as you understand that it’s not a sign of disrespect, it’s a sign that we are going to follow the rules, if you go into the experience knowing that, then we can’t tell them to stay away.
"Our campus is not closed. There are people walking around the lakes every single day. If somebody wants to drive here and walk around campus, I can’t stop that. And when folks understand, ‘Hey listen, this is not going to be an unofficial visit. We are not going to meet with coaches and staff and interact with players.’ When they understand what they are doing, by most accounts they’ve had a positive experience.”
Q: Let's talk about special teams. Where do you expect the kick and punt return competition to go, and will freshman running back Chris Tyree become a critical part of that?
Polian: “I’m so proud of the way that our team has engaged here over the last year or so with how important they treat special teams. (Former Irish linebacker) Drue Tranquill’s stock in terms of the NFL went up a great deal because of what he was able to do in the kicking game. Then he blocks two punts as a rookie. (Former Notre Dame wide receiver) Chase Claypool, there’s no denying his stock went up in the eyes of the NFL because of his production on special teams. (Former Notre Dame safeties) Alohi (Gilman), Jalen (Elliott). Culturally, with the direction of coach Kelly and the rest of the coaches, I’m very proud of where we are now in terms of how our guys embrace what we are doing.
“That being said, I’m so excited for this coming year. I was so disappointed with the loss of spring practice, because we have so many young players now who should take really big roles in the kicking game. Just at the linebacker position alone: (Jack) Kiser, (JD) Bertrand, Marist Liufau. Chris Tyree is going to have a chance to return kicks. There’s no doubt.
"There are a number of guys who we are considering at punt return. It’s (sophomore running back) Kyren Williams. It’s (junior receiver) Lawrence Keys III. Looking at all these freshmen coming in, and that will be the challenge early in training camp. Identifying not only who the kick and punt returners are going to be, but also where these young players (are going to be). (Freshman receiver) Jay Brunelle is a guy that jumps to mind. That is a big, tough wide receiver. (Sophomore linebacker) Osita Ekwonu, (sophomore safety) Litchfield (Ajavon), freshman cornerback) Ramon Henderson, (freshman cornerback) Caleb Offord, (freshman cornerback Clarence) Lewis — there are so many.
"I’m so excited about the amount of young players who are going to have a chance to step in and find roles. That really was the biggest disappointment of losing spring practice for me personally — (not) getting these guys in competitive situations and trying to figure it out. But I think we are in a good place. We have two really good specialists coming back. Very proud of the job (punter) Jay (Bramblett) did as a true freshman. Really thrilled for (place kicker) Jonathan (Doerer) and what he did. (Freshman long snapper) Alex Peitsch is here to snap.”