Notre Dame football recruiting roundtable with national analysts

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

The South Bend Tribune’s Carter Karels spoke separately with three national recruiting analysts — Steve Wiltfong of 247Sports, Mike Farrell of Rivals and Tom Lemming of CBS Sports Network — on some of the hot topics regarding Notre Dame’s 2020 class and beyond.

Q: Head coach Brian Kelly said in December that he believes Notre Dame now has what it takes to put together top-five recruiting classes nationally. The Irish finished inside the top five just once in 11 classes under Kelly, coming in at No. 3 on Rivals and No. 5 on 247Sports in 2013. Is this aspiration realistic, and what would it take?

Lemming: “It’s not only possible, but also it’s something that should be done with what Notre Dame has going for them. They’ve got everything going for them. A top-five recruiting class should be happening every couple years for Notre Dame really. For one thing, they’ve got the greatest tradition. They’ve got tremendous facilities. They’ve got the highest graduation rate. They probably have more exposure than any school in the country. And they’ve got a good coaching staff. So I’d be surprised if they don’t have a top-five class (in the near future). When you compare them with Alabama, Clemson and Oklahoma, schools like that have everything going for them. (Notre Dame) is the same as those schools. When people say, ‘Well, the weather will throw them off,’ it doesn’t throw Ohio State off. Or Penn State. So the weather isn’t really a problem. It wasn’t a problem when they had four straight No. 1 classes in a row through 1990. So I think I’d be surprised if they didn’t have a top-five class every two or three years.”

Farrell: “No, I don’t think that’s realistic in this day and age because of the academic restrictions. Back in the Lou Holtz days, things were more lax and recruiting wasn’t nearly as national. Notre Dame was obviously a much bigger name, and they were the only ones on TV every week. It was attainable then. Now, the SEC makes up half of the top 15. Ohio State and Michigan are always in there. Oklahoma and Texas are always in there. USC and Oregon are always in there. So there’s just not room in the top five or 10 every year for Notre Dame with the restrictions that they have. So it’s a completely different world. I mean, he is saying it to appease those who are impatient and want them to recruit at a higher level. But with what he has to work with, it’s impossible.”

Wiltfong: “I think that Notre Dame has had top five-caliber classes. Maybe it wasn’t ranked that way coming in, but they developed it that way on the way out. This is a program that is recruiting at a strong level. It’s a program that’s been in position to make the College Football Playoff and compete for the national championship. So with that, I think recruiting is in a fairly good place for Notre Dame. What is Notre Dame’s potential on the trail? I think that from here, there are guys on staff who are certainly better at it, day to day, than others. I think that Brian Kelly is still more known as a living room closer type guy than the guy who is fostering the relationship from start to finish and talking to prospects day to day. That’s a place where that can bump if there were to be a change in that regard. I just want to reiterate that it’s not like the system is in a bad place.”

Q: How can Kelly be more involved with recruiting?

Farrell: “He definitely needs to get more involved. I’ve talked with people who worked for him at different places and used to work for him. He’s not one of those guys who lives for recruiting, like an Urban Meyer. Being more involved means being a bit more outgoing, a little more salesman-y and a little more accepting of the egos of today’s kids. Then really putting in that effort when you are closing on in-home visits down the stretch. It’s not that he’s not putting in the effort. It’s just more of an effort is wanted from start to finish. He jumps in a little bit later than some coaches do. I think people want to see him jump in from the very beginning.”

Wiltfong: “This doesn’t mean I’m right, but my perception of it is he’s more of your periodical talk to Brian Kelly guy. And he’s terrific in your living room. He’s terrific in his office when you visit the campus. But there are some head coaches out there who seem to put more emphasis on making relationships with top targets than coach Kelly. But again, with all that being said, I want to reiterate that Notre Dame is recruiting at a high level. You are asking if they can recruit at a higher level. And I do think there is some opportunity for them to get more of a bump.”

Lemming: “Not to tell (Kelly) his business, but I do think you have to stay on top of a lot of these super players for two years, not one year. Once the assistant coach establishes a relationship where he has the player calling him, I think the head coach can step in and talk to the player every now and then just to build a relationship. Notre Dame has everything else going for them. Once the personal touch gets involved, that way you are on top of the premier players for two years instead of one year, I think you’ll start seeing Notre Dame getting more involved with more super players near National Signing Day. Kelly is an outstanding coach. I just think the reason they haven’t won a national title yet is just the lack of impact players. To me, it’s not a mystery why. It’s just a matter of Notre Dame needing to get on these guys a year earlier than they have. If they do, they will win a national title.”

Q: What makes the COVID-19 pandemic different for Notre Dame’s recruiting operation compared to others?

The lack of on-campus recruiting visits during the COVID-19 pandemic has taken away one of Notre Dame’s strongest recruiting assets.

Wiltfong: “I think from a recruiting standpoint, Notre Dame is a place that truly has an edge when you visit. The combination of spirituality, nostalgia, history. It’s a place where if you can’t visit it, people can tell you about it, but it may not hit quite as home as other places where you can visit virtually. I just think Notre Dame is a place that when you visit it, you get a feel if it’s for you or not. So with them not being able to bring in prospects over the last five months, I think that’s hurt them as much as any school in the country.”

Lemming: “There shouldn’t be any difference. It all comes down to philosophy. Some schools were on top of these guys and had an abundance of guys early. Other schools didn’t. I don’t know where Notre Dame stands on that yet until the end of (this recruiting cycle). But some schools when it happened were more prepared than the others. Now that said, the only negative with Notre Dame is they are in a place where there isn’t a whole lot of talent. Northern Indiana, Chicago is 90 miles away, Ohio is not too far. But then you have other schools to deal with. It (recruiting in a pandemic) does benefit schools that have more of a talent base. That would be the one thing that hurts Notre Dame. But the rest of it is how prepared you were for the coming season without thinking a disaster was going to happen. I always think the schools that are on top of guys early, the ones that offer the earliest and the ones that offer more the earliest are the ones that now are benefiting over the others.”

Farrell: “You know what you are getting at Notre Dame. The academics speak for themselves. The reputation of the school. If you were to commit to Notre Dame based on a 40-year decision without seeing the campus, you could still feel comfortable. I don’t know if it’s an advantage, but it’s definitely a plus that they have that reputation as a great school that is going to take care of you academically beyond your football days. The negative is it’s not easy to get to South Bend. They are not within driving distance of a lot of the elite recruits in the country. And Notre Dame used to be a destination for kids in the spring and the summer. They would find their way there. They would work their schedule around it or go to a camp. They haven’t been able to host as many kids on campus as they would like to. And for a program like Notre Dame or Nebraska, a program that is not the easiest to get to and not surrounded by talent, it definitely hurts.”

Q: How much do you think former offensive coordinator Chip Long has been missed as a recruiter? What do you expect from his successor, Tommy Rees, on the recruiting trail?

Chip Long was purged from the Notre Dame coaching staff last December, but his recruiting prowess wasn’t one of the reasons why.

Lemming: “Chip Long proved to be an outstanding recruiter. He seemed to be on just about all the offensive guys. But there are 10 assistant coaches. So when one leaves, all 10 should be doing their jobs. So I think Chip will be missed, but I do think that it’s Notre Dame. They should be able to fill in quite admirably. I think Tommy Rees does not have a coaching résumé as of yet as a coordinator. So you would think that recruiting would become a very important part of his résumé before he can establish himself as a coach. So I do think you should expect Tommy Rees to land some big names.”

Farrell: “He’s definitely being missed. Chip was one of our top 25 recruiters a couple times, including the year before Notre Dame decided to part ways (with him). He’s a guy who gets it. And he’s gotten it from the start when it comes to relationships, knowing who the decision-maker is and who to focus on, knowing who the family is and wants and needs. I think Tommy Rees has that ability, because he was recently recruited. He wasn’t the five-star national recruit who had everybody coming at him. But he’s been through the process. He can relate to these kids. You just have to have that charisma, natural charisma in recruiting. And I’m not sure if Tommy has it. So we are going to see on that. Chip had it for sure.”

Wiltfong: “I haven’t noticed that transition not being a smooth one for Notre Dame on the trail. I didn’t see them miss on a prospect that was close with Chip, and now they are no longer getting them. Notre Dame has a young coach in Tommy Rees who played at Notre Dame who is obviously passionate about his university. Anytime you have a coach who also went to the school, it’s obviously a unique advantage for you on the trail to have someone who can speak to your experience there. Tommy has a chance to really assert himself now as a guy who could be an up-and-comer on the recruiting trail. We don’t know anything about him as an evaluator yet, because the guys he has recruited haven’t made an impact yet. Time will tell there on how good of an evaluator he is and even kind of with Chip Long, too. Those guys who Chip recruited are now going to be counted on as difference-makers. A lot of them were guys he inherited who were the difference-makers on the offense. Now that they are turning the page, we will see if these guys Notre Dame recruited are of the same caliber of the guys they are replacing.”

Tommy Rees (right) enters his first season as Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator.

Q: What are your early impressions of the two new assistant coaches: John McNulty (tight ends) and Mike Mickens (cornerbacks)?

Farrell: “I think they are doing a solid job. Mickens is a guy who, I think, has an eye for talent. I think he sees something in kids that he can mold. They are not a finished product, but he can bring them along. He went to Florida and ended up getting a big-time defensive back (2021 verbal commit Philip Riley), which is always important. McNulty is also doing solid. Neither of these guys are carrying the recruiting, but they aren’t asked to do so. McNulty is the guy who obviously knows how to develop kids and work with them in the academic sense. Whereas, I think Mickens is a little more directly relating to the kids. Neither of them are rising stars right now. They are still cutting their teeth and trying to find their way.”

Wiltfong: “I feel like McNulty has really embraced being at Notre Dame. You can sense the excitement from his social media. I think he’s really excited, and that’s an excitement that hopefully carries over to the trail. Talking with people he worked with at Penn State, they really loved having him there and thought it was a good hire for Notre Dame. For Mickens, he is a guy who comes from a staff at Cincinnati where they worked really hard at recruiting. So he understood how important it was there. He was a big part of their really big recruiting wins at Cincinnati and helping reshape the culture of that program and turn them into a team that has won 11 games two years in a row. I think he’s an exciting hire for Notre Dame. He’s a guy who is considered an up-and-comer. He’s paid some dues, and now he’s in the show. We’ll see what he does with it.”

Lemming: “I think (Mickens) is really going to be outstanding. (McNulty) has done an excellent job. (Notre Dame tight end commit Jack) Nickel’s dad was calling me all the time. They loved McNulty. That had a big reason why he (verbally pledged) to Notre Dame (in July). (Notre Dame tight end commit Mitchell) Evans was a guy they had turned down. Ohio State didn’t offer him, so that meant he was fair game. But he’s a good athlete and someone who could develop. Both of them are pretty good athletes. Nickel is still growing. ... I think Nickel is going to keep growing and could become like 6-5, 250. So I think McNulty did an excellent job. In order for Notre Dame to win a national title, each coach has got to recruit impact players. I think McNulty is capable of doing that. Neither (Nickel or Evans) are five stars. But McNulty had a short period of time, as did Mickens. And they both came through with flying colors.”

Q: Which member of Notre Dame’s 2020 class has the best chance to outperform your entity’s recruiting rankings system?

Middletown (N.J.) Mater Dei’s Clarence Lewis, a 2020 cornerback, verbally committed to Notre Dame on June 11, 2019.

Wiltfong: “(Cornerback) Clarence Lewis. He’s a 6-foot-1 corner with upside and traits. He was a two-way playmaker in high school out of a program that made it to the state championship game. Speed is a question mark there, but I love that he’s going to get in there with (director of football performance Matt) Balis. We will see what Balis can do with him. He’s got some ability, traits and ball skills. He’s a kid who we ranked as a solid three-star, and Notre Dame is expecting big things from.”

Lemming: “Receiver Jay Brunelle is much better than people (believe). Most people don’t even talk about him. I watched him several times on film as a senior. He was really good. I know the competition out there (in Massachusetts) is not great, but I think he could be a real sleeper in this group.”

Farrell: “(Receiver) Xavier Watts. He’s an explosive kid. He’s a good route runner. I think he’s a good fit for this offense and what they want to do. He’s a catch-and-run kid.”

Head coach Brian Kelly said in December that Notre Dame is capable of recruiting top-five classes nationally going forward.

MIKE FARRELL

Known by some as the godfather of recruiting, Farrell has worked at Rivals since 1998. Currently the national recruiting director for the network, Farrell provides national analysis and oversees the Rivals recruiting analyst team and prospect rankings.

STEVE WILTFONG

A South Bend native, Wiltfong has been covering recruiting since 2005. Formerly of the South Bend Tribune and Irish Sports Daily, Wiltfong is currently the director of recruiting for 247Sports. Wiltfong lives near Indianapolis but travels the country to keep tabs on the nation's top recruits.

TOM LEMMING

A Chicago native, Lemming started scouting football prospects in 1978 and became a pioneer in the recruiting business. Each year, Lemming travels the country to evaluate close to 2,000 recruits in person to produce his annual "Tom Lemming Prep Football Report." He also hosts his own TV show, "The Lemming Report," on CBS Sports Network.