Inside Recruiting: Notre Dame ready to come alive with NCAA dead period ending

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Editor’s Note: Inside Recruiting is a feature that addresses key topics involving Notre Dame football recruiting and recruiting in general. It has become a regular staple of our Irish football coverage.

The story is presented in a roundtable format. Today’s contributors are Steve Wiltfong, director of recruiting for 247Sports, and Tom Lemming, recruiting analyst for CBS Sports.

Notre Dame is loading up on official visits in June as the NCAA’s protracted dead period will finally come to an end after almost 15 months. With more than 20 uncommitted 2022 prospects taking official visits to the ND campus, does the quality match the quantity?

Wiltfong: “These are Notre Dame’s top targets coming in, so yes. And this is the case for almost all schools.

“There will be some guys who will wait to take their officials during the season, but this (lots of June official visits) was already becoming the new normal before the pandemic, with prospects trying to make their decisions before their senior season.

“So this just falls in line with that. If you’re Notre Dame, you’re excited that you’re bringing in so many of your top targets in June, to have them get a look at campus and spend some time with your coaches and players.”

Lemming: “Absolutely it does match it. Notre Dame is now among the elite. We’ve been complaining they weren’t, but right now they are amongst the top 6-7 schools recruiting.

“They were always in the top 12, but they’re doing a great job with the top prospects now. I think the whole defensive staff — (Mike) Elston, Marcus (Freeman), (Chris) O’Leary and (Mike) Mickens have made a step up.

“Offensively, they have done well in the past. What Notre Dame needed to get among the top 6-7 schools was get more impact defensive players, and they’re starting to land them.”

And how does this position ND for a possible top 5 class?

Wiltfong: “I think you look at where they stand right now, which is No. 4 nationally. And then you look at the blue-chippers coming in. There are a lot of ballyhooed guys who are slated to come in and visit, a lot of top 247 guys, a lot of consensus top 100 guys and a lot of coveted players.

“June is going to be the pivotal month for where Notre Dame finishes, because that’s when most of the guys they’re targeting are coming in.”

Lemming: “As I said before, Notre Dame will run out of scholarships before they run out of great players.”

Every top five class nationally has some three-star prospects in it, yet some fans read it as a failure each time the Irish add one to its 2022 class. What’s the right way to look at the volume and quality of three-star prospects in a class?

Wiltfong: “One of Notre Dame’s three-stars, (defensive end) Aiden Gobaira, is going to be a guy we’re going to be bumping next week to four stars in our updated top 247 player rankings. He's having a terrific junior season.

“When you look at Notre Dame’s three-stars, these are high upside guys. First, a three-star means this is a guy we think is a Power 5 impact guy with the potential to play in the NFL. Aiden Gobaira is 6-foot-6, 235 pounds. Darren Agu 6-6, 225 pounds, and Amorion Walker 6-3, 180 pounds. These are guys that just have exciting frames for the positions they play with a tremendous amount of upside.”

Lemming: “With three-stars, you’ve got to take each school individually. You've got to look at Notre Dame and the three-stars that have made it going on to NFL careers or great college careers. And if they do it, it means they were underrated.

“I’ve been doing the stars for 30-some years. Myself included, I’m not a big fan of people who put stars next to names. All of us. For a lot of people, it’s about how many offers a kid has.

Linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (in the starting block) is a relatively recent Notre Dame three-star recruit who has a bright NFL future.

“If they’re not successful three-star players, that means they probably were average athletes. But I think you’ve got to take each school and how they recruit three-star players. I think Notre Dame does a pretty good job with three stars, meaning they probably should have been four-stars to begin with.

“There’s no exact science in this business. I think more important than the stars is Notre Dame's philosophy. They’ve always looked for length and athletic ability. Those are the two things you look at beyond production.

“Notre Dame’s staff is one of the best I’ve seen at projecting players once they get to college, because of that length and the body frame and the athletic ability. It’s a matter of assistant coaches who project will and evaluate well. The recruiting staff is outstanding. It's one of the best I’ve seen since Lou Holtz’s late ‘80s staff.”

Brian Kelly repurposed a defensive analyst position to skirt a hiring freeze and used that to add Chad Bowden to the recruiting staff. He plans to hire a corresponding position to oversee offensive recruiting. What kind of impact can these two hires make?

Wiltfong: “These are two guys at Notre Dame who are another extension of your program to help get your message across to young men that (a) you’re a priority and b) here’s why Notre Dame is the place for you.

“Hopefully, within that role, these guys are tremendous people persons, who love to meet and talk to prospects, their parents and their coaches, and who have great knowledge of Notre Dame and can help the on-field coaches secure commitments.

“We're seeing schools across the country where off-the-field guys are making differences in blue-chip battles. Notre Dame hasn’t had a guy make a difference in a blue-chip battle yet, but these are hires that will maybe change that. Recruiting’s a game of inches. Maybe these guys are the ones who can help Notre Dame gain a couple of more inches in the recruitment of their top targets.

“Sometimes Marcus Freeman and Tom Rees and Lance Taylor and Mike Elston, they’re going to be on the field coaching or they’re going to be in meetings. These two hires are recruiting for them in 24/7 literally. That’s their job — thinking of creative ways to keep the lines of communication with top targets. And that's big.”

Lemming: “Outstanding impact. It’s great. It reminds me of Bill Rees many years ago. He wasn’t really a coach. He traveled around the country as a recruiting coordinator for UCLA. And he was very good, and then Vinny Cerrato came along at Notre Dame and actually became the best ever at doing that.

“Those two were so good that Joe Paterno and other coaches pushed to have them outlawed, with the rule changing that you had to be an on-field coach to go on the road.

“Now you’ve got these recruiting analysts, and their job is to look at recruiting. Even though they can’t go on the road, it’s not exactly like it was when Vinny was there or Bill Rees was out of the road, but it is similar in that it is their job to make sure recruiting is done and that they're evaluating the ballplayers.

“What Notre Dame has done this year is offer more guys early. With these new hires evaluating much more film, they’re going to be able to offer guys ever earlier. They're offering 2023 guys. It’ll be another month or two and they’ll be able to offer 2024 guys.

“They’re trying to stay ahead of the curve, which they are. And that’s why they’re on the same level with Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia, LSU — schools that have been doing this for a while. And they’ve had analysts also at those schools.

“Everything Notre Dame is doing right now in recruiting is just a smart move. And it’s another move toward eventually winning a national title."

With the one-year sit-out period for transfers soon to become a thing of the past, how do you envision this affecting the recruiting of high school prospects?

Wiltfong: “The programs that are going to be title contenders are still going to be built through strong recruiting of high school players and strong player development. But certainly, even all the schools that made the College Football Playoff last year, you can go to the portal to strengthen a position that’s maybe not as strong as you need it to be to hoist a crystal ball.

“Notre Dame got a boost from Ben Skowronek and Nick McCloud, but the foundation of their program is going to be through high school recruiting and development. The foundation of Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, and Georgia, that’s not going to change.

“But the portal is a place where teams will be able to maybe find a player who gets them over the hump, and that’s going to remain true for Notre Dame and particularly this year. They're replacing Ian Book. They went to the portal for that.

“It could be very advantageous for that, and Notre Dame should be a place that’s super attractive for really good players in the portal. Notre Dame and schools like that don’t have to chase a kid with potential red flags in the portal.

“And kids that are going into the portal as graduate transfers looking to play at a championship contender — like a Russell Wilson type transfer — Notre Dame’s going to be a place that’s real attractive to a player like that, with their pedigree and the level of ball that they’re playing.”

Lemming: “It’s going to be the Wild West. Already there’s a ton of kids in the portal. It’ll make it easier for kids who aren’t playing to leave. And it’ll make it easier for schools like Notre Dame to keep giving out 25 scholarships a year, because you can count on a certain number of kids leaving. All the powerhouses are going to do it.

“It’s a win-win, I think. It's going to help the schools, and it’s going to help the players who aren’t playing and might have made a bad decision, because they’re not high on the depth chart, where they’re going to see significant playing time.

“Notre Dame is going to thrive with this.”

Notre Dame in June will be able to host recruits on campus for the first time since March of 2020.