How Notre Dame football keeps pushing to evolve its recruiting efforts

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Successful college football recruiting requires innovation.

What Notre Dame is selling likely won’t change much on a yearly basis. A top education, a chance to compete for a national championship and a path to the NFL will always be staples of the recruiting pitch.

But how that pitch gets delivered to best resonate with high school prospects must evolve. That’s why less than a quarter of the way through 2021, the Irish have already shown a number of adjustments.

The changes started on the coaching staff when Kelly tapped Cincinatti’s Marcus Freeman as Notre Dame’s next defensive coordinator. He came with a strong recruiting reputation and brought energy to the defensive side of recruiting. Four of the last seven verbal commitments in Notre Dame’s 2022 class came on defense with three of the four rated as four-star recruits by both Rivals and 247Sports.

Kelly also flipped the titles of assistant coaches Brian Polian and Mike Elston. Polian, the Irish recruiting coordinator since 2017, took the role of associate head coach. Elston, who was the associate head coach for three seasons, took back the title of recruiting coordinator, a position he held from 2015-17.

Notre Dame finished the 2021 recruiting cycle with a class ranked in the top 10 on both Rivals and 247Sports — ninth and tenth, respectively — for the first time since 2013 despite not being able to host recruits since early March 2020. The Irish successfully navigated a recruiting cycle spent mostly in a dead period thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But still, Kelly opted to keep tinkering rather than keep the status quo.

“I attacked the job of recruiting coordinator from a very specific point of view,” Polian said. “I had very specific goals in mind when I took on that responsibility and think we accomplished a lot of them.

“I’m very proud of the class that we put together with no on-campus recruiting with no contact. All of those things I thought were good, but I also see how Mike is attacking the job, what he’s emphasizing, what’s important to him and quite frankly, I recognize that a fresh set of eyes after a while and a different approach is a healthy thing.”

Elston’s perspective can be informed by how he managed the role previously and what he learned from watching Polian put his twist on the job.

“His strengths come out with evaluation and really getting the roster right with positions and being very integral in that part,” Elston said of Polian. “Those aren’t necessarily my focuses right now because that’s been done really well over the last four years.

“My strengths are the creative part, the how-we-get-them-to-say-yes part. We have two parts to the recruiting office. We have our evaluation piece and then we have our creativity, get-them-to-say-yes piece — the acquisition of the talent phase.”

If Notre Dame can better meld those two sides together, perhaps the Irish can move up higher into the national recruiting rankings on a regular basis. The coaching staff and recruiting office won’t be accused of sitting on their hands in the 2023 class. Together they berthed the idea of treating St. Patrick’s Day as a recruiting holiday of sorts and unloading attention and new offers on high school sophomores.

Twenty-nine recruits in the 2023 class reported offers from Notre Dame that Wednesday. The Irish coaching staff made contact with dozens of other top targets in the class with the attention branded on social media as a #PotOfGold from the Irish.

The event required a lot of planning and a decision to be more aggressive with early offers in the 2023 class. Notre Dame entered St. Patrick’s Day having offered 42 recruits before the Pot of Gold spree. In order to feel comfortable with extending those early offers, Elston said, the staff needed to gather information about those prospects both on and off the field.

“It was a very, very successful day, and it’s something we can build on for years to come,” Elston said. “St. Paddy’s Day, luck of the Irish, no one else can really utilize that day like we can.

“It almost had a feel of a National Signing Day and that’s what we were going for: to get some good buzz and on the cusp of really rolling out a new plan for the 2023 class and getting ahead of the curve.”

The Irish also decided to beef up their support staff with more recruiting help. Chad Bowden, previously at Cincinnati, was hired as a defensive analyst who essentially serves as the recruiting director for the defense. Notre Dame hopes to hire an offensive analyst for the same purpose but has been using director of recruiting Aaryn Kearney in that position for now.

Bowden and Kearney help with the organization of Notre Dame’s recruiting efforts on both sides of the ball and make sure the communication remains constant.

“It’s a very good position to have to just help facilitate everything that we’re doing both on offense and defense and keep the boards accurate and moving the needle on every player that we’re recruiting,” Elston said.

The job for Notre Dame’s staff will become a little easier in June when the dead period, which started March 13, 2020, is lifted on June 1. The Irish will be able to host recruits for official visits and unofficial visits. Though the Irish were able to put together online presentations under Polian to finish the 2021 cycle, an in-person tour of campus can’t quite be duplicated.

“Notre Dame is a place, coach Kelly’s always felt, you have to visit to understand,” Elston said. “Let’s face it, you can go to a lot of campuses in the SEC and you see one, you’ve seen quite a few of them. Those are carbon copies of each other. Notre Dame is different. You have to come to our campus and you have to see it.”

Soon after the NCAA Division I council announced Thursday the scheduled lifting of the dead period, Notre Dame started sharing graphics with 2022 recruits to announce their planned official visits in June. There will still be room for innovation, but a return to normalcy will be embraced.

“We’ve been scheduling visits, unofficial and official, to make sure people are buying plane tickets,” Elston said, “and reserving times to get up here on this campus. We’re working non-stop at that.”

Notre Dame defensive line coach Mike Elston wants to embrace the creative side of recruiting in his return to the recruiting coordinator role.