Notre Dame football adds sports technology to its recruiting formula

AgDiago brings behavioral science piece to recruiting evaluation puzzle

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly addresses attendees at the Irish Invasion football camp, June 9, 2019, at Notre Dame.

It’s not just the impressive influx of star power coming to Notre Dame Stadium this weekend to soak in the main event, No. 13 Notre Dame (5-1) vs. USC (3-3) on Saturday night, and all the trappings that come with it.

It’s the science behind the biggest in-season football recruiting weekend since at least 2019 in South Bend, what 12th-year Irish head coach Brian Kelly believes is a significant evolutionary step in the football program’s recent ambitious push toward consistent elite-level recruiting.

It’s called AgDiago, a sports technology company that incorporates behavioral science that 12 FBS schools — including Notre Dame — are using in their recruiting to produce a higher “hit rate” with the prospects they do eventually sign.

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“First of all, you have to love the kid athletically,” said Al McKellar, AgDiago’s co-founder and vice president/coaching engagement. “That’s what inclines you to go, ‘Wow, I love this kid.’ So you see him, you love him on film — the whole deal. Talk to him on the phone — sounds great. 

“Now we add the secret sauce to learn about the player beyond the athlete. And we can tell you the top five traits that he has in the behavioral-strength atmosphere.

“Before you see him now, you have all that information. You already know about him. You know if he’s a cultural fit and how best to coach him if and when he does join your program.”

 The five traits that AgDiago measures are:

• Competitiveness 

• Mastery (attention to detail, studying film, preparing for your opponent) 

• Work Ethic 

• Persistence (overcoming adversity, never giving up)  

• Team Orientation 

“Persistence, I would say, is the biggest one,” McKellar said, “because it’s overcoming adversity. If you’ve got high persistence — or high grit — across your program, you’re in great shape, because we said if the athlete hits the wall athletically, he just reaches down and grabs some of that persistence, and things don’t faze him when things go bad. 

“He comes right back at you.” 

The Notre Dame coaches’ persistence and retooled recruiting philosophy is also showing up in the pure talent end of things.

The 21 members of the Irish 2022 recruiting class — set to sign national letters-of-intent Dec. 15-17 — collectively enter the weekend as the nation’s No. 1 class, per Rivals.com, and have been since California wide receiver C.J. Williams verbally committed on Aug. 8.

The five verbal commitments in the 2023 class to date constitute the No. 3 class nationally in the latest snapshot, behind only Oklahoma and Georgia.

Meanwhile, 11 of the Rivals Top 100 prospects in the 2023 class are penciled in for paying their own way to take an unofficial recruiting visit to ND this weekend, as are seven others — all deemed four-star status.

That’s in addition to a handful of elite 2022 prospects that the Irish are hoping to add to the nation’s No. 1 class, and several of the already committed members of that class.

“We’re not really that big on the star system, but it has to be there,” fellow AgDiago co-founder Mike Taylor said. “We get it. You look at those kids who were four-stars and five-stars, and you look at the Super Bowl last year, and I think there were only two or three five-stars in the starting lineups. 

“There were a bunch of no-stars with the Buccaneers and the Chiefs. There’s always a player behind the athlete that people miss. So we went and worked with behavioral scientists to look at and find out what are the top behavioral strengths found in elite college football players, specifically. 

“You might say, ‘Gosh, I wish I had five more (of that guy).’ So what’s that look like? That’s where we come in.”

Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei wide receiver standout C.J. Williams verbally committed to Notre Dame on Sunday, Aug. 8, 2021.

Taylor, McKellar and Paul Saleh started AgDiago — an acronym for “a good defense is a good offense” — with the broad goal of making college football better. Taylor has a leadership background with the American Football Coaches Association, U.S. Olympic Committee, NASCAR and ESPN, among other organizations.

Saleh’s background is in financial operations and serving as a CEO of various companies. He also happened to have a son, Justin, once an overlooked high school QB prospect who ended up walking on at UCLA.

“Here this was really a story about a tree falling in a forest and nobody around to hear it.” Taylor said. “And so we looked and started thinking. You see coaches step up to the podium when they get hired all the time and talk about building a culture, building a championship culture. Culture. Culture. Culture. Culture. 

“I know they mean well, but what does that look like? And then we had this opportunity to work on this with a number of behavioral scientists.”

They started five years ago with a core group of more than 500 football players at various levels, who were studied to assess the basic behavioral characteristics of the successful ones.

“Once we started to build it, we put it into motion,” Taylor said. “But then it’s like anything with technology — it’s a continuing model. We needed that time to build the assessment of what we wanted, the scientific sample, to make sure it was legitimate.”

Roughly two years ago, they started approaching colleges on the FBS, FCS and NCAA Division II and III levels.

As part of their sales presentation, the AgDiago reps ask coaches to submit three players on their current roster who were successful over time to take the assessment and three who struggled — but without telling the AgDiago reps which players fit in which categories.

“Then we get back on the phone or a Zoom call with them — or in person now — and we tell them about exactly what their kid looks like,” McKellar said. “That’s what floors them. They go, ‘Now, you don’t know these guys. Every kid you’re telling me about is exactly what he is. How do you know that?’ 

“Because of our assessment. So it’s kind of a show and tell. And so they believe that this system is worthwhile for you. And then when they get into it and use it. They’re like, ‘This is one of the greatest things we’ve ever done,’ which is great.”

Once a team commits to the system, AgDiago first assesses the current roster. That purpose is twofold. It helps the coaches see what they should be looking for in prospective recruits. But it also helps them manage their current roster.

“There are a lot of ways that can apply, like how you approach a player who’s made a mistake in a game,” Taylor said. “Not everyone responds to yelling if you want the best out of them, You can even look at how guys recover from injuries.

“If his work ethic score is lower, it doesn’t mean he’s lazy. It just means that, as a coach, you need to stay on him to work harder to get him to do what you need him to do.”

Notre Dame’s current freshman class was the first group of Irish recruits who underwent assessments. Knowing their strengths helped build confidence with the coaching staff that they could stick them in games in high-leverage/high-pressure situations.

Like during ND’s most recent game, its 32-29 rally past Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., in which a handful of freshmen played key roles.

This weekend, it’s back to the future with so many key recruits coming in for the USC game.   

“It helps us in terms of giving us a pretty good sense of some of the traits that we’re looking for that might not necessarily be able to get on some of the evaluations and visits,” Kelly said on Monday. 

“You’re looking to really try to drill down deep on some guys, and we felt like this service allows us that opportunity to gain some more depth of information.”

An adage AgDiago helps debunk is when people refer to a five-star prospect as a “can’t miss” recruit. Its assessment is built to find those potential misses, of which the Irish have had plenty.

In the first 20 classes of the Rivals.com Era, Notre Dame signed 20 five-star recruits. The unwritten but implied connotation is that each class of roughly 32 five-star recruits nationally will go on to be first-round NFL Draft choices.

Notre Dame's five-star recruits

Eighteen of those 20 five-stars have exhausted their eligibility, and of those eighteen, more went undrafted (5) than ended up first-rounders (3). Six of the 18 finished their careers somewhere other than Notre Dame.

“Just because a player scores low on certain traits doesn’t make him a bad player,” McKellar said. “But it does let you know that if you do take him, what kind of challenges you’ll face in trying to maximize his potential.”

Among Notre Dame’s five-star cautionary tales is former QB Gunner Kiel, who first committed to Indiana, then LSU, then enrolled at Notre Dame in January of 2012. He decided 14 months later to bolt without ever having played in a game for the Irish and before competing in a single 2013 spring practice.

Kiel landed at Cincinnati, threw six TDs in his 2014 reboot debut — a 58-34 rout of Toledo — and four more in a loss to Ohio State a couple of weeks later. But injuries and ineffectiveness soon crept in and to the point that he finished his college career on the bench with a 117.59 passer rating as a backup.

Had Kiel had enough pass attempts and games played to qualify for the national pass-efficiency rankings that year (2016), his score would have landed him in the 95th spot.  

“Coaches like to say, ‘We had the greatest recruiting class in the world.’” McKellar said. “Well, what’s that really mean?

“That’s the one thing about the star system that really lets coaches down, because the expectations are high due to the fans. ‘We ranked in the top five in the last five years of recruiting classes.’ But they’re not working out. 

“We’ve heard this quote before: ‘It’s not the guys you don’t get that hurt you. It’s the guys you do get and don’t work out that hurt you as a coach.’ And that’s what we’re here to change.”

HOW TO WATCH NOTRE DAME VS.USC 

Who: No. 13 Notre Dame (5-1) vs. USC (3-3) 

Kickoff: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EDT 

Where: Notre Dame Stadium 

TV: NBC/Peacock 

Radio: WSBT (AM 960), WNSN-FM (101.5) 

Line: Notre Dame by 6 1/2 

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI