Hansen: Inside Notre Dame football's burgeoning recruiting revolution
SOUTH BEND — The most pungently refreshing aspect of the way new Notre Dame head football coach Marcus Freeman unpacked his first recruiting class for the media Wednesday on National Signing Day was how little it focused on stats, individual player projections and self-serving coaching spin.
And how much it felt like a revolution.
Perhaps predecessor Brian Kelly would have been on board with all this had he not parachuted out of the best recruiting cycle he had his fingerprints all over since 2013, less than three weeks ago, and into a financial windfall and an uncertain cultural fit at LSU.
The hemorrhaging of three prospects from the eventual 21-player Irish class at the 11th hour justifiably had Twitter humming. But the reality is that Notre Dame, even with its missing pieces, finished Signing Day Wednesday with the nation’s No. 7 class, per both Rivals.com and 247Sports.
What Freeman flexed in lieu of getting defensive Wednesday wasn’t just an ambition that Notre Dame can do even better in the 2023 cycle — and they’re sitting at No. 1 nationally, per Rivals, with seven four-star prospects.
It also included his blueprint for how he and the Irish coaching and staffs planned to pull it off. The cornerstone of which is Freeman becoming Notre Dame’s lead recruiter, not merely a willing one.
► Recruiting Bios:Meet the Notre Dame football 2022 recruiting class
But the most intriguing piece is the response the 35-year-old Ohio State grad concocted as he logged more than 8,000 air miles and visited 14 states last week in battling the tsunami of negative recruiting coming from schools looking to poach ND’s ambushed prospects.
“My answer to every kid that might have something planted in his head,” Freeman began, “is, 'Hey, we're going to do things the hard way here.' And that's the only answer there is.”
Not only is Freeman willing to own the very thing that skeptics for decades claim will keep the Irish from ever advancing beyond 1988 when it comes to national titles, he’s out there selling it. As an asset. As a gateway to a better life with football — and beyond football.
“Whatever question (recruits) may have about Notre Dame,” Freeman said, “It's, 'Hey, is there an easier way to do it?' I don't care if it's a living situation. I don't care if it's the location. Is there an easier way to do it?
“I make sure these kids understand we're going to do things the hard way. That's what makes us unique. That's what makes us special, is that everything here is a challenge. If you're here for three, four, five years, and every day you wake up and you're willing to pursue that challenge, you're going to be better because of it in the long (run).
“Because you're willing to wake up and challenge yourself in the classroom, challenge yourself in society, challenge yourself in a football program, when you get finished here after four years, you're going to be better and more prepared because of it.”
Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees — suddenly portrayed as “Autonomous Tommy” — becomes nearly as momentous a figure in Notre Dame’s recruiting makeover as Freeman is.
Two out of the three 2022 class late defections were wide receivers — C.J. Williams (likely headed to USC) and Amorion Walker (flipped to Michigan). And it’s a position group that despite some individual triumphs over the past few years (Chase Claypool, Miles Boykin), it’s had an alarming amount of attrition as well.
More significantly, in ND’s 2018 and 2020 College Football Playoff pratfalls, it was the offensive skill positions that looked most overmatched.
The ability to sell in the 2023 cycle Rees’ vision, potential and growth will largely determine how much and how fast the Irish can close that gap.
“We’re always going to be player-centric,” Rees said of his recruiting pitch. “That is probably something people don’t fully understand. We're not an offense that says, ‘Hey, you’ve got to come here and fit into this role.’ Like the role that you’re going to have in this offense is completely dependent upon who’s here.
“We’re going to be built featuring our best guys and finding ways to allow them to be great. So we’re going to continue to be aggressive as heck, both offensively and in recruiting.
“We’re not going to stop going after the best players in the country. We're not going to lower our standard, just to make sure we’re getting guys here.
“We want to raise the level of this program. And the only way to do that is to attack the best players in the country and continue to show them why Notre Dame’s a great opportunity for them. And the more that we can do that, the better we’re going to be as an entire program.”
Beyond adding to the quantity and quality of the wide receiver room, it’s critical that the Irish sign an elite quarterback in the 2023 cycle — and retain him — no matter what freshman Tyler Buchner turns into or whether just-signed Steve Angeli can outperform his star ranking.
Detroit King star Dante Moore is the highest rated among a handful of elite 2023 quarterback prospects showing mutual interest with Notre Dame.
The transfer portal, though, with no waiting has made both jobs — acquiring and keeping QBs — much more difficult. Rees marveled about not just the sheer QB numbers nationally in the portal, but how unwilling even some established team leaders were to fight for a job.
“The way quarterbacks are recruited — and the way anyone’s recruited now — there are a lot of empty promises that go into it,” Rees said. “So when a kid goes somewhere and doesn’t have instant clarity or instant gratification, all of a sudden, it’s, ‘OK, let’s jump.’
“That’s fine. That’s the norm now. That’s what guys are entitled to. I think we have to do a really good job of getting the quarterbacks here that resonate with this place and find a reason greater than themselves to be here.
“And then we’ve got to do a really good job like we have of creating a culture in the quarterback room that’s really shared success.”
The part of the recruiting revolution that started while Kelly was still around for this 12th and final season was a concept Freeman implemented on the recruiting trail while a first-year defensive coordinator with the Irish.
And that was not to be afraid or averse to go after elite players who weren’t natural Notre Dame fits, something that’s often limited ND’s pool of prospects for more than two decades.
It’s not about bending standards, but rather showing those players how the high standards could benefit them in the long run and that they could indeed fit.
Landing Hilton Head Island (S.C.) linebacker Jaylen Sneed, ND’s highest-rated player in the 2022 class, is an example of that plan in action. Freeman had a long-standing relationship with Sneed’s high school coach, BJ Payne, but is convinced Sneed would eventually chose the Irish anyway.
“It’s not like Jaylen Sneed and some of those guys were just dying to come to Notre Dame until you could explain to them, 'Hey, here's really what Notre Dame can do for you.'” Freeman said. “'Hey, Junior (Tuihalamaka), here's the things that Notre Dame can do for you that will change the rest of your life.' And so, that's, to me, the ability to just try to get into their head, 'How can I communicate this so they can see what makes Notre Dame different?'
“You have to care about your education if you want to make it here at Notre Dame,” Freeman continued. “You don't have to be a rocket scientist. You don't have to (score) a 32 ACT. You have to care about school. You have to care about doing things the right way.
“You have to want to work hard and understand that I'm not always going to take the easy route. And that's who Jaylen Sneed is. And that's where you got to dive in to see, 'Hey, does this person care about his academic future? Does he care about life after football?' If you do, then Notre Dame is going to be a great opportunity for you.”
And it’s a message Freeman will deliver himself. Early and throughout the recruiting process. Not just as a closer.
“People I've been around and have shown they have a relationship with the head coach — and they have a really good one,” Freeman said, “You've got a chance to not only land the recruit, but to get the most out of them. That's the example that was set for me. And that's what I strive to do.”
Added Rees, “To be a great program, you have to start at the top in recruiting. When it starts there, it has a natural effect to trickle through the entire staff. And as competitors, you don’t want to be the black sheep.
“You don’t want to be the one who’s not carrying the weight so, I think, as an entire staff, we’re going to be challenged and pushed to recruit at the highest level.
“We’re not going to stop attacking the best players in the country. Ultimately, (Freeman) is going to be able to say, ‘All right, this is a new way of doing it. We're going to look outside the box a little bit and we’re going to be able to affect guys in different ways.’
“And to me that’s as exciting as anything that’s going on in the program right now.”
Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI