Kelly happy with Notre Dame football recruiting class, to a degree

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- In what was anticipated to be a gush-fest Wednesday, Brian Kelly’s national signing day press conference took a deep philosophical turn and drew a hard, unyielding line.

Yes, the Notre Dame head football coach signed 21 mostly highly decorated prospects to binding national letters-of-intent Wednesday, including Cincinnati defensive lineman Daniel Cage, who Kelly wrestled away from Michigan State with a late surge. Including two early enrollees, who have been taking classes for the past 3½ weeks, the Irish recruiting class head count finished at 23.

And yes, words like “potential” and “ceiling” predictably dotted the 68-minute give-and-take with the media. But the boldest statements coming out of Kelly’s mouth were all about who he did not and would not recruit.

“When we were having this opportunity to recruit a young man, they had to have a passion for wanting to get a degree from Notre Dame and winning a national championship,” Kelly said. “If they want to come here just to hang their hat to play football and go to the NFL, we passed on some pretty good players, because I don't want guys to come here and not finish their degree.”

It’s not necessarily a shift in Kelly’s thinking as much as it is a renewed underscoring of what he wants Notre Dame football to be in an era where, nationally, underclassmen are continually leaving in record numbers for the NFL Draft.

Four of the 98 (up from a then-record 73 last year) players who left at least one year of college eligibility on the table in this draft cycle came from ND. Only senior Louis Nix, who has a two-credit class to tie up in April, among them is slotted to walk with his degree in May.

Tight end Troy Niklas, running back George Atkinson III and defensive end Stephon Tuitt became the ninth, 10th and 11th true juniors, since the NFL opened its doors to underclassmen in 1989, to wade into the draft pool without a Notre Dame degree in hand.

Of the previous eight three-and-outs, half of them now have their degrees — Rocket Ismail, Tom Carter, Darius Walker and most recently Jimmy Clausen. The four who do not yet have one are Jerome Bettis, Bobby Taylor, Golden Tate and Kyle Rudolph.

The latest wave is clearly an open wound for Kelly.

“I just have to do a better job of educating our own players on the NFL and what it means to be a first-round draft pick versus a second or a third,” Kelly said. “When an agent says, ‘Let's play for your second contract,’ how ridiculous that is.

“My point is in the recruiting process, we do not want to go out there and say, ‘Come to Notre Dame for these reasons: Hey, come to Notre Dame, we'll get you an apartment off campus; come to Notre Dame and we'll help you go pro early.’

“I just wanted to be clear that these are our distinctions, and you're shopping down a different aisle. We're not better than anybody else, but this is what you're going to get if you shop down this aisle.”

As far as the players who did shop down Notre Dame’s aisle in this cycle, pulling a trio of top prospects out of talent-rich Texas was particularly satisfying for Kelly.

The Irish signed defensive lineman Grant Blankenship, linebacker Kolin Hill and cornerback Nick Watkins, the latter of whom Kelly identified as the player in the class his staff loves way more than the recruiting analysts.

“He’s a long, 6-foot, 190-pound defensive back,” Kelly said. “Those types are hard to find. An extremely talented young man who can play the cornerback position. I think he’s going to be a special player.”

All three Texans got love from home-state power University of Texas in the form of a scholarship offer, somewhat of a rarity in recent years. Of the six scholarship players from Texas on ND’s existing roster, only current freshman tight end Durham Smythe had an offer from the Longhorns.

“I can't tell you how many flights I've been in and out of there, and we haven't necessarily hit home runs, but we've got some good players out of Texas,” Kelly said. “Obviously, Torii Hunter is a pretty good player we think. Corey Robinson is a good player. We've got others there. But I think we've just been digging.

“I think (assistant coach) Kerry (Cooks) has done a great job. And then this year, in particular, I think that work has continued to pay off. We started early at Bishop Dunne (Watkins’ school in Dallas). We're get-ting into the right schools and to the right kids, certainly.”

And Kelly said he saw tangible evidence Notre Dame’s Shamrock Series game in Arlington, Texas — a 37-34 win over Arizona State on Oct. 5 — gave the Irish a recruiting bump with this class and the one that will sign next February.

“I was on the phone with some (juniors) today that were at that game,” he said. “They (said), ‘Hey, saw your game.’ I think it gave us at least the opportunity to continue that connection with those guys. I would say this, that we felt like it was a very successful game, not only on the scoreboard but from a recruiting standpoint as well.”

Among the other highlights and lowlights Wednesday:

*There were no 11th-hour defections in this cycle, but the Irish lost four of the five players who were still in play when signing day kicked off. Safety JuJu Smith from Long Beach, Calif., stayed home to play at USC. Fresno, Calif., wide receiver Michiah Quick chose Oklahoma over the Irish as did New Orleans defensive tackle Courtney Garnett. Terrence Alexander, a cornerback from River Ridge, La., opted for Stanford over ND.

•Kelly said the two early enrollees, wide receiver Justin Brent and defensive end Andrew Trumbetti, have made strong first impressions — especially the 6-1, 204-pound Brent.

“Justin Brent looks like a senior, physically,” he said. “He’s as physically developed as any player that I’ve recruited here to Notre Dame — bar none. That bodes well for him.”

“The one thing you love about Trumbetti is his mo-tor, his want and desire,” said Kelly, who noted the defensive end returned kickoffs for his North Valley Region High School team in Demarest, N.J. “He’s going to have to continue to get bigger and stronger.

“He’s 6-3, 260 pounds now, but we love having a guy like that in spring ball, because it’s going to give us a great opportunity for him to come into a position where going into the spring, you don’t have the kind of depth that you want. He’ll get a lot of reps and a lot of work.”

Kelly danced around the question of who in the class might be ready to make a significant contribution in the fall.

“Physically, these guys are coming in so much more prepared,” Kelly said. “It's developing them mentally to find out whether they're going to play. And you really can't tell that until they get into camp and how they pick up the grind of going through double sessions and the grind of school, and balancing all those things.”

Just on need alone, the defensive linemen will all get a long look. So too will inside linebackers like Nyles Morgan, the most highly touted of the defensive recruits.

“If he's the very best player, I want the 11 best players on the field,” Kelly said. “And we've got to do a good job as coaches of getting the 11 best players on the field. Sometimes we're a little bit hesitant of getting the 11 best players on the field for certain reasons. And if he's one of the 11 best, we've got to find a way to get him on the field.

“The issue he's got is he's got some guys working out that have been here a year that are going to try to keep him from getting on the field, too. I think there's still some competition there that he's got to get through, but his skill set, it's pretty easy to see. That's what a Mike (middle) linebacker looks like.”

The completion of the class allowed Kelly to define the seniors that are in line for a fifth year. Of the 10 eligible, five will return — safety Austin Collinsworth, offensive guard Christian Lombard, wide receiver Luke Massa, linebacker Kendall Moore and defensive end Justin Utupo.

Three players had previously announced they were transferring to Miami of Ohio, and Nix had announced in December he was entering the draft. Resolved Wednesday was reserve offensive lineman Bruce Heggie opting to spend his final year of eligibility at Ball State.

Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly talks to the media about the 2014 football recruiting class. (SBT Photo/SANTIAGO FLORES)