Inside Notre Dame football's recruiting makeover

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Brian Kelly quipped last week that it took him eight takes to get defensive end recruit Adetokunbo Ogundeji’s name enunciated respectably in the slick, high-production recruiting videos Notre Dame rolled out on National Signing Day.

That the rest of the Irish football recruiting operation rolls into the 2017 cycle with much less awkward execution and five impressive verbal commitments — all from talent-rich states — was the more difficult bottom line to actualize.

Life after former assistant coach Tony Alford at Notre Dame lost its lamenting vibe more quickly and convincingly than many who follow the Irish recruiting game closely could have ever imagined.

In fact, the belief internally is that Notre Dame is as well-positioned now than at any time in the Kelly Coaching Era to compete for and win more of the most difficult of individual recruiting battles.

How that plays out from the outside looking in, in the months ahead, would take way more clairvoyance than analysis of real data at this point.

What is evident is that the optimism is buoyed not because Alford’s exodus to Ohio State right around signing day 2015 was originally overstated, but because the loss of ND’s long-time recruiting coordinator and most consistent performer in cut-throat territories was followed by a powerful and necessary philosophical makeover.

Some early corroboration of its effectiveness is that last Wednesday, NSD 2016, Notre Dame had accumulated as many Rivals.com top 100 players in its 2017 class — Georgia defensive end Robert Beal, Texas tight end Brock Wright and Pennsylvania offensive tackle Joshua Lugg — as it had in the just-completed 2016 23-man class.

(Or near-completed. It’s still possible uncommitted five-star wide receiver Demetris Robertson of Savannah, Ga., who never followed up on a planned trip to Georgia last weekend, will land at ND sometime this month. Kelly also said a grad transfer, a la Cody Riggs and Avery Sebastian, could also be in play.)

“One thing that sticks out to me is the organization, that the staff has more defined roles, and everyone knows what lanes they should be in,” said Steve Wiltfong, national recruiting director for 247Sports.

“Previously, they did whatever they thought they had to do on a particular day. I gathered that even though people were working hard, they weren’t necessarily always working smart.”

Here are some of the key areas that were part of the overhaul and/or were touched by it:

Florida

This is where Alford forged his reputation, winning some difficult battles over the years that extend back into the Charlie Weis Era. In fact, Alford was the only Weis assistant to be retained by Kelly when he took over in December of 2009.

Flash forward to the 2016 cycle, when ND reeled in seven Floridians, as Florida (21) overtook Ohio (20) as the top talent-producing state during the Kelly Era. In fact, twenty-six percent of the signees in the seven cycles have come from those two states.

California (14), Illinois (13), Indiana (13) and Texas (10) are the other states with 10 or more.

Florida native and first-year Irish running backs coach Autry Denson inherited the recruiting leadership in that state, and Alford’s successor as recruiting coordinator, Mike Elston, sent lots of reinforcements to help.

Cynics will point out Notre Dame didn’t have to battle Florida State for any of the seven in the 2016 class and that Ohio State only got involved with offensive guard Parker Boudreaux and safety Spencer Perry, among them.

But Miami or Florida, or both, offered scholarships to all seven. And Denson and company maintained old relationships in the state and opened some new doors along the way that could pay off down the road.

“My approach is to be truthful,” Denson said of recruiting Florida. “It’s going to be cold and it’s going to be far. And if that’s going to stop you, you’re not our guy, because you didn’t get to this point, you’re not getting recruited because you’ve allowed obstacles to stop you.

“You’re used to overcoming and pushing through, and that’s how you’ve arrived. So if the distance is an obstacle and if weather is, this isn’t the right place for you. I wish them well and I send them on. But for the guys who knows where he is and is not scared, sign me up.”

Restructuring the unofficial visits

There’s nothing casual anymore about the spring and summer drop-ins, the initial brushes on campus that years ago had a random, do-it-yourself feel to them.

Junior days are earlier and more plentiful. Summer encounters with the staff are more polished, more thought-out, more urgent, because elite prospects are visiting earlier and making their college decisions earlier than ever before.

Even communication starts earlier, through direct messages on social media.

“It’s (about) how to get a kid here soon enough that you don’t feel like you have to rush into making a decision,” Kelly said of the most valuable lesson confirmed in the 2016 cycle.

“There was one player in particular who I don’t think had enough time to really digest Notre Dame, and at the end he wasn’t able to feel comfortable with Notre Dame. So I don’t know if that’s an ‘aha’ moment as much as it solidified in our own minds about getting kids up here sooner.

“They can’t take their first visit in December. If the first time they step on this campus is December and then what happens is after that December visit, you go dead until January (a reference to the NCAA-mandated dead period), it’s hard to gain enough traction with them.”

The growing centerpiece in recruiting is Notre Dame’s invitation-only Irish Invasion camp in June.

“That camp is very, very important, to get you on this campus,” Kelly said. “You really can't truly get to that ‘yes’ in our opinion if you're reading about Notre Dame on the internet. You've got to get on this campus.”

The number of early offers may be only subtly increased, but analysts such as Wiltfong see the steps that follow those initial offers as far more efficient and creative.

“The staff is better at making the unofficial visits awesome,” he said. “They’re doing more photo shoots when the kids are in campus, doing more cool things that resonate with kids.”

Bigger and better

One of the first names to surface in the recruiting support staff, non-coaching positions that drive the recruiting machine is Aaryn Kearney.

Kelly and his assistants on signing day repeatedly referred to the Nebraska grad as a superstar. His official title is the coordinator of recruiting operations.

And there are many others in that office, mostly new faces, who have added an innovative edge to the time-tested Notre Dame recruiting message.

“There's no area that we're not afraid to get into and afraid to take a shot at in this recruiting process,” Kelly said, “making sure that we're highlighting who we are and our distinctions, and using all platforms to reach the student-athletes.

“From Instagram to Twitter, all platforms not just mailings, and I think that that has really been the impetus in terms of us moving quicker and getting into areas that maybe we were slower in touching in the recruiting process.”

But there’s still a line Kelly won’t cross when it comes to marrying the new ideas with the traditional ones.

“My son said if I do the Dab, he will never forgive me,” Kelly said with a laugh. “We're not going to do anything hokey or crazy. I think you still have to recruit kids and be up front about who you are, and it's still about work and developing relationships.”

Doubling down on defense

It’s hardly representative, but after five-star linebacker Caleb Kelly gushed about his potential position coach, Mike Elston, last month and his territory recruiter, associate head coach Mike Denbrock, he was almost dismissive of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.

“VanGorder? He had two OK seasons,” the Fresno, Calif., standout said roughly a month before picking Oklahoma narrowly over the Irish, last week.

But Kelly was adamant on signing day that the man who has led the Irish to a No. 71 total defense ranking nationally in 2014 and No. 45 last season — and No. 72 in rushing defense both seasons — is an asset on the field and on the recruiting trail.

“I didn't have to sell it,” Kelly said when asked what kind of questions recruits peppered him with regarding the Irish defense. “I've got a great defensive coordinator in Brian VanGorder, great experience, former Broyles Award winner as the outstanding assistant coach in the country.

“Look, we made a pretty substantial change in defensive philosophy from a 3-4, two-gapping defense that played cover two, to a 4-3, attacking defense that played cover one. That's a huge change, and it requires a bit of a transition.

“As we were transitioning, we were winning some football games along the way. We're not where we want to be defensively, and we're not going to apologize for the fact that we had injuries. We had injuries. But we're going to play great defense under Brian VanGorder and the staff that we've put together.”

Because roughly one quarter of the 2016 scholarships (21 of 85) are tied up in defensive players with freshman eligibility, VanGorder’s ability to teach NFL concepts to college-age players gets an extremely conspicuous referendum.

Kelly has bought into and is selling Notre Dame needed different types of players to fit the scheme, particular in the defensive backfield.

“All seven of them better be competing,” he said of his three incoming freshman cornerbacks and four safeties. “In terms of being in the two-deep, a number of them will have a chance. There are some very skilled players in this group, very impressed that I’ve seen with my own eyes compete.

“Safeties that have the complete package that we’re looking for — contact skills, playing the ball in the air, communication skills, savvy ù some of the things we lacked at times.

“The corners are long and athletic, have makeup speed, play the ball well. Having seen the ups and downs at the positon, some of the highs, some of the lows have really allowed us to really narrow in on exactly what we were looking for at that position. I think we’ve got it.”

Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly will decide on a starting quarterback in fall camp. (AP Photo/ROSS D. FRANKLIN)