Notebook: Early signing success means a quiet February signing day for Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

For the first time seemingly in decades, college football recruiting analyst Tom Lemming didn’t get a sore throat or laryngitis — or both — the first week in February.

On Wednesday, Brian Kelly will become the first Notre Dame head football coach in memory not to stage a live press conference on the traditional National Signing Day.

That’s because after just two recruiting cycles with an early, three-day signing window in December, February has become pretty much an afterthought.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see the NCAA get rid of this signing day,” Lemming said. “Every year, there’s going to be less and less need for it.”

And less need for Lemming to overdo it with his vocal chords at that juncture, breaking down the NSD developments for radio stations virtually non-step.

According to 247Sports director of recruiting Steve Wiltfong, only 23 percent of the nation’s recruits waited to sign in February in this cycle, For Notre Dame, National Signing Day promises to be even less momentous.

The Irish will use Wednesday to welcome the 22nd and final member of its recruiting class. Defensive end Isaiah Foskey of Concord (Calif.) De La Salle High is scheduled to announce his college choice in the 3 p.m. hour (EST) on ESPNU.

The four-star prospect has been a Notre Dame lean for months.

In the 2017-18 cycle, the Irish signed five players of their 27-member class in February.

“I think the early signing period works for schools, works for kids, works for everyone except some of the recruiting websites,” Lemming said. “That and the transfer portal have changed the landscape of recruiting, and I think for the better.”

Few changes of heart

Flipping other school’s committed recruits and minimizing other schools poaching his own has been a bigger part of Kelly’s big-picture success than one might think.

Including this cycle, Kelly has landed a total of 51 players over 10 years who spent time in other schools’ recruiting classes, while losing 26 over the same 10 cycles.

Of the 37 players (of the 51) who signed in 2016 or before, 20 have become starters.

In this cycle, Kelly signed just two flipped players — quarterback Brendon Clark (Wake Forest) and linebacker JD Bertrand (Georgia). That’s tied with 2012 (Gunner Kiel, Jarron Jones) for the fewest in the Kelly Era.

QB Cade McNamara (Michigan), meanwhile, was the only player to leave the class, only the second time Kelly has had fewer than two defections in a cycle. In 2016 there were zero.

Defensive end is the position that Kelly has been most successful in wooing from other classes (9). Quarterbacks (6) are notable, because Kelly has only recruited three QBs from start to finish (Malik Zaire, DeShone Kizer and Avery Davis) during his time at ND.

The six flips are Luke Massa (Cincinnati), Everett Golson (North Carolina), Kiel (Indiana/LSU), Brandon Wimbush (Penn State), Ian Book (Washington State) and Clark.

Andrew Hendrix and Tommy Rees were already committed to Kelly’s predecessor, Charlie Weis, in the 2010 class when Kelly got the job.

Going the extra mile(s)

As ground-breaking as Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston’s recruiting venture to Germany last week was in terms of covering new territory, it fell just short of being the farthest territory to which the coaching staff traveled in that recruiting window.

In air miles, Elston’s distance to Düsseldorf (4,184) was 147 miles shy of recruiting coordinator Brian Polian’s journey to check in on December signee Marist Liufau in Kalihi, Hawaii and to lay the groundwork with 2020 and ’21 prospects in the nation’s 50th state.

Elston did not come back empty-handed, as 2020 defensive end prospect Alexander verbally committed while the Irish assistant was still abroad.

“Just because Florida International is the only other school that has offered (a scholarship to Ehrensberger) doesn’t mean he’s not that good,” CBS Sports recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said of the 6-foot-7, 238-pound three-star prospect.

“What it means is Mike Elston went above and beyond. When you do that, it usually works out. Look at Florida State and the Werner kid.”

That would be German-born Björn Werner, who spent his sophomore year in high school in Connecticut as a foreign exchange student while playing football there, before returning to Germany to finish out his prep career.

Werner, also a three-star prospect coming out of Germany, blossomed into an All-American at FSU and was a first-round draft pick of the Indianapolis Colts in 2014.

“Germany could turn out to be an area of untapped potential,” Lemming said.

Book’s next chapter

Senior-to-be Ian Book starts spring practice in less than a month as one of eight Notre Dame quarterbacks ever to have recorded a season pass-efficiency mark of 150.0 or better.

However, none of the eight accomplished that feat in their second season as a starter. In fact, only five ND QBs in the era of two-platoon football (1964-present) even achieved a rating of 136 or better as a second-year starting quarterback for the Irish:

Rick Mirer (149.2), DeShone Kizer (145.6), Joe Theismann (144.0), Everett Golson (143.6) and Ron Powlus (140.7).

For comparison’s sake Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa (199.4) edged Oklahoma Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray (199.2) for the 2019 national statistical title and set an NCAA record in the process.

Clemson freshman Trevor Lawrence, who carved up both ND and Alabama in the College Football Playoff, finished 12th (157.4). Book, as a first-year starter, was 17th at 154.6.

The silver lining of a career-worst performance by Book against the Tigers in the CFP semifinals is it shows him exactly what he needs to do to make statistical history.

Just one of Ian Book’s 10 career starts to date has come against a team that finished the season in the top third (top 45) nationally in total defense. That was Clemson, which was third in that statistical category in 2018.

In 2019, Book could get three more such teams — if they’re comparable to the 2018 rankings: Georgia (13th) in week three, Virginia (20th) the following week, and Michigan (2nd) in week seven.

Yet among the other nine Irish opponents in 2019, not one of them finished higher than 60th in total defense last season. And the first two to start the season — Louisville and New Mexico — were 122nd and 119th, respectively in 2018.

So week three in Athens, Ga., will be the time to gauge true progress.

Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly won’t have much to talk about — by design — during the late National Signing Day, on Wednesday.