Inside Notre Dame football's evolved recruiting philosophy and a pivotal June

Five-star prospect Bowen's visit kicks off a new beginning for the Irish

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Five-star linebacker prospect Drayk Bowen of Merrillvville (Ind.) Andrean hopes to play baseball and football in college.

Drayk Bowen, for one, was appreciative that Notre Dame skipped the gimmickry of a football recruiting midnight madness earlier this week and drenched the start of potentially the most pivotal — and frazzled — recruiting month of the Brian Kelly Era in normalcy.

After a pandemic-induced, 15-month NCAA recruiting dead period of no (hosted) in-person campus visits and an overdose of Zooms, the largely universal knee-jerk template put in place at many college football programs across the country for Tuesday’s reopening was a mixture of pomp and chaos.

Notre Dame chose instead to be calculating and evolutionary.

Bowen, an elite linebacker prospect from St. John, Ind., and Chandavian Bradley, an ascending defensive end prospect from Missouri, along with their parents were the only invitees on Day 1. Bowen tagged along with new Irish defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Marcus Freeman, while Bradley got one-on-one time with defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Mike Elston.

The structure of the visits themselves was right out of the pre-pandemic playbook. Who was taking those visits is what was different and significant.

Both visitors are 2023 recruits, players who will be high school juniors in the fall. Bradley, unranked in the Rivals top 100 and No. 90 nationally in 247Sports’ early playoff rankings, has the traits. productivity and the frame (6-5) to grow into a five-star prospect, even if he’s only 205 pounds at the moment.

Bowen, No. 16 in the Rivals Top 100, is already on that five-star trajectory, with a work ethic that will make that difficult to dislodge.

Before getting in the car with his parents to come to South Bend Tuesday, the 6-2, 215-pound Bowen performed his daily 5:30 a.m. ritual or speed work and lifting before making the 30-minute drive to Andrean High School in Merrillville, to take final exams.

“Drive is something I saw in my parents,” Bowen said. “My dad built a business pretty much from scratch and built it into a multi-million dollar business. My mom worked a couple of different jobs to provide for us. So I got it from them.

“Obviously, I want to be the best — the best player I can be, the best teammate, the best person, so wanting to be the best kind of drives me a lot too.”

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Twelfth-year Irish head coach Brian Kelly, meanwhile, is driven by the incessant questions pushed at him of how he’ll close the gap with College Football Playoff bullies Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson, as well as his own self-imposed directive of Notre Dame starting to produce top five national recruiting classes on a regular basis.

June thus becomes an important and overt benchmark toward turning rhetoric into results, though the momentum has been building behind the scenes for months since Alabama’s 31-14 dismissal of the Irish in a Jan. 1 playoff semifinal.

The Irish currently stand fourth nationally in both the Rivals and 247Sports team recruiting rankings after finishing ninth in both in the 2021 cycle.

“There have been two major changes with Notre Dame recruiting that are paying big dividends,” CBS Sports recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said. “They’re swinging for the fences in terms of who they’re going after.

“Marcus Freeman came in, and he’s not afraid of anybody or anything. That’s rubbed off on the rest of the staff. And Mike Elston, as recruiting coordinator, enhances that approach with impressive organization and creativity.

“Also key is Notre Dame is now evaluating and offering kids earlier than ever before. In the past, they were always about a year behind Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Georgia and LSU — and they couldn’t catch up. Those schools had already established strong relationships before ND ever got involved.

“Now they’re on top of the 2023 kids and getting them on campus. They’ve even offered some 2024 kids the past few weeks. When was the last time Notre Dame offered a freshman? Never. Kelly lit a fire under these guys. And you’re going to see that pay off with the 2022 class.

“But you know what — 2023’s going to be even better.”

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman (left) and defensive line coach/recruiting coordinator Mike Elston have spearheaded the retooling of ND's recruiting philosophy.

That would be an indication, if it came to pass, that Kelly coaxed a sustainable recruiting shift and not a one-cycle bump from its playoff appearance.

What that will look like this month is a blend of camps, official visits, unofficial visits, rolling out Notre Dame’s name-image-likeness potential in the imminent new amateur sports model, and blending the transfer portal into all of that.

Two potential 2021 starters — Tulsa cornerback Akayleb Evans and Marshall All-America offensive guard Cain Madden — visited this week as grad transfers.

Madden became the first verbal commitment of June on Friday when he selected the Irish over ND's season-opening opponent, Florida State.

On Sunday ND resurrects its Irish Invasion Camp, a key evaluative and exposure tool that will draw 90-100 prospects from the 2023 and ‘24 classes. There’s quality to go with that quantity, though many of the campers are prospects that are ascending or underexposed to this point.

Still between the Irish Invasion and regular visits, like the ones Bowen and Bradley took, 16 Rivals top 100 prospects and counting from that class will get a taste of Notre Dame in June.

“That’s a Notre Dame trump card, to be able to be holding these visits in June,” Lemming said, “when the campus is as beautiful as any in the country.”

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

The Irish recruiting staff opted to wait until the weekend of June 11-13, when its players returned to campus for summer school and workouts, to introduce the 2022 prospects into the equation.

'Last piece of the puzzle'

The NCAA didn’t alter the existing recruiting calendar when it truncated the dead period, meaning schools had just four weekends before the fall to shoehorn in all their official visitors. The Irish will do it in three, along with some midweek visits.

“The competition to get 2022 kids on your campus was fierce, given the limited number of weekends,” Lemming said. “Notre Dame was pretty much able to get every kid on their wish list to commit to an official visit, which is huge.”

That includes 13 players ranked in the top 100 of Rivals, 247Sports or both. Notre Dame begins the month with 13 players already committed in a class that’s likely to number 26 or 27 when the December signing period rolls around.

“I think you’re going to see a lot of these 2022s commit quickly,” Lemming said. “They’re antsy. They’re tired of talking to the coaches on Zoom. The visit is the last piece of the puzzle. Even some of the sophomores may be quick to commit.”

Bowen won’t likely be one of them. He’s got a full summer of travel baseball and unofficial football visits to take. He followed up his ND visit with a tour of Michigan on Wednesday. Clemson, which offered the morning Bowen visited ND, will get a visit next week as will Tennessee, Ole Miss and perhaps Ohio State.

Then after more baseball commitments, he’ll take an Alabama-Auburn-LSU swing at the end of June.

“The way I was looking at it, I wanted to visit colleges, get to meet people, see the campuses,” Bowen said. “Probably start narrowing down after that. So that was kind of my timeline.

“Then maybe mid-junior year — the end of football and the beginning of baseball — is kind of when I wanted to almost be done with it, be able to be done and just enjoy senior year.”

To land Bowen, Notre Dame will have to theoretically beat out at least five of the six schools that comprised 247Sports’ top six classes last season.

An unexpected bounce in favor of the Irish is the surge of the Notre Dame baseball team under second-year coach Link Jarrett. Notre Dame is the overall No. 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and hosting a regional this weekend for the first time in 17 years.

► More:Notre Dame feeling good going into NCAA baseball regional in South Bend, ready to see fans

Bowen is familiar with the careers or two-sports Notre Dame stars Jeff Samardzija and Cole Kmet, and the shortstop/third baseman wants to try it himself.

“It wouldn’t be a deal breaker, but I do want to do both,” he said after touring the Irish baseball facilities and meeting its staff during his football visit Tuesday.

Whether he sticks to that notion, those who have studied Bowen’s game believe his best football is ahead of him.

“He’s going to be a Butkus Award favorite in 2022, and he plays like one now,” Lemming said.  

“I think when you watch him, it becomes very obvious that he’s just relentless on defense,” Andrean coach Chris Skinner added. “On any given play, he’s going to find his way to the ball regardless of what side it goes to, where he’s at.

“You take obviously a high-end physical skill set and match it up with this relentless enthusiasm for the game. And then you talk to him and you find out that he’s a straight-A student and works harder than the average high school student (4.17 on a 4.0 scale). 

“He really does study the game of kind of understanding the pass concepts of the opposing team and what windows do they want to be in? When you throw it all together, it’s pretty cool to think about.”

The same might be said of Notre Dame recruiting by month’s end.

“There’s a lot coming at the coaching staff and the recruiting support staff this month,” Lemming said. “But it seems they have a plan for everything, including how to personalize visits when the sheer number of kids visiting would seem to make that impossible.

“Notre Dame was never going to be great in recruiting unless they changed their ways, and now they did. I’m excited about the way they’re going about it now. I’m excited about what that can turn into down the road for them.”

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @ehansenNDI