Notre Dame Football: 'All-in' approach helps Irish successfully recruit Texas in '23 class

Justin Frommer
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND ― During his high school coaching career, Reed Heim has been in the middle of two Notre Dame football recruiting processes. 

Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman directs his players to the locker room following the Notre Dame Blue-Gold Spring Football game on Saturday, April 23, 2022, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

The first came 11 years ago when Heim was an assistant coach at Dallas Jesuit, a private Catholic school in Dallas, Texas. Heim, who coached linebackers, had one of his players (he doesn’t remember the specific name) recruited by then Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. Ultimately, Heim said, that player ended up committing to Texas A&M. 

Heim, now the coach at Guyer High School in Denton, Texas, hadn’t crossed paths with the Irish on the recruiting trail until Notre Dame safeties coach Chris O’Leary went after Peyton Bowen. 

That recruitment ended more favorably for Notre Dame when Bowen, a four-star safety that is rated as the No. 47 player in the 2023 class, committed to the Irish on Jan. 1. Heim recalled a general difference in how Diaco and O’Leary operated as recruiters. 

“On the outside, comparing the two, between coach O’Leary and Diaco, I think that coach O’Leary has done a much more thorough job communicating with our coaching staff than Bob Diaco did,” Heim said in a phone interview.

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This wasn’t a slight on Diaco’s recruiting process. Heim said he never spoke directly with the former Irish coach, so that didn’t mean Diaco never did his due diligence. Rather, Heim’s view was praise for what O’Leary did and in the broader sense for what Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman has done to earn pledges from high-end recruits, specifically from the state of Texas. 

Of Notre Dame’s 20 nonbinding commitments in the 2023 recruiting class, ranked No. 2 in college football by 247Sports, four are from Texas. Bowen is joined by wideouts Jaden Greathouse (Austin) and Braylon James (Round Rock) as well as Micah Bell, a four-star cornerback from Houston. 

In his first full recruiting cycle, Freeman has secured more commitments from the Lone Star State than Notre Dame had in the past five years combined. Under former coach Brian Kelly, Notre Dame also secured one Texas signee (running back Jadarian Price) in its 2022 class. 

Whatever Freeman’s recruiting plan has been behind closed doors hasn’t gone unnoticed in a state that had been an afterthought for one of college football’s premier programs. 

“Whatever their timeline was for their Texas kids, it felt like it was an early identification," Heim said. "An early all-in saying, ‘You are our guy.’ ”

How Marcus Freeman grabbed four Texas recruits

Texas high school football talent yearly ranks among the best in the country. In 2023, six of the top 50 recruits hail from the Lone Star state. It’s why every football season representatives from major college programs across the country flock down south in an attempt to pry the best talent across state lines. 

For Notre Dame, the players it targets also have to meet a high level of academic standards. That was one commonality that Heim noticed from the four commits (Bowen, Greathouse, Bell and James) in that they all attend high-standard high schools.

“Peyton is a high academic kid and Peyton’s mom is an educator as well,” Heim said. “Notre Dame’s academics are important to them, and they have done a good job building relationships with the kids they recruited (in Texas).”

When asked if he was surprised about the Texas influence in Notre Dame’s 2023 class, Bell said he wasn’t because of the type of kid Freeman was targeting and the coach's process for securing a commitment.

“Maybe if it was Brian Kelly, then yes,” Bell said. “I heard (Kelly) didn’t like to recruit Texas.” 

True or not, the numbers show Kelly had a low success rate in Texas.

In his 12 recruiting cycles as Notre Dame’s coach, Kelly signed 12 players from Texas: Price, Nana Osafo-Mensah, Hunter Spears, Brock Wright, Avery Davis, Jalen Guyton, Torii Hunter Jr. , Durham Smythe, Corey Robinson, Nicky Baratti, Cam McDaniel and Jalen Brown. 

Seven of those came in his first five seasons. Three came in his last five, including three cycles that had zero Texas signees. In one cycle, Freeman has quickly shifted that approach.

“The recruiting footprint or strategy is always going to emanate from the head coach,” Heim said. “Whether it was Brian Kelly feeling like he could get the players he needed to be successful at Notre Dame and not need to jump into the rat race against the other litany of schools that roll into Texas to recruit, I think coach Freeman just wanted to make a point to do that.” 

Bell, who committed to Notre Dame on July 1, felt that first hand, saying Freeman made him a feel like a priority. 

“It is just how (constantly) he reached out to me,” Bell said. “He wanted to get to know my mom, my family. Everyone wasn’t doing that. He was really consistent.” 

During his recruitment, Bell had opportunities to stay home. He held offers from Baylor, Texas Christian, Southern Methodist and Texas, all within driving distances for him and his family in Houston. James also had options to stay local, with TCU in his final three along with the Irish and Stanford. 

Notre Dame, however, offered more networking and “life after football” opportunities, which went into Bell’s decision, as well as the “golden standard” vision that Freeman sold. 

“He did a good job of getting players to go to Notre Dame -- way in Indiana in the middle of nowhere,” Bell said. “If you could sell that, you can get anyone to come to your school, especially being from here, when you have everything you need.” 

In recent years, Texas’ top-rated recruits have felt that same sentiment. 

As August neared, only three of the state’s top 10 prospects in the 2023 class had committed to an in-state program. Three had looked elsewhere and four had yet to announce their decision.

In 2010, nine of Texas’ top 10 recruits stayed in state. 

Some of that has to do with the recent on-field struggles of the state’s premier college programs. National brands like Notre Dame were able to take advantage by grabbing prospects like Greathouse, a four-star wide receiver.

“There are still the down-home, blue-blood Texas families who went to some universities or played college sports and steer their kids to the university they graduated from here in Texas," said Tony Salazar, Greathouse's high school coach. "That is Texas. The bravado and pride of being a Texan. But I will say there has been more of a shift from that in recent years because of the exposure college football has.”

The national exposure that Notre Dame’s brand provides played into Greathouse’s decision to commit to the Irish on July 8. 

“Obviously there is a lot of talent in Texas,” Salazar said. “It is not too shocking that there are talented kids, and it shows there has been good evaluation on the coaching staff that is recruiting those guys and they hit home runs on the recruits.”

Notre Dame recruiting in Texas, from the past to the future

There has been enough buzz around what Freeman has done in recruiting in one cycle that former Irish great Tim Brown attended Freeman's rally with the Notre Dame booster club in Texas this offseason. Brown said he never attended when Kelly visited Texas.

Just from the way Freeman spoke to that large crowd, Brown recalled, he gained an understanding of why kids from Texas are going to Notre Dame.

"I think (the Irish) are having success for one reason, and that is Marcus Freeman," Brown said. "Just the way he handles his business. He came down here and lit the city on fire."

Before winning the Heisman Trophy in 1987, the last Irish player to do so, Brown was once in the same position as Bowen, Bell, James and Greathouse. Brown, who starred at Dallas' Woodrow Wilson High School before playing wide receiver and returning kicks for the Irish from 1984-87, said one of the toughest decisions of his life was leaving Texas to go to Notre Dame.

"If I had to do it again, I would do it in a minute," Brown said. "Leaving home, going to the cold weather and dealing with the things you have to deal with, it was extremely difficult."

Brown said Notre Dame is a different place because it takes a different type of person to succeed there, both on and off the field.

"You aren't going to have a guy that is interested in a life of pro sports as far as football for the rest of their life," he said. "If that is (the) guy you are recruiting, he is not going to like Notre Dame."

That doesn't mean those who spurned Notre Dame over recent cycles, like Ohio State junior receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, don't fit that mold. Smith-Njigba, from the Dallas suburb of Rockwall, was recruited by Kelly's staff and former receivers coach Del Alexander. Smith-Njigba committed in November of his junior year to the Buckeyes, signed in the 2020 class and is regarded as one of college football's top receivers.

That is the type of Texas talent Freeman is targeting. So far, Notre Dame has offered scholarships to nine players from Texas in the 2024 class, including wideout Micah Hudson (No. 9 overall in the class), cornerback Kobe Black (No. 37) and defensive end Zina Umeozulu (No. 35), among others.

"It's pretty smart," Smith-Njigba said at Big Ten Football Media Days. "We've got some good athletes down in Texas, so that is good for them (Notre Dame)."

Freeman is making the effort to get them to South Bend, as he did with the four 2023 commitments. In his first full recruiting cycle at the program's helm, he has found a formula that works.

"(The Irish) are identifying very, very good players," Heim said. "They are working hard on building the relationships.”