How Notre Dame built itself into a college football power without top recruiting classes

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The Notre Dame campus was largely empty on the morning of Dec. 15. The last students were rolling suitcases and carrying bags toward cars, headed home for winter break. But one building was humming with activity.

It was the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, home base for the Fighting Irish football program. The players were staying around to prepare for their College Football Playoff semifinal game against Clemson in the Cotton Bowl, and they weren’t alone. Visitors were checking out the facilities as well.

Sixteen prospective recruits were on campus for unofficial visits, all of them Class of 2020 or younger. The same day, not coincidentally, Notre Dame was hosting its on-campus media day for the Cotton Bowl. That spotlight provided compelling context for the recruits walking around beneath the Golden Dome.

“There’s a lot of excitement around the program,” said recruiting coordinator Brian Polian. “I don’t think it’s earth-shattering news — if you’re winning, it’s easier to go into schools and into living rooms.”

And to get recruits on campus. The excitement stems from a 12-0 record and the program’s first playoff berth, but Notre Dame’s recruiting rankings suggest it shouldn’t be here, among the most exclusive quartet in college football.

Brian Kelly’s Irish are in the College Football Playoff despite consistently finishing outside the top 10 in recruiting. (Getty)
Brian Kelly’s Irish are in the College Football Playoff despite consistently finishing outside the top 10 in recruiting. (Getty)

The recruiting rankings for the last five Irish recruiting classes, which make up the current roster: 11th in 2014, 11th in ’15, 13th in ’16, 13th in ’17 and 11th in ’18. That’s consistently good, but never great.

A composite Rivals ranking of the past five years of recruiting reveals the following top 10: Alabama, Ohio State, Florida State, Georgia, USC, LSU, a tie between Clemson and Auburn, Notre Dame, and Oklahoma.

If recruiting rankings were gospel, The Irish should be playing in a lesser New Year’s Six bowl this week, not taking on the Tigers in JerryWorld for a chance to play for the national title Jan. 7. And neither Florida State nor USC should be sitting at home with losing records and no bowl bids.

Going undefeated and crashing the playoff without a single top-10 recruiting class says one of two things:

1) Notre Dame is finding some underrated gems.

2) Notre Dame is developing its players better than others once they arrive on campus.

Or, most likely, a combination of both.

“At the core of it,” said head coach Brian Kelly, “you have to identify the players that will stay here that you can develop. You want young men who fit Notre Dame and will be here to grow. It’s got to start there.”

These are two of the challenges in recruiting that Kelly and his staff have aced in recent years — not just finding players who can gain admittance to a university that U.S. News & World Report ranks 18th nationally in terms of academics, but players who can handle an increasingly rigorous course load as they progress through college.

There aren’t a lot of soft majors available at Notre Dame. Which means athletes are expected to do more than simply find ways to stay eligible.

What the Irish have been able to do is recruit, retain and develop. And to do all three consistently.

There is probably an element of Harvey Penick logic to successful recruiting. Penick, the famed golf instructor, once wrote, “The important question is not how good your good shots are — it’s how bad are your bad ones?”

In the past five years, Brian Kelly has had no bad shots — no recruiting classes that absolutely tanked. Even Dabo Swinney, as many great shots as he’s hit at Clemson, had a 2017 class that slipped out of the Rivals top 20. Texas hit more than a few out of bounds in 2014 and ’17. Penn State and Miami have shanked a class or two.

At Notre Dame, piling one B-plus class on top of another eventually has yielded an A-plus team. That’s coaching, and that’s savvy recruiting.

There have been some ups and downs, some ins and outs, for the current Irish. Star senior defensive lineman Jerry Tillery, a Shreveport, Louisiana, product who committed to Notre Dame way back in June 2013, once tweeted something to the effect that the program would be better off with Les Miles than Brian Kelly. Leading rusher Dexter Williams, also a senior, missed the first four games of this season due to a suspension. Fifth-year senior linebacker Drue Tranquill has blown out both knees.

But all of them stayed the course, along with many others, and now are reaping the benefits. They’ve been joined by a few players nobody was very excited about coming out of high school.

Star quarterback Ian Book, recruited primarily by Mountain West Conference schools coming out of California, is flourishing after a redshirt year and spending almost all of 2017 and the first three games of ’18 as a backup. Senior wideout Chris Finke, third on the team in receptions and owner of two of the biggest touchdown catches of the year — early against Michigan and late against USC — was a walk-on with virtually no national recruiting profile.

Ian Book has excelled at quarterback for Notre Dame after starting the season on the bench. (AP)
Ian Book has excelled at quarterback for Notre Dame after starting the season on the bench. (AP)

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The recruiting task for Notre Dame has plenty of advantages, but more than a few challenges that come along with it. Recruiting nationally is great — the current team has players from 28 states and a Canadian province — but it also means going into someone else’s backyard to outflank them on a regular basis. Recruiting to the Notre Dame tradition has benefits — but recruiting against the Notre Dame weather has drawbacks. High academic standards attract high achievers who are accustomed to putting in extra work to succeed, and who are envisioning life after football — but those standards also eliminate a considerable cross section of prospects.

“Our recruiting pool is not really as big as people think,” Polian said. “The transcript will eliminate a lot of guys immediately. What our university will ask them to do academically as seniors will eliminate guys automatically. While we do cast a wide net, our pool is not necessarily as deep as a lot of schools. We’re not going to have to recruit 10-to-one for certain players.”

Kelly and his staff have gotten the admissions office involved early with prospects, often as juniors. The feedback from the academic side of campus can guide recruits in terms of senior-year course load.

“Certain positions are a little bit easier than others,” Polian added. “Offensive linemen are going to be attracted to Notre Dame. I think backs are attracted to Notre Dame. When you talk about skill positions [wide receivers and quarterbacks], they want to know about style of play and weather and all those sort of things. Notre Dame and Stanford recruit great tight ends, I don’t think that’s an earth-shattering secret.

“Recruiting here is different, but recruiting here is fun. You deal with really good kids, really good families, from all different backgrounds. … We don’t ever have to look at a guy and say, ‘Should we sign him? He needs to take the test two more times to hit a number.’ ”

The Notre Dame niche is both a mile wide and an inch deep — expansive yet selective. Kelly’s classes are not likely to outrank Nick Saban’s or Kirby Smart’s or even Ed Orgeron’s — in fact, the 2019 class currently sits at a familiar 11th in the Rivals rankings.

But here the Irish are, in the playoff. The formula — identify, recruit, retain, develop — is working.

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