Apples of His Eye

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly takes great pride in his ability to develop college football players. Now that the February fax machine has concluded its annual day of relevance, the veteran Irish leader will turn his focus to the real-world task at hand.

The overriding theme from the masses gathered at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex to listen to Brian Kelly's signing day press conference was one of loss. Not the kind that matters on Saturdays throughout the fall, but of impending, theoretical greatness.

Deontay Greenberry, a 5-star wide receiver prospect from Fresno, Calif., and an Irish message board fan favorite for the better part of the last nine months pulled a classic "heel turn" to borrow a phrase from professional wrestling:

The headliner of today's 14 pending Irish pledges chose Houston (not a misprint) over the University of Notre Dame, his high school coach alerting Irish head coach Brian Kelly – not to mention recruiting reporters from and other sites – earlier this morning.

"For me, it's hard to be disappointed about something that you never had, or you never coached," said Kelly in direct response to Greenberry's 11th-hour switch. "I'm more excited about the guys that signed, because they are the right kind of guys."

Greenberry might have been an "RKG," too. Student-athletes with a future in and/or out of football aren't sole property of those under the Golden Dome. He's not the first prodigy to pull a signing day surprise and is doubtless far from the last.

But his decision, both in its timing and delivery, was curious at best; immature to say the least. Then again, so was the prolonged saga of his recruitment as a late-May Notre Dame "commitment" who chose to flirt with as many schools with which he had the right to commiserate. His tale is neither unique nor surprising considering the fickle world of modern high school recruitment.

"We had some conversations last night," said Kelly of his interaction with Houston's finest. "We found out from his (high school) coach that he had signed a letter of intent with Houston. We found that out today."

Whether Greenberry followed his head, his heart, both or neither is irrelevant: he won't catch a pass in South Bend unless Notre Dame joins the Big East conference over the next four years – the new, nonsensical home of his nomadic Houston Cougars.

Kelly's job is to make sure he's not missed, because no singular football prospect is irreplaceable; no player is a sure thing. Notre Dame fans know the latter better than most.

The Real Work Begins Today

Chris Brown, an incoming freshman wide receiver from Hanahan, S.C. will catch passes for the Irish in the near future. So too will Pembroke Pines, Fla.-product Justin Ferguson, as well as a trio of other skill position athletes that today joined Kelly's quest to build a champion from 18 years of uneven stops and starts at the nation's most storied program.

Including USC freshman transfer Amir Carlisle, Kelly has 17 new players to work with entering spring ball. He inked 24 last February while another 21 remain from 2010, and 15 more are holdovers from the previous regime. It appears six if not more 5th-year prospects will return in 2012, too.

Player development is Kelly's oft-referenced, self-professed calling card as a coach. College football stars such as Tyler Eifert and Manti Te'o are testaments to his developmental process. So too are program stalwarts Zack Martin, Cierre Wood, Jamoris Slaughter and Aaron Lynch.

When an expected top tier prospect such as Greenberry chooses to pursue excellence elsewhere, its up to Kelly and his ilk to help promising players such as Prince Shembo find consistency. To make solid players such as Robby Toma or T.J. Jones into legitimately dangerous targets. To make good players such as Wood and Slaughter, "great," and to make borderline great players such as Eifert and Te'o better still.

"My first job was at Grand Valley State," said Kelly in his first conversation with in December 2010. "The guys I recruited didn't even know what ‘non-BCS' was. When your background is (such), you have to project. I've always said ‘if there's a worm in the apple, then turn the apple so you don't see the worm.'

"Tell me what he can do. I don't need you to tell me what he can't do," Kelly continued. "That's not why we're in this business. We're here to develop our players, and accentuate and get the most out of them. There are a lot of things I can't do. If you came into a staff meeting and just pointed out things I can't do…I'd probably crawl out of here. Tell me what I can do."

For those lamenting the loss of college football's next supposed star, consider the parallel between Signing Day 2012 and the following exchange from the 1986 classic film, Hoosiers.

After a player's fifth foul left the Hickory Huskers and head coach Norman Dale with four players on the court, the following truth was posed to Dale by the game official:

Referee: "Coach, you need one more."

Dale's response: "My team is on the floor."

Starting on September 1, 2012, the five recruiting stars ceremoniously attached to Deontay Greenberry, or Tee Shepard, or Gunner Kiel immediately lose their real-world relevance. So too will the stigma of the mere three stars assigned to incoming freshmen named Ferguson, Baratti, and Okwara.

Saturdays next September and for the foreseeable future, Kelly's team will be judged "on the floor," not by the number of faxes received, or the perceived impact of each on the first Wednesday in February.

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