Q: What has been the most challenging aspect as recruiting coordinator thus far?
Elston: When we took over in late February, early March, the challenge for us was we lost four full-time coaches. The relationships they had built prior with all of these prospects just evaporated. So playing catch-up, you hire a guy like Todd Lyght, who’s awesome. He’s an awesome coach, very personable coach, but he has no connections with anybody. He’s coming from the NFL. Autry Denson, same thing. Great coach, had been recruiting for a few years at this level, but no real connections with players within the area that we were going to be putting him in.
So, playing catch-up has been the biggest challenge, and the only way to really do that has been to accelerate building relationships because that’s what recruiting is, it’s about building relationships. So, I think we’ve done a really good job with that, and to be where we are right now in the 2016 class is pretty remarkable considering we lost half of the staff.
Q: Because of the transition, was the drop-off in momentum noticeable?
Elston: Yeah, it was noticeable for me. You need to be in a certain spot with people when you’re on the road recruiting in spring. And, when you’re out there for the first time seeing them for the first time … you pull a guy out of Texas, for example, and he takes another job, and there’s a new guy going in the state of Texas, and that’s his first time down there. Whereas the guy before had been there two springs before and saw these kids working and knew about them. That part was very noticeable, yes.
Q: The Irish Invasion has been a big focus. How much has that impacted what you guys have done with the camp series?
Elston: I think that’s just the beginning. I think we’ve grown that to something pretty special. We’ve got to add more, do more things. At the end of the summer bring everybody back and enjoy another day together and just celebrate … we’re planning something like that. So the Irish Invasion is just the beginning, but it’s been a big event for us.
Q: So, something else in July?
Q: How central is the “4 for 40” recruiting campaign to what you guys are doing as a staff right now?
Elston: Our No. 1 focus is, we have a saying. It’s an acronym in our recruiting department. It’s called FACETS. So, we have broken up all of the things we want to showcase our recruits in what we call FACETS. Within the recruiting department, we say we’ll show you all the different FACETS of Notre Dame. FACETS being facilities, apparel, coaches, and when you say coaches, it’s relationships and all of that and who they are as a person. Excellence being the ‘E,’ ‘T’ being tradition and ‘S’ being scholastic.
Anything that we send out needs to fall within the FACETS. So, for example, we did the social media campaign with the Shamrock Series, and that would fall under apparel. We try to target in a week all the different things that fall under FACETS.
And then you bring in the “4 for 40,” and that is its separate program that we’re using for the kid to understand the value that Notre Dame can give them after football. The “4 for 40” has to fall under FACETS, if you understand. It’s kind of a hierarchy of what we’re doing. It’s very detailed in our recruiting office, and we’re doing a good job of it.
Q: How hard is it to anticipate the ideal number you want to sign in a class?
Elston: It’s not an exact science, unfortunately. There’s always attrition, and you never know for what reason, and it just seems likes there’s been more than what we’ve expected. It changes every day. By position. One day you think you need one inside linebacker and one outside linebacker, and the next day, something changes, and you’ve got to go three total linebackers, a dual guy, an outside and an inside. So all of that stuff is changing on a daily basis.
Q: Is there a range of commitments you like to have going into the fall so you’re not juggling so many targets during the season, or is that something you don’t benchmark?
Elston: In an ideal situation, you’d love to be further along than where you are, but understanding where you’ve been, I think we’re sitting pretty good. I think we’ve got a lot of really good players that are going to be coming on campus this fall, and our game day atmosphere is going to be very good for them to see. A lot of frequent visitors will be coming back. So, I don’t think you set a number. Everybody would like to be as much as they could be done, but you’d like to have a competitive situation going into the season so that you can evaluate guys. It’s really about evaluations.
So many people get filled up before the season, and for some kids their senior year is their biggest developmental year, and that’s when you end up with guys that are three-stars that blossom into first round draft picks because everybody wrote them off when they were juniors. They go into their senior years, and a school only has five scholarships left to give, and they can’t recruit them.
J.J. Watt, for example, was committed at the time to Central Michigan when we were there. He was a relative nobody, and going into his senior year, he blossomed.
Q: How do you balance quality and quantity? What goes into the evaluation of knowing when you need get bodies on board immediately for depth reasons and when you can wait longer to pursue?
Elston: Each position is a little bit different because each position coach takes control of the speed at which we’re doing things. Brian Kelly has the ultimate say, and so do the coordinators. But each position is a little bit different. For example, offensive line. It’s any easy draw to Notre Dame for an offensive lineman. I remember when I first got here, I walked into the offensive line meeting room, and they had all the All-American pictures on the walls, and three quarters of the wall was full. Then you walk in the defensive linemen room, and there’s like 10, 13 of them. So, you can be really selective and be slower to go crazy and pull all these offers out there.
But you take a wide receiver position or defensive line position, and the you have to be a little bit more aggressive because it’s not as easy to get those guys. At the end of the day, each position is a little bit different. The evaluation process is if you feel like he can play championship football for you and he can compete academically, then you got to check on his character and check in with everyone around him, and make sure they give you the thumbs up and you can move forward with them.
Q: Have you dealt with a lot of negative recruiting?
Elston: We always deal with negative recruiting. The biggest pitch people use against us is the academic piece. It’s challenging here, it’s too difficult for you to go to Notre Dame. So, that’s a piece, and the spirituality piece, which is crazy to me. There are misconceptions out there with people about what the spirituality piece would be here for our student-athletes, and it’s misguided. It’s something we have to combat all of the time.
Q: What is your take on satellite camps?
Elston: Talking to coach Kelly about satellite camps, and really to me and him, it was unanimous, we want to kids here on campus. We want to show them what we have to offer. To go down to Indianapolis or to Atlanta, they still don’t know Notre Dame. They might know Mike Elston a little bit better, but they don’t know Notre Dame. We want them to come up here and see what we have up here because it’s so different and so unique from anywhere else they’ve been. So, we feel like we’ve got to get more kids on our campus throughout the summer, and we had a ton of kids on our campus this summer, we really did.
Our Irish Invasion was very successful, but so were all of our other camps. I can’t even tell you the number of prospects we had. We are going to have more in the fall than we’ve ever had, especially for official visits. You're going to see more official visits because we have more open scholarships, I would imagine. I think you'll see more official visits because of the more scholarships we have.
Q: What’s it been like to have Mike Denbrock back on the West Coast with and Mike Sanford?
Elston: It’s been great, very impacting. They already had relationships on the West Coast, so that’s been very good, and we’ve had a lot of good visitors because of it, so that will continue to show up.
Q: Have you noticed an impact with the Shamrock Series uniforms and Under Armour?
Elston: We got that out to all of our recruits and the response has been great, very, very positive. How can it not be with that color and the story behind all those different things on the uniforms? It’s been a very positive response, responding on direct message with a lot of players, and I know coach Kelly has fielded a lot of questions on his account also from different guys, so it’s been really good.
Q: When you took the job of recruiting coordinator, was there anyone you reached out to elsewhere, another recruiting coordinator or someone with similar experience?
Elston: No, just because my communication with coach Kelly was so clear, and we had so much ground to make up in different areas that we felt like we already had a pretty clear path of what we wanted to do. We lost four coaches, but we also lost two staff members within the recruiting office, so we had a lot of roles to fill, and doing so, we were able to change the whole dynamic of that office, and it’s been really, really good. We’ve got a really good staff in there.
Q: What goes into the daily grind of recruiting coordinator?
Elston: A lot of little things, just making sure things are getting done. Just today, we ok’d what video games we were going to buy. For example, when you rent video games, you have to charge the student-athlete per visit. So, for Irish Invasion, we wanted to get three or four games, put up a game tent, have a DJ, but you have to charge them per head – dinner, tents, everything – as much as everything is. It’s crazy, right? But, if you buy it, you don’t have to charge it. So when you buy it, where are you going store it? So we dealt with that today.
Things like the 75-week mailing campaign. From September 1 of his junior year to signing day of his senior year, what is each mailing going be? And then after he signs, what are the 15 mailings that each senior that’s enrolling into our University going to get? So, all of those details, so that you’re on the cutting edge with it.