In terms of first impressions, Notre Dame made a strong one on Caleb Kelly.
Checking out the Irish alongside his mother, Valerie Kelly, and his aunt, Jennifer Armstrong, the five-star linebacker got an in-depth look at a program where he has more connections than maybe even he expected.
That starts with the Butkus Award, a honor Kelly might win on the prep level this year. He’s a finalist for the same award Jaylon Smith and Manti Te’o won in high school and college (the only two linebacker to do so). During meetings with the Irish coaching staff, Kelly took a photo holding the Butkus trophy with linebackers coach Mike Elston.
Kelly also wants to wear No. 9 in college.
“It’s funny because there are a lot of coincidences. Jaylon won the Butkus award, now Caleb is a finalist,” Valerie said. “He wants to wear No. 9 and his mentor (Tony Perry) wore No. 9. It’s kind of weird. He wore No. 19 for me but he needs to do something for himself.”
Notre Dame was Kelly’s fourth official visit, following Michigan, Oregon and Oklahoma. While the Sooners are the presumed leader, the Irish did plenty to change that landscape, making a strong impression off the field.
Kelly met with a professor in the Film, Television and Theater department. He also sat down with Adam Sargent, who heads Notre Dame’s academic services for student athletes with the football team.
While the 40-year decision angle is not new, it stuck with Kelly’s family.
“It’s not a mess-around school,” Valerie said. “If you want your kids to grow up and learn more than what you’ve taught them, that’s the place to be. If you want to mess around and be social the next four years, I don’t think that’s the place. This is grind time, it’s for your life, setting you up. It matters what you want.
“Caleb has been offered by some really good schools and we’re blessed to be a part of that. But we feel Notre Dame is definitely a standout. Everybody knows the academics there. It’s Notre Dame and it’s Stanford for that.”
However, Kelly wants to leave California for school. Getting comfortable with that idea is why his mother has accompanied him on his officials. While distance could be seen as a negative, Valerie accepts it as a reality.
“Anybody who knows Caleb and me knows that we are very, very close, very close,” Valerie said. “But I also want my son to live his dream and he’s made it clear that’s not at a California school. I’m happy for him to become a man and find his own place. That doesn’t bother me. I have FaceTime. I will see my son.”
Next for Kelly is preparing for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl as college coaches are sure to stay on the five-star athlete. Mike Denbrock has led Notre Dame’s recruiting charge, although Brian VanGorder and Elston have been involved as well. The family also sat down with Brian Kelly on Saturday to talk about the big picture.
“We really liked Brian,” Valerie said. “He doesn’t micro-manage coaches. I don’t know him, but that’s what I got out of our meeting. That’s important because it lets the coaches show themselves.
“Notre Dame really exceeded our expectations.”