NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Four minutes into an interview with reporters atop the Gug auditorium on Wednesday morning, defensive backs coach Todd Lyght got flagged down. Mike Elston had sent Scott Booker to retrieve Notre Dame’s defensive backs coach for a phone call. That phone call wasn’t going to wait.
That’s how it works with four-star cornerbacks from Georgia with offers from Alabama, Clemson and Florida State. Jamyest Williams, who visited Notre Dame for Junior Day last month, was going to talk to Lyght right now. Notre Dame’s recruiting coordinator (Elston) and area recruiter (Booker) had made their pitch. Lyght came next.
This is standard operating procedure.
Recruit a player for two years. Make sure his future position coach and area contact get a relationship established on National Signing Day a year in advance. Get him to campus for Junior Day. Better yet, host him for a summer camp before his junior season.
Notre Dame knows all this. It just couldn’t pull off that kind of scheduling this cycle, not with four new assistants on staff, a new recruiting coordinator and a new backroom recruiting staff.
Lyght wasn’t talking to top junior prospects on National Signing Day last year.
Because Kerry Cooks was still Notre Dame’s defensive backs coach.
It was this day last year that quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur bolted for the NFL. Brady Hoke joined the staff – that rumor actually happened – for about 45 minutes. Then word came down that Cooks was leaving for Oklahoma. Recruiting coordinator Tony Alford followed to Ohio State. Bob Elliott retired.
Elston said the staff was “decimated” by the departures. He was right.
It meant Notre Dame was already months behind in a recruiting cycle that had barely started. And the Irish wouldn’t catch up until summer when Notre Dame hosted its invite-only camp in the stadium that netted commitments from Jalen Elliot and Kevin Stepherson on site. Spencer Perry, Devin Studstill, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool would eventually follow. Juniors Cole Kmet and Brock Wright did too.
“It was Irish Invasion when it changed and I felt comfortable with it,” Elston said. “We knew the momentum had kind of changed back to if we could just get one or two of those guys, I feel like at that time the momentum changed and we were building great relationships. We were getting some exposure and people started to notice a change.”
Notre Dame signed 23 prospects today, holding out realistic hope for five-star Demetris Robertson to follow next week. Even if the Irish land him, this class ranks among the least hyped of the Brian Kelly era. Notre Dame sits No. 13 on Scout, its lowest ranking in the past four years. With an average of 3.48 stars per player, this group is ahead of only Kelly’s bridge class when he took the job.
And believe it or not, that’s all a compliment.
Notre Dame faced a recruiting rebuild this year and the story is that Kelly, Elston and the most balanced recruiting staff under this regime finished it. Now they’re on pace to make next year’s haul the kind that will turn heads on National Signing Day. Because with five commitments on board, including the nation’s top tight end (Wright) and a national defensive end (Robert Beal), the Irish are in strong shape moving forward.
They’ve already staged a Junior Day, the program’s earliest on record. They already have dates for the Irish Invasion next summer. Last year that didn’t happen until March. The year before it barely happened at all.
“With Mike taking the reins of recruiting coordinator, we opened up the lines of communication a lot better than we had in the past at times,” said receivers coach Mike Denbrock. “I think it allowed the coaches to dig in a little bit more in their areas.”
In the end, Notre Dame didn’t lose a verbal commitment for the first time under Kelly. It didn’t see a pledge take an official visit elsewhere. So while the Irish were behind when this cycle started, it picked up pace quickly and sprinted toward the finish.
That included the semi stunt with Robertson and Ben Davis, who ultimately signed with Alabama.
Kelly said the idea was Elston’s. Elston said the idea of Kelly’s. OK, so it’s the offensive play calling of recruiting tactics. Regardless, the idea didn’t come up until that Junior Day on Jan. 23, meaning Notre Dame had five days to get a semi truck 900 miles to Savannah, Ga., after clearing it with compliance.
That doesn’t happen without communication and creativity. And it’s something Notre Dame can throw at the entire next cycle, not just its final few months after rebuilding a coaching staff, reworking a recruiting department, managing a Showtime reality series and winning double-digit games with a backup quarterback.
“This was something where we were hoping to get into the Top 10 and hopefully make a statement and then continue to build that,” Elston said. “We’ve already got a really good start of building relationships (next year), I see that being a very impressive class.”
That’s how the view looks from here too.