How Notre Dame recruits quarterbacks

Notre Dame has a plan to move its quarterback recruiting forward. Brian Kelly and Mike Sanford know what’s important in evaluations and what’s not, with both head coach and offensive coordinator explaining their process.

No position in sports comes with the scrutiny of quarterback.

Obvious point, right? Peyton Manning and Cam Newton received more attention than anyone before, during and after the Super Bowl. They can attest to the spotlight at the position, perhaps more so than most.

But high school quarterbacks can too as they begin their trek through the varsity ranks and then, with a mixture of talent and a little luck, on to college and perhaps the NFL themselves.

Skilled enough to be recruited by some of the top college programs in the country? Expect your game and recruitment to be combed over by coaches, media and fans.

Recruiting has sped up for every position, but more for quarterbacks than any other position. They’re picking up scholarship offers as freshmen or earlier, which makes them national storylines before they get a driver’s license.

“I think it’s like anything else,” said Brian Kelly on National Signing Day. “Look, if your son aced his PSATs he’s gonna get some mail from Harvard and Stanford when he’s a ninth grader. He should, right? It’s the same thing. If you’re an incredible ninth grader or 10th grader, and you’re somebody that’s elite, and there are just a few of them, they need to hear from you. That doesn’t mean it’s across the board.

“But that’s just where that position, the quarterback position, is so central to the success of football teams that I think you’re gonna see that kind of recruitment at that position moving forward. They’ve gotta be elite. But I think you’re gonna continue to see that kind of recruitment at that position.”

Kelly would know better than most both the importance of the position and how its recruitment has continued to evolve.

Last season Kelly inserted backup DeShone Kizer into the lineup after starting quarterback Malik Zaire went down with an injury during the second game of the season. Kizer rallied the Irish past Virginia on the road then remained the starter for the rest of the season with Zaire out.

Where would Notre Dame have been if not for Kizer’s emergence?

Kelly signed another quarterback in the Class of 2016. Ian Book will join a room that includes Zaire, Kizer and Brandon Wimbush this summer. All are former four-star prospects, save Book.

Quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford offered Book a scholarship while an assistant at Boise State. He turned his attention to Book again as a potential Notre Dame target after arriving at Notre Dame.

Sanford set the star rankings aside in doing so.

“To me, the most important thing is finding the best player in the nation relative to what we need and what fits our program,” Sanford said. “And really what complements what we already have in house. We’ve got a good quarterback group here with two to three or four years remaining. We’ve got Malik Zaire, DeShone Kizer, Brandon Wimbush, now Ian Book. That’s a good crew. But it’s also a group that really allows other players to come in and compete. They want to be pushed.

“DeShone was in my office the other day. We were sitting there watching quarterback film together, underclassmen actually. He came in and he was like, ‘I was watching Ian Book’s film last night. Man, he plays with a great base, every time. It’s impressive.’ He’s like, ‘He’s clean.’ That’s what we want to bring in. We want to bring in somebody that makes it competitive for you and competitive for Malik. That’s what we’ve done.”

Kelly, Sanford and the rest of the offensive staff have already expanded the quarterback recruiting board into the next three high school classes.

Hunter Johnson, a four-star prospect from Brownsburg, Ind., had been the top target in the Class of 2017 before committing to Tennessee then switching to Clemson. Four-star Avery Davis has since emerged.

Sanford offered Davis a scholarship during the season. Davis, who plays at one of the top programs at Texas in Cedar Hill, visited campus for a game within days. Scout.com rates Davis the No. 94 prospect overall in the Class of 2017 and 10th at the quarterback position.

Notre Dame has also offered one quarterback in the sophomore and freshman classes — Phil Jurkovec in the Class of 2018 and J.T. Daniels in the Class of 2019.

Jurkovec already holds offers from Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, Tennessee, Pittsburgh, UCLA and Wisconsin, among others. Daniels spent his freshman season quarterbacking a powerhouse Mater Dei program in Southern California. Arizona State, Cal, UCLA and Washington have all recently offered as well. The younger brothers of Irish wide out Equanimeous St. Brown – junior Osiris and sophomore Amon-Ra – both play for Mater Dei and both have Irish offers.

Notre Dame has made it a point to begin recruiting these quarterbacks early, but not without doing the homework up front. Sanford even attended one of Jurkovec’s game this season.

“I think it’s important but you don’t want to do it at the expense of having a truly full evaluation,” Sanford said. “The good thing in the case of our future quarterback recruitment is each one of them, and what we believe is important, they’ve all played significant varsity and playoff football. You’ve had a chance to see them. The other thing that’s great is I’ve had a chance or coach (Mike) Denbrock and coach Kelly has all had a chance to see these guys play with our own eyes in competitive situations. I think once you get that information and you believe your eyes and you trust what they’ve done production-wise and as players, I think an offer is imminent.

“But what we don't wanna do is offer quarterbacks that have junior varsity experience or eighth grade experience. That’s not what I deem to be good business. These guys have all played meaningful snaps on varsity and I think that’s helped in our evaluation.”

Some things have become clear about Notre Dame’s philosophy for recruiting quarterbacks through this process.

First of all, Sanford likely won’t pursue more than one quarterback at a time. Davis didn’t land an offer until Johnson committed elsewhere. Other prospects in the Class of 2017 are now on the radar, but none have yet landed an offer.

No other quarterbacks in the classes of 2018 or 2019 have Irish offers, either.

“I really do believe that the way we go about our recruiting at Notre Dame should be different than a lot of places,” Sanford said. “This is a place that stands for integrity, stands for relationships on campus, in the community. To me, recruiting the quarterback position in particular, which is typically a one recruit type of position per class, I want to develop a great relationship with that particular prospect.

“Obviously, if it’s not a fit for the young man or for us, we’ll extend another offer. But what we don’t wanna do is offer 10-15 quarterbacks, get to know very few of them, and all the sudden we’re out there trying to grab bag at the end or during camp.”

Notre Dame also doesn’t factor the national recruiting landscape at the position into its plans.

Other programs starting to land their targets? That’s fine. How is their top target fairing on the camp circuit? That’s not a major concern. Zaire and Wimbush both made the Elite 11 finals. Kizer didn’t, nor did Book.

In fact, Book spent more time with his team in the offseason than pursuing camp glory. Sanford evaluated Book just fine without offseason camp buzz.

“I want to find the best quarterback in the nation that fits Notre Dame and fits what we’re looking for offensively,” Sanford said. “The national landscape at the quarterback position, to me, means absolutely nothing. The camp circuit means nothing to me. Absolutely nothing. I actually think, in regard to Ian Book, this is a guy who missed out on some opportunities at the Elite 11 because he decided to go to his high school team’s camp. Instead of going to an Elite 11 regional here, here and here, he said, ‘You know what? The most important thing for me is Oak Ridge High School football, so I’m gonna go to a team camp at Southern Oregon University and have a chance to get an extra three, four days of padded football with my team.’ So to me, the national landscape, if you will, is not that important.”

Kelly likewise sees other evaluation opportunities as more important. Younger prospects like Jurkovec and Daniels will have their opportunities to impress on the camp circuit over the next few off-seasons, but it’s their work during games that will carry more weight with the Notre Dame staff.

That's how they emerged into real targets in the first place, shaping the Irish recruiting board and potentially the program for years to come.

“Not as interested in the camp stuff as I am what he’s doing in games,” Kelly said. “How he performs late in games. Does he move his football team late in games? Can he rally the troops? How he performs when his team is down. I’m more interested in game mechanics, dynamics. You should be able to complete every pass if you don’t have a pass rush. So, although it’s nice to see what arm strength and those things are but the big, big criteria is on playing the game itself.”


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