Turning summer camps into must-attend recruiting events is nothing new.
Pete Carroll grew the Rising Stars Camp at USC into a showcase many elite prospects on the West Coast made a point to hit. Urban Meyer drew talent from all across SEC country for Friday Night Lights while at Florida, then transplanted that concept to Ohio State.
Dozens of other programs hold elite camps that double as major offseason recruiting weekends. Notre Dame joined that mix two years ago with the Irish Invasion. The Notre Dame staff believes the third edition this summer – the Irish staged the event in June the past two years – will be its best.
Recruiting coordinator Mike Elston put his own fingerprints on Irish Invasion last summer.
“Irish Invasion is seen for us like a junior day to get kids on campus,” Elston said. “So we spend the first half of the day showing them what we are, who we are and our distinctions. The second half, that evening time, is more of an evaluation but also a practice — a chance for them to get know us on the field now and then for us to also put eyes on them.
“We just see the numbers growing. We see the quality growing. We see everything about it growing in an aspect that can make it better.”
Irish Invasion also delivered results on National Signing Day.
Dozens of prospects flocked to campus to visit and work out during the camp session. Notre Dame later signed six players in the Class of 2016 that made it to campus during that weekend: wide receiver Javon McKinley, safety Devin Studstill, wide receiver Chase Claypool, athlete Jalen Elliott, safety Spencer Perry and wide receiver Kevin Stepherson.
For Elliott, the goal was evaluation. He played quarterback during his junior year, which made working him out at safety key for the Notre Dame staff. Elliott committed during the event and held an offer going into that June weekend.
But the real purpose was getting more face time with priority targets.
McKinley made the trek from Southern California to visit, even though he didn’t work out. He had already seen campus once in the spring and would follow up with an official visit later.
“It’s huge,” said associate head coach Mike Denbrock, who helped recruit McKinley. “The more relationship and the better relationship you can build, the bond with those guys, happens over the course of time that you’re face-to-face with them. It happens a little bit on the phone, it happens a little bit on social media and all those things. But it doesn’t happen the way it does when you can look a guy eye-to-eye and really have a frank discussion about how you can see them fitting in your offense and how you see their skill set working in what you do overall offensively. Him coming here three times really allowed us to really dig as deep into detail as we could.”
Notre Dame also did well with underclassmen at the Irish Invasion. Right now the Irish hold five commitments in the Class of 2017. Three of them — tight end Cole Kmet, defensive end Robert Beal and tight end Brock Wright — attended Irish Invasion last summer.
Kmet arrived without an offer. He worked out for the staff, earned a scholarship and committed four months later.
Head coach Brian Kelly sees the event continuing to evolve into something even more important for underclassmen.
“We want to use that Irish Invasion as something as a step towards a year to two years out,” Kelly said. “We think that that is the future stars for Notre Dame, if you will. It’s not the immediate stars that are coming on campus. I think Irish Invasion is, ‘Look what’s going to be coming in the future’ as well. It’s your futures game. It’s your futures that are coming on campus at that time as well. It’s really seen in some instances as, maybe you’re making a decision on a couple of kids for ’16 but it’s really about the future of what your recruiting efforts should be looking forward.”
Organizing the event earlier should help speed up that process. Elston revealed during National Signing Day that at this time last year the date for Irish Invasion hadn't even been set. While he didn’t reveal the specific date, look for Irish Invasion to go in mid-June again. Notre Dame will also stage a Junior Day on March 19, which falls on the first weekend of spring practice.
Notre Dame hosted its first and earliest Junior Day on Jan. 23. Among the visitors were four-star receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, four-star defensive end Corey Malone-Hatcher, four-star safety Jaylen Kelly-Powell, four-star cornerback Ambry Thomas, four-star athlete Jamyest Williams and four-star cornerback LeAnthony Williams.
“Mike’s done a tremendous job of setting a path,” Denbrock said. “I know he’s worked very closely and this is an agenda that Mike has pushed and coach Kelly has pushed along the way as well. Let’s get a standard way of operating so we know way in advance that there’s not so much fluctuation. Last year was a little bit different for us just because of staff turnover. It was a little difficult to do some of the things that we can do now. Obviously, having the entire staff back helps a great deal heading into 2017’s recruiting class.”
Many of those junior names will likely make the Irish Invasion visitors list. But it will take until National Signing Day next year to again assess its impact.
So far, so good on building the event into something meaningful.
“I think it was really finding what was most important in the recruiting process to get that chain moving in favor of that ‘yes,’” Kelly said. “What we now know definitively is we have to get you on campus in the summer months to move favorably toward that decision to come to Notre Dame. That camp is very, very important to get you on campus. You really can’t truly get to that ‘yes’ in our opinion if you’re reading about Notre Dame on the Internet. You’ve gotta get on this campus.
“I think what we learned in our first couple years is you can go out and recruit in May and you can talk about Notre Dame and you can talk about, ‘This is what you’re gonna get at Notre Dame.’ You’ve gotta get them on campus. We use that Irish Invasion as a great opportunity to get them on campus.”