Notre Dame owns a recruiting schedule more ahead of the curve than ever.
If the Irish land three-star receiver Michael Young later today as expected, it will give Brian Kelly 17 verbal commitments in his next recruiting class, a program high for this date in the Scout era, and probably a high mark dating back to when people started tracking incoming talent.
Compare that to Tyrone Willingham’s final full recruiting haul that included Darius Walker, Ronald Talley and Junior Jabbie. On this date during the ’04 recruiting cycle – remember, the Irish were still coming off that 10-3 season and Willingham was Coach of the Year during the summer of 2003 – Notre Dame had just one commitment: Justin Hoskins.
In the past five cycles, including the current one, the Irish have averaged 15 verbal commitments on this date.
And yet adjusting the calendar is not the most modernizing move of Brian Kelly in recruiting.
Where Notre Dame’s head coach has made the most progress is in strategy, not timing. During the Willingham and Charlie Weis eras, Notre Dame was painfully conservative about the 85-man scholarship limit. Kelly inherited that approach, signing just 17 prospects in his second full recruiting cycle.
Attrition, which has happened every off-season for the past 30 years, wasn’t properly accounted for in setting recruiting targets.
The fact Kelly has evolved that outlook has helped Notre Dame catch up to regular College Football Playoff contenders. After falling short against Alabama in depth four years ago (among other places), pushing the mathematical maximums of the 85-man limit has been a smart move. The Irish have yet to open a season at the NCAA limit, but they’re getting closer and closer.
Notre Dame should open training camp next month with 84 scholarship players, the high mark of the Kelly era. Getting there has meant approaching recruiting with a better acknowledgement of transfers, medical disqualifications and expulsions.
Notre Dame has signed 157 players during Kelly’s seven recruiting classes, starting with his bridge group and running through National Signing Day last February. That’s an average of 22.4 players per cycle, which includes Eddie Vanderdoes and Bo Wallace, two players who signed but never enrolled. It does not include de-commitments like Deontay Greenberry, Richard Yeargin, etc.
The average Weis class hit 20.4 players. The average Willingham class included 18.3.
That means Kelly is signing two extra players every cycle compared to Weis and four extra players every cycle compared to Willingham. Part of that is a reflection on players turning pro early. But mostly it’s an acknowledgement Notre Dame got more aggressive in pushing the 85-man limit.
Because for all the progress Notre Dame has made, its 157 players signed the past seven cycles still trails Alabama by 21 players, Georgia by 10 and Ohio State by nine. Yes, those programs have more early NFL departures than Notre Dame. But the Irish are getting closer to those football factories in roster management. And that’s a good thing while also maintaining the graduation rate.
Getting with the times has meant pushing the envelope with the scholarship limit, including two off-seasons ago when Notre Dame seemed to have 89 scholarship players at mid-summer. In the end, Ishaq Williams, Michael Deeb and Mike Heuerman all fell off the roster.
Notre Dame seemed set to go over again after National Signing Day this year, but then Steve Elmer, Doug Randolph and Corey Robinson retired while Chase Hounshell and Mykelti Williams transferred. Now the Irish are set to open camp with 84 scholarship players, which includes Josh Anderson and Montgomery VanGorder.
Kelly is positioned to push the limits even further next year if the Irish sign another 23-man haul as expected. A Young commitment would push our Scholarship Chart to 87 players on the 2017 roster. With six more spots targeted, that means Notre Dame would have to shed eight players from the projected roster before this time next year.
Could that create awkward press conference moments and tough decisions inside the Gug? Sure. But it’s also the best way for Kelly to do his recruiting business if Notre Dame wants to keep pace with college football’s heavyweights while also maintaining the Notre Dame brand.
Brian Kelly can’t change the math. He has changed how Notre Dame deals with it.