Mike Elston didn’t know if Notre Dame would get another commitment. And with three weeks to go until National Signing Day, that was a lonely place for Notre Dame’s recruiting coordinator to be.
Elston had spent all fall trying to re-coordinate Notre Dame’s defense while also recruiting into the wind. The 4-8 collapse threw Brian Kelly’s job security into question. Prospects started to turn the Irish down. Commitments began looking away.
From that Labor Day weekend loss at Texas to the beginning of the contact period on Jan. 12 – that’s 126 days – the Irish had lost more commitments (five) than they’d gained and kept (one).
They’d watched official visit weekends go dry including The Echoes, typically when prospects take a number to commit. This year the Irish got four targets to campus for that December event: defensive end Josh Paschal, receiver Oliver Martin, defensive back Greg Johnson and receiver Jamire Calvin. They signed with Kentucky, Michigan, USC and Washington State, respectively.
The week after The Echoes the coaching staff turnover started, with four assistants ultimately out and five new ones coming on board, not including a new strength staff. It all meant things were about to get harder for Elston and the recruiting office, not easier.
The recruiting process, a marathon by nature, had just had a mountain dropped in the middle of the course at mile marker 23.
That’s when Notre Dame started climbing.
Even without a full coaching staff when the contact period did open, that Jan. 12 morning was the moment things started to get better. Somehow the Irish crossed the finish line on Feb. 1 with enough energy to sprint through National Signing Day.
“I’m very pleased with where this class ended up to where we thought as a staff it may not end up,” Elston said. “There were some touchy moments here in the middle of January.”
Here’s how much better things got.
Consider that of the nearly two dozen targets who took official visits last season that only one ended up in South Bend. And that was offensive lineman Aaron Banks, one of the nine official visitors during the Michigan State weekend in mid-September.
Now compare that to Notre Dame’s close with a full staff in place. The Irish hosted 10 official visitors during recruiting’s final weeks. Notre Dame landed six of them. The staff built relationships in two weeks that usually take two years to construct.
“The hurdle was the relationship,” Elston said. “Because in order for them to answer the phone there has to be some form of relationship. We kicked down that door and it didn’t get kicked down with several guys that we contacted.
“And then it was the direction of the program questions. When you hear coach Kelly talk and you got them on campus and they got around the players and they saw the new additions in our staff and the strength and conditioning and coach (Mike) Elko and coach (Chip) Long, I think that was the big selling point. There’s new energy, there’s great energy. Our players felt it. They could see it with their own eyes when they watched workouts.
“Once we broke down the door of the relationship and got them (on campus), then all the hurdles were cleared.”
The results gave Notre Dame another Top 15 class – oddly on par with last year’s haul without a 10-win season at its back – and restored some of the credibility lost around the Gug.
If Notre Dame hadn’t closed with Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Kofi Wardlow, Jonathan Doerer, Jafar Armstrong and Jordan Genmark-Heath, National Signing Day would have simply felt like an extension of last season. Instead, those six commitments gave the Irish progress, something the program lacked all last calendar year.
“This signing day changes the momentum and the narrative that we can turn the page on last year and we really begin moving forward in a positive manner,” said special teams coach Brian Polian. “It’s gonna be great and it’s gonna be good to know where you’re going.”
Maybe that feels like a small victory for a program that claimed college football’s all-time winning percentage last September. But the reality is Notre Dame needed any victory it could get, even if that meant flipping commits from Maryland (twice), Cal, Missouri and Virginia.
More than anything, the Irish needed a way to move past last season. The recruiting successes of the past three weeks grant Notre Dame that. In a new coaching staff, a solid recruiting class and a head coach who understood the necessity of a full reboot, the Irish took their first steps toward something better on Wednesday.
It’s one thing to refuse to talk about last year. It’s another to present an alternative story.
Notre Dame just did. It may end up being a much better read.