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Is Brian Kelly’s Recruiting Revamp Taking Root For Notre Dame Football?

Very much unprompted, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly cryptically opened a window shortly before the Camping World Bowl last December into how changes were coming in the way he and his staff would approach recruiting.

“We want to break out of the 15th-ranked or the 10th-ranked (class),” Kelly said, “and we want to get into that next echelon.”

Without sharing any specifics, Kelly said there were some strategy tweaks “in the works” that would “change our view as it relates to nationally recruiting.”

Kelly has previously — and perhaps regrettably — admitted that his recruiting rankings hold a cozy niche that falls between No. 10 and No. 20 each year, give or take a couple of spots.

“We’re going to fall somewhere in that range,” Kelly said on signing day 2017 after Rivals ranked that Irish class at No. 13, “because there’s a line there we can’t get over based upon what our distinctions are here.”

Those “distinctions” — academic requirements, a seasonal climate, no on-line coursework option, dorm-room living — haven’t and won’t change.

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Four-star 2021 running back Will Shipley is an important recruiting target ND hopes to land through a more dedicated Irish recruiting mission.
Four-star 2021 running back Will Shipley is an important recruiting target ND hopes to land through a more dedicated Irish recruiting mission.

And in part because of that, only one of Kelly’s 11 Irish recruiting hauls (2013) ranked as a unanimous top-eight class among the popular analytical websites.

Meanwhile, recruiting’s Fab Five — Ohio State, Clemson, Alabama, Georgia, LSU — have combined to sign more top-50 prospects each year in four of the last five cycles than the rest of the other 125 FBS programs combined.

So, how exactly does Kelly — whose program is 33-6 over the last three seasons — get outta the teens, “breakthrough that recruiting threshold” and “get into that next echelon?”

The answers are emerging more in Kelly’s deeds than in his words.

Fair or not, the knock on Kelly as a recruiter has been detachment, an unwillingness to get his hands dirty.

Opening and closing a young man’s recruitment have been Kelly’s primary roles. Building and maintaining those relationships in between was left mainly to the Irish assistants.

And while Brian Polian, Lance Taylor, Mike Elston, and others, continue to do yeoman’s work on the front lines — Taylor needs a parking pass and a sleeping bag for all the time he spends in Matthews, N.C., recruiting 2021 four-star running back Will Shipley — many top high school players want the big boss on board.

Wide receiver Jalen McMillan (Washington) and safety Lathan Ransom (Ohio State) — a couple of four-star top 100 players who Notre Dame missed out on in the 2020 class — both explained to Carter Karels of the South Bend Tribune that Kelly’s absence in the recruiting process drove them elsewhere.

To Kelly’s defense, up until the most recent two recruiting cycles — post-implementation in 2017 of a December early signing period — the Irish coach said most of his recruiting efforts in the weeks leading up to the traditional February NSD was spent performing poaching protection for an active class rather than building future ones.

Each of Notre Dame’s previous two recruiting classes was gathered, signed and delivered in December, providing Kelly more freedom to visit the ‘21s and ‘22s rather than “babysit” the ‘20s.

As part of National Signing Day coverage, Kelly spoke with recruiting analyst and podcast host Woody Wommack on “NSD LIVE” about how the early signing period allows the Irish coach to be more entrenched in the recruiting process — start to finish.

“I can direct it more, I can be more actively involved in positionally recruiting,” said Kelly, who recently completed a January recruiting mission to at least eight different states, one that included visits to Notre Dame’s top targets at running back, offensive line and defensive back, “… to know each one and establish and start to build relationships with each one of them. It’s hard to do that when you’re not out in front of it.”

But beyond closer involvement, Notre Dame believes earlier involvement will also help bolster recruiting.

Scouting and identifying “fit-able” five-star prospects back to when they’re high school sophomores — and even freshmen — and then not waiting to extend scholarship offers appears to be another philosophy the Notre Dame recruiting team is increasingly implementing.

The Rivals database shows that offers are already out to 26 high school sophomores from the Class of 2022. And not coincidentally, at least the top-five targets within this group all attend private schools, which illustrates the importance of focusing on properly-fitting players.

The recruitment of 2019 Rivals100 safety Kyle Hamilton from Marist School — a small, private preparatory academy in Atlanta — is the path Notre Dame wants to follow to recruiting royalty: identify legit fit, offer ‘em early, stay in constant contact.

Believing that a couple of strategy tweaks by Kelly and Co. will magically pull Notre Dame into the Fab Five bubble of recruiting success is misguided.

But through earlier detection, quicker offers, and more coddling, perhaps the Irish can move from a perennial top-20 recruiting outfit and into the top-10.

Proof is in the present.

Rivals rates the Notre Dame eight-man 2021 class at No. 4 in the country and Kelly promises to keep his involvement high and momentum rolling.

“I can get out front to next year’s class and begin the evaluation and the relationship building,” said Kelly, again celebrating the early signing period. “And it’s obviously starting to pay dividends.”


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