Prior to starting his career at Notre Dame in 1986, Lou Holtz coached the Minnesota Golden Gophers the two previous seasons. His strategy for recruiting in the state that was relatively limited in football talent was outlined: “The heart and soul of our team will have to come from Minnesota — but we’re going to have to go elsewhere for the arms and legs.”
In other words, speed and skill would have to be reeled in from the South, such as star quarterback Rickey Foggie from South Carolina.
There is a similar corrolary to this in Notre Dame’s football recruiting. The heart and soul of every Fighting Irish class comes from the Midwest/Northeast regions — and Catholic schools. Usually, the first ones to commit are from those regions/schools. Thereafter, the SEC, ACC, Pac 12 or Big XII regions help round out the class.
For example, the first seven verbals for Notre Dame in a promising 2018 start (ranked No. 2 by Rivals.com as a team) hail from those base regions. They include Pennsylvania with quarterback Phil Jurkovec and linebacker Matthew Bauer, New Jersey with twin defensive linemen Justin Ademilola and Jayson Ademilola, Michigan with linebacker Ovie Oghoufo and defensive back Kalon Gervin, plus Indiana with running back Markese Stepp (four of them from Catholic schools, too).
The Irish have the national cachet to get the “arms and legs” from anywhere in the country and have proven it over the years. This week they have also added Georgia defensive back Derrik Allen from Georgia and offensive lineman Cole Mabry from Tennessee.
Although it will always be challenging to pluck any top prospect away from SEC country, Notre Dame has become more active in Georgia and Louisiana, with Florida, of course, the ultimate hotbed. However, since the turn of the century, Tennessee also has begun to emerge more for the Irish.
Current junior offensive lineman Alex Bars became only the 19th player from Tennessee to see action for Notre Dame (his father Joe is from Michigan and was a linebacker for the Irish in the early 1980s). Technically, we also can include junior receiver CJ Sanders, whose first three years in high school were spent at Brentwood (Tenn.) Academy before moving to California as a high school senior.
Among all SEC schools, the Tennessee Volunteers have played Notre Dame the most during the regular season with eight meetings from 1978 through 2005. The series is tied at 4-4.
One should not expect the Irish to land a recruit every season from The Volunteer State, but at least two or three on the roster every year could become the norm.
Top 5 Notre Dame Players From Tennessee
5. Matt Shelton (Collierville, 2001-05) — In 2004 he set the Notre Dame single season record for yards per catch (25.8) with his 20 grabs, six of which were touchdowns. He also nabbed 28 receptions as a fifth-year senior under first-year head coach Charlie Weis.
4. Chuck Lanza (Germantown, 1983-87) — Powerful center was a second-team AP and UPI All-American as a fifth-year senior and served as a co-captain in Holtz’s second season. He was drafted in the third round by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
3. Harrison Smith (Knoxville, 2007-11) — A safety who served as the sole captain in 2011, Smith developed tremendously his last two seasons under Brian Kelly’s staff and became the first Irish player from Tennessee to become a first-round selection. He recorded 307 tackles, and all seven of his interceptions came in 2010, three in the Sun Bowl win over Miami. He has since become one of the premier safeties in the NFL.
2. Willie Fry (Memphis, 1973, 1975-77) — Inexorably linked with classmate and fellow “bookend” Ross Browner, the Browner-Fry tandem is the Gold Standard at Notre Dame for pass rushing duos at end, helping the Irish to two national titles. The UPI second-team All-American was a second-round pick who recorded 214 tackles at Notre Dame, 29 for lost yardage. He also was a rare two-time captain.
1. Golden Tate (Hendersonville, 2007-09) — The most electrifying triple threat for the Fighting Irish since Rocket Ismail (1988-90), the 2009 Biletnikoff Award winner turned pro after a junior season in which he caught 93 passes that averaged 16.1 yards per reception and included 15 touchdowns. He also rushed for 186 yards that season, averaging 7.4 yards per carry, and had an 87-yard punt return for a touchdown at Pitt. The second-round pick was the top receiver for the 2014 Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks and currently stars for the Detroit Lions. He signed the same year as Smith.
• Talk about it inside Rockne's Roundtable
• Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes
• Learn more about our print and digital publication, Blue & Gold Illustrated.
• Like us on Facebook