Notre Dame football recruiting had a nice class in 2012 and is off to another hot start for the 2013 cycle. I recently had the chance to discuss Notre Dame's recruiting with Jim Miesle, the recruiting editor and analyst for SB Nation's excellent Notre Dame site One Foot Down. Jim is truly an expert on Notre Dame recruiting, and the quality of analysis found in this interview reflects the quality in all of his articles.
Notre Dame signed a consensus top-20 class of 17 kids. Did the class meet your expectations, exceed them, or fall short? If so, how?
I will answer this question in two parts. First, from my perspective it met expectations and addressed some key needs and added depth across the board with this class. In my eyes, the staff was all about quality over quantity -- something that should be refreshing to Irish fans everywhere.
Did they miss on some recruits? Sure. But I would rather that they swing and miss for some of the most talented impact players than load up with guys who would normally be considered a reach.
From the average fan's perspective though, this class fell short in a lot of ways. Some point to the late defections of long-time commits Ronald Darby (Florida State), Taylor Decker (Ohio State) and especially Deontay Greenberry (Houston). Others point to missing on a position or two that they felt to be a big need (most popular answer: cornerback, as the Irish were only bringing in one in 2012). [Editor's note: that one, Tee Shepard, left after only a month on campus.]
I think when fans objectively look back at this class in a few years, they will realize that the staff did a great job bringing in talented players across the board who want to be at Notre Dame.
Relate the 2012 class to the 2013 class. What misses from 2012 must now be addressed in the 2013 class?
There are certainly some key positions that the staff will be focusing on in 2013.
Coach Brian Kelly has already made it well known that one of the big priorities for 2013 is what he terms "Big Skill" positions -- basically guys he categorizes as big, fast and athletic (think tight end and outside linebacker). The staff only took one "Big Skill" player (outside linebacker Romeo Okwara) in 2012 and has already matched that for 2013 with the verbal commitment of defensive end/tight end Jacob Matuska. Look for them to continue to focus on this group and land at least two more in 2013.
Another key area that I feel the staff will focus on is offensive line. The late defection of the aforementioned offensive tackle Taylor Decker left little time for the staff to fill the opening, so they will probably bring in one additional lineman more than what they had targeted. I see them taking three to four offensive linemen, and already have one verbal commitment from offensive tackle Steve Elmer.
With the early departure of Tee Shepard, the one other position I can see them focusing on is cornerback. There is always the need in the defensive backfield, especially with the system that defensive coordinator Bob Diaco runs. The staff prefers big, physical corners and now needs to bring in a couple of those for 2013.
Speaking of Shepard, what are your thoughts on that situation?
Bottom line on the Shepard thing is that the staff will have to make due with what they have. Several conflicting rumors have surfaced over the past few weeks, and I think it is unlikely that fans will ever get the truth on exactly what happened. His father came out and said that it was health-related a few days later.
Even though fans don't want to accept this, it makes the most sense. Academics wouldn't send a kid packing after half a semester. Not being cleared by the medical staff would. The team doctors have a history of being more conservative relative to a student athlete's overall well being--examples include Dan Wenger (who transferred to Florida for his final season after not being cleared) and the rumors that surrounded Armond Armstead's potential transfer at the beginning of the year.
At the end of the day, I hope that things work out for Tee. He came across as a great kid who loved everything about Notre Dame.
What positions that were not a need in 2012 (due to returning players) that will now be a need in 2013?
Three positions come to mind-tight end, inside linebacker and defensive end. Of the three positions, the staff only took one recruit (defensive end Jarron Jones), mainly due to the extremely successful 2011 recruiting class efforts. I have identified each position as a key need for 2013 due to the loss of players like linebacker Manti Te'o and defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore after the season.
Indiana doesn't produce much in the way of top football talent. Roughly 75 to 85 percent of Notre Dame's recruits are from out-of-state. Where is Notre Dame's recruiting base in your opinion? How have recent coaching changes (Schiano leaving, Meyer to OSU, Hoke to Michigan, O'Brien to PSU, Mora to UCLA, Tosh Lupoi leaving Cal, others you want to name) affected Notre Dame's base and recruiting strategy?
I guess I would have to say that Notre Dame doesn't have a recruiting base as much as recruiting bases. While many programs like to promote a national recruiting base, few actually can claim to match what Notre Dame does on the recruiting front.
The primary base for recruiting is clearly the Midwest, but the competition level for the premier recruits has escalated dramatically with Brady Hoke's first year success at Michigan and the hiring of Urban Meyer at Ohio State. Notre Dame continues (and will continue) to draw players from Chicago, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania in addition to Indiana. The staff will also likely pick-up the efforts in New Jersey after the departure of long-time Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano, but will be in heavy competition with Penn State for many of those recruits.
I actually think that most people would be surprised to find that Notre Dame will have 10 players on the roster this fall from the state of Indiana. The overall quality of high school football has increased dramatically over the past 15 years, thanks in large to the success of the Indianapolis Colts. Call it the Peyton Manning effect.
The other primary recruiting bases for the staff include Florida, California, the mid-Atlantic and the Carolinas. The staff is starting to pull more players from Texas, thanks in part to an increased emphasis near the end of the Charlie Weis era. One other interesting thing to watch for in this class is the impact of Davonte Neal choosing the Irish-there are several offers out to the top players in Arizona, and Neal may pave the way for ND to make a splash there over the next few years.
In order to be successful, the staff needs to pull from all these areas on an annual basis. As Coach Kelly put it-you are shopping in a different aisle when you are looking at Notre Dame. Casting a wider net is absolutely essential.
Who are the top prospects on Notre Dame's board?
With over 100 offers out to recruits, it is often difficult to keep track of these things. Of the list, I don't think there is a player considered a bigger target than outside linebacker Jaylon Smith (Fort Wayne, IN - Bishop Luers). Smith is an ideal fit for the 3-4 scheme employed by the Irish defense and is from Indiana. While many are concerned about him following his older brother to Columbus to play for the Buckeyes, Notre Dame appears to be in great shape early in the process.
A few other names that are very high on fan wish lists include running back Ty Isaac (Joliet, IL - Joliet Catholic), wide receiver Laquon Treadwell (Crete, IL - Crete-Monee), wide receiver Ahmad Fulwood (Jacksonville, FL - Bishop Kenny), and offensive tackle Evan Pocic (Lemont, IL - Lemont) on the offensive side of the ball.
Defensively, the fans (and staff for that matter) are after players like defensive end Eddie Vanderdoes (Placer, CA - Placer), linebacker Chas Cox (Lakeside, AZ - Blue Ridge), linebacker Isaac Savaiinaea (Honolulu, HI - Punahou), defensive back Kendall Fuller (Olney, MD - Our Lady of Good Counsel), defensive back Leon McQuay III (Seffner, FL - Armwood), and safety Su'a Cravens (Murrieta, CA - Vista Murrieta).
While this is only a partial list of the top recruits on the board, as you can see there are players from across the nation. I expect a lot of movement early this year, as the staff is still offering players on a daily basis, trying to gauge interest level and address needs. With their junior day just over a week away and the spring game in about a month, expect more verbal commitments and a refinement of who the staff is paying the most attention to.
Brian Kelly has now had two full recruiting classes for the Irish. I've asked others to rate the coach they cover against the other coaches in a conference. But, obviously, I can't do that here. Perhaps just give me your thoughts on Brian Kelly as a recruiter. How big of an adjustment was it for him to come to a major school and fight for top recruits? How has he managed to loosen the academic requirements and get in some of the top defensive prospects that Charlie Weis simply could not sign?
I think Brian Kelly (and more importantly, his staff) have been quick studies on the job as recruiters at Notre Dame. Like I have said before, there are very few schools that have a national recruiting base like the Irish. While it was certainly an adjustment coming from a regional program like Cincinnati, I think he did a phenomenal job holding onto most of the 2010 class, while adding some key players.
He has been able to go head-to-head with top programs and win his fair share of recruiting battles. He probably hasn't gotten the credit so far as a recruiter that he deserves, but he also has some great staffers that have more than held their own so far-Bob Diaco, Tony Alford, Chuck Martin and Mike Denbrock come to mind.
The academic requirements at Notre Dame are often a double-edged sword. It can be (and often is) used as a convenient excuse for missing on some athletes. At the same time, I think it helps to bring in the right kind of football players. Coach Kelly himself said that they will only bring in athletes that can compete both on the football field and in the classroom.
Previous coaches (Bob Davie for example) often complained about the standards being too tough to get the top athletes. Have the standards changed? From Davie's tenure, it would appear so-the administration seems to be a bit more lenient on the requirements for incoming student athletes. However, it is clear that universities with high academic standards can be successful on the football field (Stanford is a recent example).
Bottom line, it does impact the types of players that the staff can go after. But does it impact the overall quality of the football team? I don't think it has as much as the coaching and player development over the previous coaching tenures.
With the poor close to the 2012 recruiting class and the losses in Notre Dame's marquee games (Michigan, USC, Stanford, Florida State), what is the mood around the program? Do you believe recruits get that vibe? With a very difficult schedule looming including games against eight bowl teams from 2011 (Purdue, at Michigan State, Michigan, [bowl eligible at 6-6 but declined as an offering to the NCAA] Miami, Stanford, BYU, at Oklahoma, Pitt, Wake Forest and at USC), it's likely that Notre Dame is looking at another season with between 3 and 5 losses, which would not exactly put them back among the college football elite. I'm not suggesting that Kelly lacks confidence in his team, and he'd never say it publicly, but do you believe that for this class he will be ramping up the emphasis on tradition, a Notre Dame education being a lifetime choice, etc, while de-emphasizing football a bit?
The general mood of the fans at the end of the season and after the bowl game was pretty dismal. Fans went into the season with BCS aspirations that were nearly put to rest after the South Florida-Michigan debacles. The team seemed to right itself mid-year, only to come out flat early against USC and not be able to completely get back into the game.
Losing three high profile recruits in January did nothing to assuage the general dismay of the fans.
Now that there is a little time and distance from the 2011 season and 2012 National Signing Day, I think fans are starting to be a bit more realistic about the state of the program. If the staff solves the QB question in spring practice, things will be looking up even with the tough schedule in the fall.
Most fans and outside observers look at the upcoming schedule and put this team in the same ballpark you did-somewhere between 7-5 and 9-3. I actually see them doing better than the experts do right now. They have some tough road games (Oklahoma, USC) but also get the benefit of several big home match-ups (Michigan, Stanford) and a neutral site game against Miami in ND's back yard (Chicago). Interestingly enough, Notre Dame has its two longest road trips as book-ends to the season-starting against Navy in Dublin, Ireland and then finishing in LA against USC.
As for how he sells the program, there are a few things that won't change. Notre Dame's football program is as storied and tradition-rich as you will find, and the staff will always use that to their advantage. Secondly, the staff (both current and previous) has consistently sold it as the 40 year decision, not a 4 year decision. I don't expect that to change. A few minutes searching on the internet will lead you to a few different analyses that lead to the same conclusion-a Notre Dame education will set you up for success long after your football playing days are over.
As far as de-emphasizing football, I don't see Coach Kelly going that direction at all. He truly believes that he can compete for BCS bowls at Notre Dame even without the ability to recruit any player in the country and I tend to agree with him. The question during the Weis era wasn't talent-he showed that the Irish can still compete for elite recruits nationally-but had more to do with strength & conditioning, lack of fundamentals, and an ever-changing defensive philosophy (or lack thereof).
Will Notre Dame compete for a national title on an annual basis? To be honest, the answer has to be no. No team does that. Even the programs like Alabama, USC, Texas and Ohio State suffer setbacks on a regular basis. Now that Coach Kelly is entering his third year and has his system firmly in place, I expect the Irish to take the next step in the fall of 2012 towards regaining its position in the national spotlight among the elite college football programs.
Do you think the message is tired?
I think most fans are already tired of the message. It has been something that the media has retread all too often over the past ~15 years. I think there was a phase during the Davie years that the administration did take several steps to de-emphasize football. However, everything that has been done over the past few years (facilities, nutrition, etc) says that football is still a priority. It took Charlie Weis his entire tenure to undo what Ty Willingham did to the program with his lack of recruiting. I think that the staff and administration is entering its final phase of putting itself back in the discussion for national relevance as a member on the short list of elite programs.
One Foot Down's Eric Murtaugh discussed this in a four part series on the rebuilding of Notre Dame football (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4). At the end of the day, the team just needs to figure out how to win a few more games. Do that, and everything else will take care of itself.
An additional, unsolicited thought from Jim:
I have only been following recruiting closely for the last 3 or 4 years, but Notre Dame was involved in four of the strangest recruiting stories I can recall (outside of Landon Collins mom's reaction to his Alabama verbal).
Starting with the most recent-Davonte Neal. First, he scheduled his announcement at his elementary school. Then he shows up around 6 hours late. Rumors swirl. In the end, it appears that his family was trying to upstage his moment (at least to an extent), but in the end he signed his LOI to Notre Dame. The story was poorly handled by the local media, but it is just a sign of what the college football recruiting cottage industry has become.
Deontay Greenberry's National Signing Day spurning of the Irish. In hindsight, he never seemed to be 100% on board with the Irish. He flirted with a visit to USC, took an official to Arizona State. The last-minute visit to Houston seemed harmless until he switched his commitment at the last minute and ended up signing with the Cougars.
Gunner Kiel. First he shocks everyone and verbals to Indiana. Then he decommits and appears to be ready to pull the trigger for the Irish, only to be swayed by Les Miles at the 11th hour. All set to enroll early at LSU, he decides basically a day or two before he is set to move to Baton Rouge that he has had a change of heart. Under the cover of darkness, he enrolls at Notre Dame, moves into his dorm room and takes his physical. Afterwards, he has taken shots from Miles, national analysts and columnists alike for his playing ability despite essentially being a consensus top QB in the 2012 class. It wouldn't shock me to see this kid a little extra motivated to prove a few people wrong.
Finally, Yuri Wright and his Twittergate scandal. It appeared that Wright was set to announce his decision to attend Notre Dame (if he wasn't already a silent commit) when a Michigan blog released private tweets from over the previous months that painted Wright in a less-than-desirable light. Several programs pulled their offers and he eventually was expelled from his high school. This story should be a lesson to all recruits present and future about discretion.
I think if you were to write about the five strangest stories, those four would definitely be part of it (along with the Collins story). This recruiting business gets stranger every minute.
For more on Irish football, visit Notre Dame blog One Foot Down