Brian Kelly podium

Taking a closer look at the Irish recruiting machine


It’s fun to look back at the early worries about Brian Kelly. After being hired by Jack Swarbrick to take over the Irish football program, Kelly was immediately tagged with the “small time” label, with his work on the field at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, and Cincinnati not actually the biggest question for some people. Could the new Irish head coach coexist in a recruiting world that would now feature some of the biggest fish in college football’s ocean?

Retaining only Tony Alford from Charlie Weis’ coaching staff, Kelly stuck with the familiar after taking the Notre Dame job, bringing with him coaches that worked alongside him on his way up the coaching ladder. While Weis plucked high-profile names from his Rolodex when he assembled his staff, Kelly’s crew had largely been anonymous, filled for the most part with coaches that hadn’t worked on a major stage but had plenty of experience working under the Irish’s new head coach. Deciding to go up against the heavyweights on the national stage with guys like Bob Diaco, Chuck Martin, Mike Elston, and Mike Denbrock, it’s been a pleasant surprise to most fans that this Irish coaching staff hasn’t flinched.

While the on-the-field product still will determine Brian Kelly’s legacy at Notre Dame, he’s exceeded just about all expectations in his first three recruiting classes, with a fourth group almost three-quarters full with seven months until signing day.

It’s too early to reach a true conclusion on the work that Kelly and his staff have done rebuilding the Irish roster, especially without a single Kelly recruit taking a snap as an upperclassman. And Charlie Weis’ work as a paper champion when it came to gathering faxes from highly-rated recruits shows you that topping’s rankings doesn’t determine your success. Yet entering season three of his tenure at Notre Dame, the work Kelly is doing on the recruiting trail, especially on the defensive side of the ball, has been undeniably impressive.

Let’s take a quick look at a few factors that have helped Kelly and his staff build this recruiting machine.


Kelly has helped Irish fans understand his recruiting system by breaking down the type of athletes he’s looking for. While the Notre Dame staff certainly profiles recruits for a certain position, they break down prospects into three distinct groupings: Skill, Big Skill and Power.

(A quick primer on how this versatility helps: Troy Niklas, once a linebacker now a tight end, is a perfect example of big skill. George Atkinson, assumed a wide receiver, but now a rising star at running back, fits Kelly’s mold of skill. And Brad Carrico and Bruce Heggie, two guys that started at Notre Dame along the defensive line, now find themselves in the mix at offensive line. That’s the versatility of recruiting power players.)

After watching the Irish flip-flop defensive identities throughout the Weis years, and put together a roster filled with tweeners and mismatched parts, Kelly has defined a prototype for what he’s looking for at position groupings, regardless of whether or not a recruit garners four-stars from a recruiting service.

Looking for a perfect example? Take Michigan linebacker Joe Bolden. While he was good enough to earn offers from the Wolverines and Penn State while garnering a Top 250 ranking by Rivals, the Irish coaching staff was shockingly candid when they turned down the 6-foot-3, 230-pound outside linebacker for being too small.

“Notre Dame told me they wanted a 6-foot-4 linebacker and that I am not their guy,” Bolden told the Detroit News. “I’m not upset if I don’t fit your profile, I was just surprised about height, because I have always believed that it’s not the size of the dog, but it’s the dog’s bite.”

Apologies to Bolden’s back of the t-shirt philosophy, but Kelly’s staff has successful rebuilt the Irish defense because they’ve stuck with the plan and found players that physically fit their scheme. Targeting larger athletes that fit the system — guys like Stephon Tuitt, Ishaq Williams, Ben Councell, Niklas, Jarrett Grace, Carrico and Tony Springmann — give you an idea of what the Irish are looking for along the edges of their defense, while allowing for positional flexibility. Anthony Rabasa, at 6-foot-3, 240, and Justin Utupo, at 6-foot-1, 258, are now inside linebackers, even though they profiled as defensive ends by most recruiting services. Staying within the parameters of their position profiles, while targeting the athletes the Irish need to achieve success in their system, has quickly benefited a defense that too often was undersized and outmanned under Charlie Weis.


Put simply, Notre Dame has put way more scholarship offers on the table than any other time in the modern era.

After being selective with scholarship offers under Willingham and Weis, Kelly and company have spread a wider net when trying to reel in the best prospects in the country. Along with dispelling the myth that the Irish couldn’t compete most of the best players in the country, the Irish coaching staff has streamlined the process of identifying and offering elite prospects.

The specifics of a scholarship offer have changed quite a bit in the past few years, with plenty of strings attached at schools with a lot less stringent academic standards than Notre Dame. Yet the Irish have been able to adapt to the times, target and offer players earlier and earlier, while also potentially taking fliers on elite players that might have been tough to get in a few years back if they waited until their senior season to chase them. While some of those borderline players might have bitten the Irish in the back side, the ability to get in the game earlier and earlier with recruits has helped the Irish as they fish in deeper waters.

There is no exact tally for scholarship offers released by schools. Yet the Irish had more than 150 scholarship “offers” on the table before inking a class of 17 recruits. Some of those offers weren’t obviously commitable. But with recruits pushing the timeline up earlier and earlier, identifying and building a relationship with your targets is imperative, especially in a game where a 20 percent conversion rate is pretty good.


After getting burned by blue-chip recruits like Omar Hunter, Arrelious Benn, and Chris Donald, Charlie Weis drew a line in the sand about “committed recruits” taking visits to other schools. “If you’re looking, we’re looking,” Weis said, hoping that threat would keep highly-touted 17- and 18-year old football recruits from weighing their options. (It didn’t.)

After 20 years in college football, Kelly immediately understood the recruiting game at Notre Dame. No recruit was final until they signed their letter-of-intent. That meant recruiting — and holding on to — elite prospects until the end. The Irish have won their share (Stephon Tuitt, Gunner Kiel) and lost their share (Ronald Darby, Deontay Greenberry), but they’re recruiting at a relentless pace, unafraid of stepping on any toes as they pursue recruits that fit their system and show interest in learning more about Notre Dame.

Last recruiting class, Notre Dame was unable to swing a highly touted cornerback recruit like Brian Poole at the last minute. But work like that is why quarterbacks Everett Golson is on the Irish roster, and after being burnt by defections during the Weis era, Kelly and his staff have taken a proactive approach to recruiting talented players.

The story of Bob Diaco sitting outside Ishaq Williams’ Brooklyn home at 4:30 in the morning isn’t just lip service. This coaching staff, with excellent recruits like Tony Alford, Mike Elston, Mike Denbrock, Chuck Martin, and now Scott Booker, has a relentless motor and understands a recruiting game that’s gotten more and more ruthless.


The term RKG — Right Kinda Guy — is the type of coachspeak that can drive people crazy. Yet as the Irish build their ’13 recruiting class, there’s been a remarkable focus on finding players that fit the profile of what Notre Dame is looking for. After swinging for the fences in the ’12 class and missing on a few big-name, 50/50 targets like Darby, Greenberry, and Tee Shepard, this recruiting class has seen the Irish refine their approach, finding high quality people that also happen to be very good football players.

Other recruits are taking notice.

“Coming out here, you get a feel for the kind of guys they’re recruiting,” Top 100 recruit Jordan Sherit told at The Opening. “They’re not recruiting the guys that are out here messing around, trying to be goof balls getting in trouble, they’re recruiting guys who are great players, but even better people. For me, if those kind of guys can be my teammates, that’s a testament to the school and the coaches, so that just makes them look even better in my eyes.”

To be certain, the best people aren’t always the best football players. But the Irish staff has built this ’13 recruiting class with early commitments like James Onwualu — high character players that might not be five-star players, but certainly are befitting of scholarship offers. Blending character guys that fit the system with guys like Steve Elmer, Jaylon Smith, and Alex Anzalone, and it’s easy to see why this recruiting class has already surged to 17 commitments.

Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”