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Specialization brings additional challenges to recruiting

Feb 8, 2013, 5:21 PM EDT

Brian Kelly 9

As we dig deeper into the talented class that Brian Kelly and his staff reeled in, some trends are starting to emerge in a group widely accepted to be among the best in the nation. We will spend the next few weeks talking about the 24 athletes that comprise the class of 2013, but athlete specialization is an interesting topic Chuck Martin and’s Jack Nolan touched on during the Signing Day webcast.

For college coaches, dealing with a new breed of athlete is nothing new. As the world of sports gets more competitive and selective, athletes are coming into college more ready than ever, being trained at a younger age for sport-specific skills. This is hardly limited to the world of football.

Youth hockey has changed drastically over the past 15-20 years, with junior leagues and development programs changing the game. The same has happened in basketball, where AAU has disrupted the system forever. While sports like baseball have always dealt with the professional ranks closing in on players out of high school, college football — long one of the most traditional traditional from a development standpoint — is now facing an influx of change as well.

With the recruiting industry playing a more prominent role in the world of college football, the summer months have now been taken over by combines and camps, a development not dissimilar to the early days of AAU basketball. With Nike’s foray into the world with The Opening, ESPN, Rivals and 247 staking their claims, and more and more All-Star games taking place in December, football is turning into a twelve-month endeavor, a big change from even ten years ago.

That brings with it new challenges for football coaches. And after building a career on evaluating athletes that may only work on football skills from August to November, identifying the changes that come from specialization is key.

“It’s big business. There are a lot of families who get in there at a young age,” offensive coordinator Chuck Martin told But I’m more for them playing multiple sports and maybe not training as hard at a younger age and let them keep playing and keep competing.

“It seems like kids are specializing earlier and earlier, and with specialization they are training for that particular sport at a very young age. It’s a different time that it was even a decade ago.”

You can see that preference when you take a look at the 2013 recruiting class. Even down to the offensive linemen, there is a great group of athletic versatility in the class, with most of this class playing multiple sports — very successfully — in high school. A guy like Torii Hunter Jr. plans on continuing his baseball career at Notre Dame. But a five-star defensive lineman like Eddie Vanderdoes also spends his spring with the baseball team, staring for his high school team, coached by his father.

When and if the Irish football players return to the Bookstore Basketball world, the offensive line class could put together a deadly squad, with Hunter Bivin, Mike McGlinchey and Colin McGovern all with the athleticism that’s put them on the basketball court in high school. (Team them with wide receiver Corey Robinson and there’s a handful for any competition.)

There are state champions in track and field in this recruiting class. There are lacrosse players. There are basketball and soccer and baseball players. And it all speaks to the aim of the Notre Dame staff to find competitors and athletes, football players that are used to excelling in game situations, not necessarily putting up elite times in the shuttle run or looking good in gym clothes at a combine.

“The more you can compete, the more you are in competitive situations, the better you get at competing,” Martin said. “If you specialize and you train younger, you’re probably going to have a better physical product by the time you get to college, but they might be a little less aware of what’s going on on the field. So we as coaches probably have to coach them a little more than the kid that always played multiple sports and has been in that athletic, competitive arena over and over and over again before they reach college.”

Listening to the interviews recorded for Signing Day and talking and listening to people inside the program, this recruiting class stressed athleticism, toughness, and competitiveness. We heard Kelly reference the winning percentage of this incoming class. Also mentioned was the ability to get to recruits and mold them before bad habits were formed. While athletes like Devin Butler and Rashad Kinlaw may not have wowed recruiting services like Rivals, they did show elite athleticism and physical ability — things this staff believes they can use to mold into proper players.

Notre Dame certainly isn’t alone in this philosophy. Pete Carroll has talked about this quite a bit at USC, when he targeted athletes over football players, unearthing below-the-radar talent to go along with five-star blue-chippers.

As recruiting continues to evolve, it’s clear that Notre Dame’s staff understands the need to do the same thing.

  1. notthefakeptp - Feb 8, 2013 at 5:43 PM

    Reblogged this on The Real Life and commented:
    Well, as many of you know I am a Notre Dame fan; and they had a great year (excluding the NCG). So, the season is over but the great thing about this time of year – the super fans can now dream about how great our teams will be by September.

  2. mimefrog - Feb 8, 2013 at 6:33 PM

    I enjoyed this article a whole lot. Thanks Keith.

    In my opinion, it is worth thinking about the effect of “corporatization” of high school and college sports. Like most things, it brings with it pluses and minuses. While the situation at places like ND and Stanford are different, I am concerned that actually getting an education has become secondary to the marketing machine and money press that is top level college football, particularly in light of the odds of making it at the pro level. This situation makes watching college football a little less enjoyable for me, because I wonder whats going to happen to ≥ 80% of the 18-22 year olds on the field when the music stops. Feels exploitive, really.

    • tedlinko - Feb 8, 2013 at 7:04 PM

      I agree with this. But that’s one of the things that makes me feel good about my Alma Mater. Because I know that, as important as athletic success is at ND, they do more than pay lip service to the educational side. Nobody invests more in making sure that students (and not just the athletes) have the tools they need to succeed in the classroom, than does ND. And the numbers prove it. It is no accident that ND routinely leads the nation in graduation rates, not just among football players but all athletes.

      That is why every one of the 19 young men who sent ND a letter on Wednesday, as well as the five who enrolled early, made a good decision.

    • 1historian - Feb 9, 2013 at 1:41 PM

      I agree with you but there is nothing new about your conclusions – we have always known that.

      There was a ‘Where Are Then Now’ – WATN – a week or so ago about Bobby Brown. IMO every time a recruiter comes into the home of a potential recruit he should leave a copy of that with the young man and his parents or his guardian.

      Your statement beginning – “While the situation at places like ND and Stanford are different” – BAD GRAMMAR. If we are to brag about how smart we are and how well the kids are taught we should provide a good example.

      • bogtrottin - Feb 9, 2013 at 5:26 PM

        If I could give this more thumbs down, I would. Dude, this is a gdamn football blog, not a college application or a job cover letter. I think we can take a step down from the super high horse and just enjoy the banter. And I will close now wath a seeries of typers jist to drive homer my pointe. Think yu.

      • nudeman - Feb 10, 2013 at 12:09 AM


        Typos, bad spelling and bad punctuation drive me nuts.
        The thing I see with increased frequency is the use of the word “of” as a verb. “I could OF puked”, for example.

        Where the fu** did THAT come from?

        Smells like a text era thing.

      • kapnd73 - Feb 10, 2013 at 4:46 AM

        You might want to proofread your own comment before criticizing mimefrog’s. Somehow, we all managed to understand that you meant “Where Are THEY Now” instead of “Where Are THEN Now.”

      • bernhtp - Feb 10, 2013 at 12:17 PM

        Most of my errors come from making a wording change at the last minute where elements of the original remain and thus become inconsistent. I normally catch this when the page refreshes after hitting submit, but this site offers no ability to edit comments after creating them. 90% of my errors would disappear by adding an edit button. Yes, I could proofread my posts, but I rarely do.

        To those that vigorously object to grammar comments, good writing is a sign of respect to your audience. After all, you are writing for others. I will also note that this is a Notre Dame site. Grammar does not need to be always perfect – we have limited time and do make mistakes – but I do expect to see higher quality and effort here than in other places, and thankfully this is usually the case.

  3. bernhtp - Feb 8, 2013 at 8:27 PM

    I really liked Martin’s take on this. Getting great athletes and smart competitors to develop into great football players is becoming a winning strategy. Mathias Farley is a good example.

    When I first arrived at Notre Dame very long ago, I was surprised at how many great athletes there were. At 6’2″, I no longer even felt tall when I got onto campus. The bookstore basketball tournament was amazingly competitive, especially back in the days when varsity football and basketball members could play. Joe Montana’s team (with Dave Batton) won this tournament twice. Rick Slager, who was the starting QB until Joe ultimately won the job, was also #1 on the Notre Dame Tennis team. Back then, the qualifying tournament for walking onto the tennis team was limited to 128 players, and many of these guys were very good multi-sport athletes.

    I guess specialization is now necessary for most players and I understand why Kelly doesn’t want them to risk injury to play the bookstore tournament, but I miss seeing these great athletes compete across many sports.

    • nudeman - Feb 9, 2013 at 4:44 PM

      How is it that Dave Batton was allowed to play in the Bookstore Tournament?

      • bernhtp - Feb 9, 2013 at 5:08 PM

        Back then you could have one basketball and one football player on the team. It was obviously extremely competitive.

        Look at just the MVPs and you will see a bunch of very familiar names from both sports. I have several friends who were Mr. Bookstore.

      • irishpuma - Feb 11, 2013 at 1:14 AM

        You got me Bern I have only one friend who was Mr. Bookstore.

    • irishpuma - Feb 10, 2013 at 2:33 AM

      I am glad the football players can not play bookstore. I remember getting physically abused which lead to a little fight with a hyper aggressive Kent Graham and his boys during one tournament. Their team had a couple hundred pounds on us and a few feet.

      Great article anyways and I do believe the idea of getting winners is genius. When you are used to winning it is just an added intangible and most games are relatively close and come down to a few plays, where the winners take over. Speaking from my own perspective winners don’t even get off on winning we just can Fk’n stand losing. And sometimes that is all it takes. Guys who get used to losing or are used to losing accept it easier, while the winners will not die.

      I am looking forward to great things from ND football over the next few years!! Can’t wait!

      • bernhtp - Feb 10, 2013 at 8:50 AM

        I agree that bookstore games got pretty rough and tumble at times, especially the ones with football players. You certainly aren’t the only one that complained. There were a lot of real cheap shots.

        I also tend to be hyper-competitive and while the thrill of victory is cool, the agony of defeat is what really lingers and makes you practice harder. Losing really sucks.

        Speaking of basketball, what did you think of the epic 5OT victory last night?

      • irishpuma - Feb 10, 2013 at 3:54 PM

        Bern the hoops game last night was awesome!! Especially since it was alot of our backups out there getting it done!

  4. papadec - Feb 8, 2013 at 9:32 PM

    Keith (because you seem to have the inside track on what’s happening) & nude (our resident expert on all HS things Arizona) – what do you hear about Priest Willis – 4 star S/CB, committed to ucla, but still not signed? Seems like some strange things going on – is ND in the hunt?

    • paiten34 - Feb 9, 2013 at 3:19 AM

      Papadec –

      Priest Willis is still signing with UCLA. Nothing has changed about his college of choice. From what I was told only UCLA removing his scholarship will change who he plays for in the fall. I was told by several reputable sources that Priest hasn’t signed his letter because of a family members scheduling conflict. He wants this moment to be perfect and for all those important to him to be present. There is no conflict or questionaabout if Willis will sign with UCLA.

      As for my thoughts on the article I must say that I always want my players to be active in sports. I personally think that my players who play other sports master other skills that make them better football players. Foot work, hand eye coordination, using their bodies to block out a defender and quickness.

      Being a elite player requires year around work and preparation remembering to give your body time to recover. As for what works best being a individual sport player or a multiple sport athlete I think it’s up to each player and what works best for him.

      I know several coaches that don’t want a player to risk injury playing other sports. I also know other coaches who strongly recommend athletes to play as many sports as possible. As I said I don’t think one way is correct while the other is wrong.

      • papadec - Feb 9, 2013 at 6:11 AM

        paiten – thanks for the update.

    • nudeman - Feb 9, 2013 at 4:47 PM

      No idea but I read on another site just today that he still plans to sign with UCLA. Besides, even if he wanted to come to ND is there even room?

      • irishpuma - Feb 10, 2013 at 2:35 AM

        I heard his mom was out of town on a business trip and they will do it up right once everyone is settled. Nude I think they would make room but we have 0 shot at him.

  5. 4horsemenrideagain - Feb 9, 2013 at 7:34 AM

    Not just multiple sports but other athletic activities too, like how Willie Gault took ballet to help with flexibility. Ricky Williams talked about doing yoga, but that may have just been because he liked to do it when was stoned instead of lifting weights.

  6. barneysbullet - Feb 9, 2013 at 9:41 AM

    Great stuff Keith.

  7. 60sdomer - Feb 9, 2013 at 12:52 PM

    Specialization has been going on for 15 years, at least, but lately it has gotten much worse. My nephew was an all-state TE in Indiana, as well as honorable mention all-state in basketball. He had to give up his first love, baseball after his sophomore year due to demands of AAU and football camps. He was class valedictorian and took his talents to Illinois, played 4 years, and finished 2nd to Kyle Vanden Bosch for the top academic award by the NFL. He bounced around the NFL for 4 years, always behind an All-Pro TE. Went back to Illinois for his law degree, supported by a small NFL pension, clerked for a U.S. Appeals Court judge after workng in the D.C. law firm that has the NFL as its major client. Now, he is an athletic director at a D-III college. The moral is: discipline in the classroom and on the field will lead to great things. After all, concentrating on one sport with eyes on impressing the NFL guarantees nothing. Many say NLF stands for “Not for Long.” As a ND alumnus, I’ve always been proud of the emphasis she places on the “student” in student-athlete.

  8. dutch31 - Feb 9, 2013 at 4:34 PM

    Just watched the NC game on TV. It was the first time I could bring myself to watch it, after being there and watching it live

    I wonder if they went live with tackling and full pads at all in 46 days? Keith any insight??

    Still think Kelly should have put the blame on himself in halftime interview, but I am giving him a pass because that was the worst tacking performance I saw all year, except for USC against Oregon.

    Love the loyals on this forum. Great read some good insight and humor. Not sure who posted it, but it was someone I like and always read. But they think Spond has his spot locked down for next year. Please watch the Alabama and Pitt games and just focus on him. Spond is a nice player but if you want to win national titles, they need to upgrade. The only way Jaylon Smith wouldn’t beat him out is if he is to slow in learning defensive play book.

    Go Irish!!

    • nudeman - Feb 9, 2013 at 4:56 PM

      This is so true, what you said about Spond. In his defense he wasn’t the only guy we’d been raving about all year who was exposed though. I’d have to put Farley at the very top of that list; maybe Russell too.

      Bama kept calling that deep out sideline pattern and Russell and Farley weren’t even in my 52″ HD picture.:

    • bernhtp - Feb 9, 2013 at 5:13 PM

      My understanding is that there was almost no full contact in practice due to fear of injury, especially the offensive line where we had no depth. It really showed, especially in the defense. The tackling lines and technique were atrocious and quite different from what we saw the entire year.

    • irishpuma - Feb 10, 2013 at 2:43 AM

      Agree with everything you said except Kelly gets no pass from me on his halftime comments. He was in full douche mode. Seemed to me like he was embarrassed and putting it on the kids. They were already getting their asses handed to them and they did not need that from their leader. Take some responsibility for their poor preparation. All we get to here is what a genius Saban is and how prepared his team was etc. Kelly should be credited with ND’s performance in the same manner. And you are right it sure looked like they did not go full contact full speed as they were getting blown off the ball play after play. Manti looked like an IHOP all I saw was him getting pancaked. I will chalk that up to his personal issues at the time.

      That said was still a great season and surpassed all expectations.

      • nudeman - Feb 10, 2013 at 10:03 AM

        The halftime comments shocked me; just 100% atrocious. Using that as his forum to show us he’s the funniest guy in the room was terrible. Auburn was down 21-0 a couple years ago to Bama and came back and won.

        Those comments combined with his Eagles flirtation before the body was even cold have totally changed the way I think about BK. Still a very good/maybe great football coach; and a fantastic recruiter and I’m glad he’s still at ND. I haven’t forgotten that those are the most important things.

        But ND isn’t his “dream job”. It’s his “current” job. And he’ll be gone no later than after 2014.

      • irishpuma - Feb 10, 2013 at 3:57 PM

        Nude I agree with you 100%.

  9. dutch31 - Feb 9, 2013 at 5:12 PM

    Nude I agree. More so with Farley, he slipped off significantly as regular season went on. Throw out the NC game ( a lot of very bad to go around). But Russell was solid through USC

    Nude missed some posts. Any chance of a 25th recruit?? Who would you keep if you had to choose Fox or Callabrese??

    • nudeman - Feb 9, 2013 at 7:21 PM

      I’m not aware of any possible last minute adds, in terms of recruiting.

      There are clowns on Rivals who keep banging the Ty Isaac drum; seems that USC fired their OC (who was also Isaac’s recruiter, I think) 1 day after NSD. Some feel that’s grounds for being allowed to decommit. I doubt it.

      Besides, he went to a Catholic HS 2 hrs from ND and never visited. So clearly he ain’t crazy about the Irish. And frankly, with Folston and Bryant and the guys already on the roster, they don’t exactly need another RB. I’m actually very anxious to see Will Mahone play. Sounds like a bruiser who can take over a game in the 4th qtr.

      Fox and Calabrese – flip a coin. Sounds like they’ll both be back, especially if Nichols goes on medical and Slaughter is denied.

      BTW, I am intrigued by the fact that Vanderdoes plays BASEBALL??? Anybody know what position? Dude must have some outrageous power.

      • idratherbeinsouthbend - Feb 9, 2013 at 11:24 PM


        I could probably dig up where Vanerdoes plays on the baseball field via Google, but having coached high school baseball for a number of years, I can tell you that the only logical places to put this guy are at the corners, 1st and 3rd.

        I did have a 6’3, 240 lbs kid play for me that ended up winning a couple National Championships on the D-Line at North Dakota State. He handled 1st base, DH, a little 3rd base and an emergency appearance at catcher.

      • irishpuma - Feb 10, 2013 at 2:52 AM

        EV4 first base and pitcher. Here are his junior year stats

        avg ab R H RBI 2B HR SB
        .406 69 18 28 17 7 4 5 Pitching 1w 1L 15 ins 1 save 1.87 era 33ks

        I concur I want to see Mahone bust up the middle Bama style.

      • kapnd73 - Feb 10, 2013 at 5:23 AM

        Good info, idratherbe… and irishpuma. Vanderdoes – 5 stolen bases – can you imagine?! I’d be darting away from the base like a matador, watching him come barreling down the base line towards me.

  10. dutch31 - Feb 9, 2013 at 5:55 PM

    Have to stay live and tackle. Ravens did it.

  11. ajw21 - Feb 9, 2013 at 8:15 PM

    For those curious about the numbers game: We have 5 spots for 5th year players + Slaughter(if he wins his appeal.
    Go Irish!

  12. ajw21 - Feb 9, 2013 at 8:17 PM

    Vanderoes plays mulitple positions I think. I heard pitcher, 3rd and another position but can’t remember what. I heard he has a 93rd mph fastball.
    Go Irish!

    • irishpuma - Feb 10, 2013 at 2:53 AM

      which means its like 88mph if you no ball players….but 33ks in 15 innings would confirm he brings some cheddar.

    • idratherbeinsouthbend - Feb 11, 2013 at 2:21 AM

      at the HS level, 88 and 93 are pretty much the same pitch. And the kids at the bottom of the order wonder if they can get out of the way if that ball sails inside….they’ve typically struck out before they even step into the batters box.

      • nudeman - Feb 11, 2013 at 2:32 PM

        I think your point is that anything over 85-ish is overpowering for half the order or more. Hard to disagree with that. If a kid can’t hit an 85 MPH fastball, he sure isn’t going to touch (or even see) a 93 mph fastball.

        Curious – as a HS coach how many different pitchers do you see each year who throw harder than 85? How many are legitimately in the 90s?

      • idratherbeinsouthbend - Feb 13, 2013 at 11:20 AM


        We’ll see one or two over 85 during the regular season and then a couple more in post season play. Over 90 is probably 1 every 4-5 years.

        Bear in mind that I coach in the largest class in the state, but I live in South Dakota. Our most prestigious baseball alumni include Mark Ellis and Terry Francona, both quality ball players, but clearly not the cream of the crop. But, we’ll always have Sparky Anderson to fall back on :)

  13. dutch31 - Feb 10, 2013 at 8:49 AM

    Stolen bases could have been defensive indifference! If he was full speed, don’t think Short Stop wants to take the throw!!!

    Puma, Pass might have been a bad choice of words… But after watching a lot of plays where Diaco put them in a good position to get off the field and they not only didn’t tackle, but barely impeded the runners progress.

    So I will say slightly less annoyed

    Go Irish!!

    • idratherbeinsouthbend - Feb 11, 2013 at 2:18 AM

      Stolen bases and defensive indifferences are not the same thing. So, if he had stolen bases, they weren’t defensive indifferences.

      That being said, the loose nature with which statistics are kept at the high school level could mean that some sophomore sitting on the bench “keeping the book” mistakenly scored a defensive indifference as a stolen base.

      I know that my players would have scored a DI as a stolen base.

    • bernhtp - Feb 11, 2013 at 10:52 AM

      While a SS might try to tag Eddie with some significant trepidation, it is nothing compared to a catcher protecting the plate. I wonder how many of the thefts were of home. Labeling it defensive indifference is a huge understatement in this case.

      Speaking of which, baseball statistics have always had this odd and subjective culture/context of “what would have happened in a (near) perfect world.” Thus, for batting average, baseball scores a strikeout the same as getting on base via screaming grounder to third that gets bobbled. Imagine if football stats were scored the same, e.g., a RB’s yards after a missed tackle don’t count. It would be bizarre, but we accept it in baseball.

  14. dutch31 - Feb 11, 2013 at 10:59 AM

    By the way, I was kidding as to defensive indifference. Lets hope EV and Jarron Jones can contribute next year!!

    Also I didn’t know the Pope could resign, must be developing a football coaching mentality at the Vatican.

    Go Irish

    • oldestguard - Feb 11, 2013 at 1:05 PM

      If he shows up next year, refreshed and ready to recruit, at the head Lutheran Church in Munich – then you’ve got a College Football mentality pervading the Spiritual realm.

      • dbldmr - Feb 11, 2013 at 2:39 PM

        And if he gets Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to commit then they look like they could go all the way, although I’m not sure what position he would occupy.

  15. ajw21 - Feb 11, 2013 at 6:01 PM

    When I played varsity baseball for 4 years I think we played against maybe 1-2 pitchers a year around the 85 mph range but only 2 in all 4 years who threw over 90. If you played baseball, you notice the difference. Most of the pitchers threw between 70-80 but this was 10 years ago. This was in NE and not a hotbed for baseball talent or any athletic talent for that matter.
    Go Irish!

  16. larrydavid7000 - Feb 17, 2013 at 12:45 PM

    Roll Tide.

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