Of course Irish coach Brian Kelly would spend his National Signing Day press conference praising the 21 signees Notre Dame reeled in. (Those lauding snippets should float around here later today.) Kelly thanking his coaching staff, including five new assistant coaches, for its diligent recruiting efforts should not surprise anyone, either. In a bit of a departure from the annual prototypical script, however, Kelly heaped acknowledgement upon director of athletics Jack Swarbrick, as well.
“Every weekend, Jack Swarbirck … met with our recruits. That’s unusual,” Kelly said Wednesday afternoon. “I don’t think that happens everywhere that your athletic director makes himself available to meet with recruits.
Following a disappointing 4-8 season and vocal dismay from fans and alumni, Swarbrick’s role was as much about advocating for Notre Dame as it was about endorsing Kelly and his future.
“In a lot of instances, he had to be there to support our program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”
More directly, Swarbrick answered the questions recruits had but neither Kelly nor his staff could sufficiently answer.
“With the kind of season we had, the first question out of everybody, ‘How long is coach Kelly here? Is this his last year? What kind of year does he have to have?’” Kelly pointedly elaborated. “[Swarbrick] assured them there’s no problems with the football program. This is a program this on solid ground.”
Core 15 in “a difficult season”
Returning to the expected National Signing Day dialogue, Kelly expressed appreciation for the core of the Irish class of 2017—Fifteen recruits who stuck by Notre Dame despite the disappointing 2016 season and aggressive negative recruiting from other schools. The six exceptions include three National Signing Day commitments (defensive back Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and defensive linemen Kofi Wardlow and Myron Tagovailo-Amosa) and three commitments from the week prior to the first Wednesday in February (safety Jordan Genmark Heath, receiver Jafar Armstrong and kicker Jonathan Doerer).
Those 15 did not waver despite other recruits’ de-commitments, allowing Kelly & Co. to focus on strengthening the class, rather than only maintaining it.
“We couldn’t be where we are today unless we had 15 student-athletes that were committed to Notre Dame from the start to the finish,” Kelly said. “Really, during a very difficult season, this group of 15 had to endure the things that would occur out there in recruiting during a very difficult season: Other schools reminding them about a very difficult season that we had.”
Kudos to Elston
Those 15 remaining loyal granted Kelly a chance to restock a coaching staff with five new assistants—for these purposes, let’s discount new quarterbacks coach Thomas Rees, as he is technically a graduate assistant yet and, thus, was not personally involved in recruiting. While Kelly tackled that, defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Mike Elston focused on staying in touch with the core 15. Better safe than sorry, after all.
“During this whole time, [Elston] was able to keep it together, relative to we were short on numbers in staff,” Kelly said. “He was calling a lot of those recruits that weren’t necessarily his geographically or by position and really keeping that 15 together so that we could get the staff back and get them back out on the road.
“He did a tremendous job of keeping that group together.”
Coaches AND Recruiters
With Elston in touch with the recruits, Kelly focused on the needed hires. More than any other time, filling the vacancies in January underscores the dueling needs of strong recruiters and talented player developers. Kelly said he did not make one aspect a priority compared to the other, instead focusing on both.
“I looked at everything,” he said. “They had to have all of those qualities. We were given the opportunity to go out and find the very best.”
Kelly implied further efforts from Swarbrick and University administration, adding there was not a distinct monetary cap on the five (eight if including Rees and two strength and conditioning additions) hires.
Elko’s Impetus to Late Additions
One new hire in particular altered some recruiting focus. New defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s focus brought the four late defensive commitments renewed and increased advances from Notre Dame, per Kelly.
“The defensive players, they were a better fit into the scheme,” Kelly said. “It was much more about being a better fit with a new defensive coordinator.”
Armstrong did not commit last week due to a defensive shift. Kelly said the receiver was long on Notre Dame’s radar, but there was only necessarily space for him in the class when another de-committed. (Kelly was presumably referencing Jordan Pouncey, who signed with Texas on Wednesday.)
“[Armstrong] was on our radar from day one… When we had somebody de-commit, he was the first guy we went after,” Kelly said. “We could have gone either way on that. Jafar was somebody we wanted from the very beginning. We just, from a numbers game, weren’t going to be able to take two.
“That was an easy one for us to get back into.”