Aside from a practice injury to Notre Dame’s No. 3 receiver, a dramatic conclusion to the New Mexico Bowl or an upset in the Camellia Bowl, this has always been a mundane week in the college football calendar. The uncreatively-named Frisco Bowl and the coin-flip of a Potato Bowl provide holiday distractions or background noise while wrapping gifts, but other than that, this has traditionally been a week of no consequence.
In fact, the week before Christmas may supplant the first week of February as the most-hyped week each year. If not most-hyped, then it will certainly be the most-discussed sequence of events taking place off the gridiron. The three-day early signing period’s unprecedented nature makes it largely unpredictable. That will obviously not be as much the case in years to come, but for the next few days, uncertainty becomes the new norm.
For the Irish, some uneasiness dissipated Sunday evening when recent commit rivals.com three-star tight end Tommy Tremble (Wesleyan High School; Norcross, Ga.) declared he will sign his national letter of intent the first day of the period, this Wednesday.
Tremble had initially suggested he would still wait until the traditional February date to make his commitment official and binding. It would seem Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s urging convinced Tremble’s mind to change, undoubtedly much to Michigan’s chagrin, the runner-up in Tremble’s recruitment thus far.
“From our perspective, [the early signing period] has allowed us to really identify those that want to be here at Notre Dame and make that decision,” Kelly said Saturday. “All the work that we did leading up to the 20th, those guys that made commitments to Notre Dame are going to follow through with that in December.”
To Kelly, not signing in this Wednesday-to-Friday window is an indication a player is not genuinely committed to the Irish.
“If our players are committed, they’ll sign in December,” he summed it up Dec. 4. “If they’re not committed, they won’t.”
That sets the bar for relative success this week for Notre Dame at 20 commitments, the number currently pledged. It is possible that number ticks upward by another couple. Consensus four-star receiver Braden Lenzy (Tigard H.S.; Portland, Ore.) has said he will make his decision Friday evening. If that name sounds familiar to Irish fans, Lenzy originally committed to Notre Dame only to reopen his recruitment in June, shortly thereafter committing to Oregon. When the Ducks underwent a coaching change in the last few weeks, Lenzy once again took to exploring his options, narrowing them to the Irish, Oregon and UCLA.
Consensus four-star safety Julius Irvin (Servite; Anaheim, Calif.) could possibly announce a commitment this week, as well, with Notre Dame, USC and Washington his frontrunners.
Landing either Lenzy or Irvin would be a coup for the Irish, but securing the signatures of the 20 committed right now is the appropriate priority. Doing so will mark the week as having met the desired standard. Anything less than those 20 will be the equivalent of a recruit de-committing but in a much more dramatic fashion.
“For me to stand here and say [the early signing period] is great, but then 10 guys don’t sign, well then obviously it wouldn’t be great to have that date,” Kelly said. “But I’m very confident with all the work we’ve done, that [Dec. 20] is going to be a really good day for Notre Dame football.”
Kelly will announce the class Wednesday at 11 a.m. ET in similar fashion to the usual February protocol.
— The early signing period has increased the December job requirements on Kelly, his coaching staff and coaches all across the country. Some might not like that. (Cough, Nick Saban, cough.) There will be claims the need to emphasize recruiting even more than usual these last few weeks took away from bowl preparations. Kelly, for example, left campus Friday at 3 p.m. to make a recruiting stop and returned to campus at 3 a.m. That trip likely would not have occurred until January if not for this new calendar.
The bowl claims will be anecdotal and unquantifiable, at best.
The biggest perk Kelly sees evolving from the early signing period ties to the future. Once 20 players sign letters of intent this week, the Irish staff will not need to worry about them in January. Instead, the coaches can prioritize in the new year while looking ahead to next December.
“All the work we did leading up to it to get these guys signed on the 20th and committed to Notre Dame is going to leave us with the opportunity to start looking for just a few players that need to be signed in February,” he said. “Then, moving ahead in the calendar to some [class of 2019 prospects].”
— As for those “just a few players” yet to sign in February, snagging about three would fit the usual Irish cycle. Admittedly, comparing previous years is a flawed exercise as this new aspect has sped up some recruitments, but previous years are also the only data available. Recruits secured after this time of year have typically been the highest of profiles or filling holes in the roster.
In signing the heralded class of 2013, Notre Dame had 20 of an eventual 23 prospects committed before Dec. 20, 2012. The three remaining were running back Tarean Folston, safety Max Redfield and tight end Durham Smythe.
The class of 2014 also had 20 of 23 recruits committed at this point in the calendar with linebacker Nyles Morgan coming next. Then, to fill a positional need, new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder scrambled to sign defensive tackles Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah.
In building the class of 2015, the Irish snagged tight end Alizé Mack, running back Dexter Williams and receiver Equanimeous St. Brown after Dec. 20, all highly-sought after talents.
In the class of 2016, only cornerback Troy Pride, receiver Javon McKinley and linebacker Jonathan Jones joined this late in the process.
With the overhaul in Kelly’s coaching staff, last year’s class shifted the most with only weeks left in the cycle. Fifteen of the eventual 21 commits were pledged by Dec. 20. The staff finished fast and strong by collecting safety Jordan Genmark-Heath, receiver Jafar Armstrong, kicker Jonathan Doerer, defensive end Kofi Wardlow, defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and safety Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah.
— By no means was the early signing period a reason to avoid a coaching change this year if one was necessary, but avoiding such instability holds even more weight this offseason due to the unknown nature of this early signing period. Exhibit A: Lenzy and Oregon.
There is a flip side to that, though, for those schools clearly set on a change, such as UCLA. Again, using Lenzy as the example at hand, the Bruins only actively reentered the running in his recruitment when Chip Kelly was named the head coach. By firing Jim Mora with a week left in the regular season, UCLA got ahead of the usual coaching carousel by that margin, secured Kelly and gave him some additional time to put the full-court press on high school seniors as necessary.