It’s been spoken as gospel that Notre Dame won’t have access to the best players in the country because they can’t get them through admissions. It seems to be a rallying cry for Irish fans looking for reasons why Notre Dame has suffered to compete these past two decades. It’s also been a common knock against Domers by rivals and foes, as if Notre Dame’s own admissions policy fuels the elitist sentiment that has turned the Irish into the country’s most polarizing college football program.
As flawed as analyzing recruiting rankings can be, a quick look at yesterday’s Rivals100 rankings for the class of 2012 shows that the Irish have a better shot at the top players in the country than you might think. After a quick but thorough analysis of reported scholarship offers that the Irish coaching staff have made to next year’s class, the Irish have verbal offers out to 68 of the top 100 players in the country — far more players than you’d expect.
First a few observations:
It doesn’t take much analysis to understand that Brian Kelly’s recruiting philosophy is much different than that of Charlie Weis or Ty Willingham. Part of that reflects a philosophical change in the recruiting process that’s happened as the timeline for elite players has shifted earlier and earlier and part of that is likely based on Kelly’s 20-plus years of experience in college football.
For as easy as it is to make jokes about Willingham’s priorities (namely his golf game), the Irish were never out front in recruiting players during his regime, and Willingham was far from active on the recruiting trail, often times sitting out the spring evaluation period when head coaches were allowed to visit schools. The story of Willingham spending hours in blue-chip recruit Brian Toal’s living room, only after he starred in the Army All-American Bowl and dismissed the Irish, epitomizes the criticism of Willingham in the eyes of the Irish faithful.
Weis’ recruiting problems were really only visible in hindsight. Effort was certainly not the issue, but rather Weis’ inability to build a roster cost him. (Though, to be fair, the roster given to him was in absolutely ravaged condition, thanks to Willingham’s inability to stock his last two recruiting classes with BCS caliber players.) Regardless, Weis’ lack of attention to player development contributed to ending his run as head coach, and his recruiting misses and lack of bodies in power positions were fatal flaws as well. Weis seemed to downplay the difficulties of recruiting to Notre Dame, “We’ll find the guys that can read and write,” but his strategy of emphasizing specific recruiting targets didn’t have nearly enough room for contingency plans. Eleventh hour defections, especially on the defensive side of the ball, really hurt the Irish roster. (Not to mention three defensive coordinators in Weis’ tenure.)
Meanwhile, Brian Kelly and his staff, led by Chuck Martin, have offered far more scholarships than any Irish coach in the modern recruiting era. And if a quick run-down of the Rivals100 says anything about the Irish efforts, they’re after just as many elite kids as any other major BCS program in the nation.
Of the top 10 recruits on Rivals’ board, the Irish have offered eight of them, with only DE Darius Hamilton of Don Bosco Prep in New Jersey and DT Ellis McCarthy, a USC lean from Monrovia, California without Notre Dame offers. Of the top 20, the Irish have offered 16 prospects, and 21 of the top 25.
If you’re looking for a pattern of players that stayed off the Irish board, that’s also pretty illuminating. Of the Top 50 players on Rivals’ list that Notre Dame didn’t offer, only three of them were offensive players, with drop-back quarterback Zach Kline, already a Cal commit, not gathering an Irish offer. Of the 33 players that the Irish didn’t offer, half of them are front-seven players and almost two-thirds of them are “power” players (adding in offensive linemen).
There’s no way good way to tell who was kept off the Irish board; whether they couldn’t get through admissions or whether they simply didn’t fit Notre Dame’s system. Defensive tackles, traditionally one of the hardest positions to recruit at Notre Dame, also must now profile into the 3-4 system, which could help explain why there are so many left off ND’s list. Same thing with outside linebackers — where a recruit like Joe Bolden, a Cincinnati kid from an Irish feeder school — didn’t get an offer because he didn’t physically profile into the Irish system, and has now committed to Michigan.
Either way, after analyzing the Rivals100 list, it’s clear that the Irish are certainly chasing some of the top players in the country. That doesn’t mean they’ll land most of them, but it does mean they’re at least able to play the game.
And for Irish fans constantly worried that Notre Dame is forced to battle with one hand tied behind its back, being in the game should be good enough.