Specialization brings additional challenges to recruiting

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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 UND.com’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 UND.com. 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.