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‘Anywhere from 5 to 15’

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Five of Notre Dame’s nine current assistant coaches had only weeks to recruit this cycle. Factor in quarterbacks coach Thomas Rees’s pending promotion from graduate assistant to assistant coach and that makes six new Irish coaches chasing recruits for a full year by the time National Signing Day 2018 rolls around. That is Feb. 7, 2018, for those of you already bypassing an entire football season.

It was with this increased time—and theoretically the chance for stronger relationships with fickle high school personalities—in mind a reporter asked Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly about a potential shift in recruiting strategy. Kelly’s response began by focusing on 15 of the 21 recruits the Irish had signed earlier that day. Quickly, though, Kelly pivoted to discussing recruiting rankings.

“Since I’ve been here, if you look at the average rankings, we’re anywhere from 5 to 15,” he said Wednesday. “We’re going to fall somewhere in that range because there’s a line there we can’t get over based upon what our distinctions are here. That line is going to keep us between 5 and 15.

“We know where we’re going to fall. We’re going to continue to recruit the right kind of kids here.”

Kelly then returned to the line of questioning, regarding the value of long-term relationships in recruiting compared to making offers late in the cycle. Versions of the latter strategy bolstered Notre Dame’s class this year, but it innately comes with a high risk :: reward ratio.

His comments regarding “anywhere from 5 to 15” could be considered as an attempt to temper future expectations. More likely, Kelly was acknowledging realities he has come to know intimately after seven full recruiting cycles as the head of Irish program (and an eighth abridged cycle when he had only 55 days to recruit between accepting the job and National Signing Day in 2010).

Are those comments accurate? In Kelly’s time, largely.

For this exercise, let’s rely on the subsidiary of an NBC Sports partner: rivals.com. Yes, some recruiting services rank Notre Dame higher some years than other services do. The same goes for individual recruits. Over an eight-year stretch, that should trend toward evening out. If nothing else, this allows for something of a standard of comparison.

2012: No. 20
In Kelly’s time, Notre Dame has fallen below that range only once, the class of 2012. Rivals ranked that class of 17 recruits No. 20 in the country. Part of that low ranking undoubtedly ties to the size of the class, the smallest of Kelly’s tenure, as Rivals focuses its rankings on a class’s top 20 commitments. (This year’s 21 is the next smallest.)

Five-star quarterback Gunner Kiel and four-star defensive back Tee Shepard never took a snap for the Irish, and four-star athlete DaVonte’ Neal transferred after his freshman season. Neal played in 13 games, finishing with one rush for seven yards, one reception for a loss of five and 21 punt returns for a total of 46 yards.

Removing those players from that class would have dropped Notre Dame to somewhere around No. 32 in the rankings*. This revisionist history, however, fails to account for the exceeded expectations of:
– Four-star offensive lineman, first-round draft pick and current NFL starter Ronnie Stanley
– Four-star defensive lineman and current Jacksonville Jaguar Sheldon Day
– Three-star defensive lineman and current New York Giant Romeo Okwara
– Three-star defensive back, eventual Notre Dame running back and current Seattle Seahawk C.J. Prosise
– Four-star defensive lineman Jarron Jones
– Three-star receiver and current Dallas Cowboy Chris Brown

A thorough retroactive recruiting rankings would also need to include these disappointments and surprises at other schools.

2013: No. 3
The Irish rode the momentum of appearing in the BCS National Championship Game following an undefeated regular season to the peak of Kelly’s recruiting in South Bend. Four five-star recruits highlighted the 24 signees, though defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes never made it to Notre Dame Stadium. Even factoring in Vanderdoes’s departure, the Irish class would have ranked fourth according to rivals, with Florida advancing a position by a slim margin.

Again, if accounting for an abrupt, premature departure, one must look at the other end of the spectrum and acknowledge those who possibly outperformed recruiting expectations:
– Four-star defensive lineman Isaac Rochell
– Four-star running back Tarean Folston
– Four star athlete, eventual Notre Dame linebacker James Onwualu
– Four-star offensive lineman and 2017 captain Mike McGlinchey

Only Eight Average Better
Over Kelly’s eight years signing recruits at Notre Dame, only eight schools have averaged a better finish than his 11.875, per rivals.com. The list includes five SEC programs, alongside traditional powers Florida State, USC and Ohio State.

Alabama: 1.625 (with six No. 1 finishes)
Florida State: 5.25
USC: 6.875 (with one No. 1 finish)
LSU: 7.375
Ohio State: 7.5
Auburn: 8.625
Georgia: 9
Florida: 9.375

Perhaps Kelly’s Signing Day range projections do not sit well with some. They do appear to be consistent with results, though.

*Rivals changed its recruiting points formula heading into the class of 2013. The previous formula was more obscure than the current version, thus this altered ranking is only an estimate.