Brian Kelly wants you to know he’s not working harder in recruiting. That narrative has developed the last few months with every report of the Notre Dame head coach visiting a junior’s high school, with every commitment in the 2021 cycle, with the never-ending conversation about recruiting distracting many from actual football.
Never mind the fact that Kelly cannot actually meet with high school juniors currently or that nine commitments (and counting) in the class is more a reflection of the Early Signing Period’s acceleration of the entire process; as Kelly works his way around the country, he is making the same number of visits this time of year that he always has, they just have a different purpose these days.
“We’d always have to go around the country and quote-unquote reaffirm their commitment,” Kelly said on a Notre Dame-produced podcast Wednesday, a National Signing Day in name only for the Irish. “By having this early signing day, we don’t have to worry about weather reports.”
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The weather reports quip was in reference to the storied recruitment of former Irish defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, a saga that included an official visit to Dartmouth for the Louisiana native. The story has it a nearby program spent the winter months before Tillery’s signing sending him the South Bend, Ind., weather report every day.
“By having a December signing day, it allows us to get all those committed that were always committed, signed,” Kelly said. “What had happened in years past was even though they were committed, they were being picked at all the way up to February. … This early signing day takes away all of that picking at your recruits, and then subsequently allows me to work on the next year.”
Considering prospect evaluations begin gaining steam when those players are sophomores, it took a few years for the early signing period to be fully integrated into the recruiting process. At this point in the class of 2018 — the first year of the earlier date, though it was only implemented well into the cycle — Notre Dame landed its ninth commitment in late March and its 10th in June. The 2019 and 2020 cycles both reached those landmarks in May.
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The Irish getting off to this fast start in the class of 2021 is not an indication of improved recruiting as much as it is the reality of the new timetable, one that allows Kelly to already focus on both 2021 prospects and 2022.
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“There seems to be this narrative out there that I’m working harder this year,” Kelly said. “I’m working at the same pace that I’ve always been working. It’s just that I’m touching base with those that are communicating more with me being in their presence than ever before, because they’re in the midst of being recruited, whereas all those other guys were committed. Nobody cared about them anymore, they were already committed.
“So it looked like Kelly’s not doing anything, he’s just touching base with all the kids he has committed, which you need to because you can’t afford to lose them. Now I’m the hardest working head coach ever at Notre Dame, I’m grinding, but if you look at my schedule, it’s probably the same or less than it’s ever been in years past.”
Kelly did not inherently offer anything revelatory in the first half of the podcast, but the interview does provide a basic framework of the recruiting calendar and process.
Irish recruiting coordinator Brian Polian filled the second half of the podcast with much of the same, though he also offered an insight into the unique needs considered with some recruits, ones not necessarily recognized from the outside. It is not always about on-field performance.
“When I was recruiting a punter last year, not only did I know we’d have to have somebody that had the physical ability to replace Tyler Newsome, I also knew we were going to have to have a freshman that was ready to play and could handle our schedule, our visibility, our stadium, our fans,” Polian said. “… Jay (Bramblett) was not the most physically gifted punter that I evaluated. He’s in the top-five, but he was by far the most mentally and emotionally prepared to perform at our place as a freshman. That’s part of the evaluation process.”
How did Polian diagnose that makeup, let alone accurately as 2019 proved?
“He was the pitcher on the baseball team,” Polian said. “He hit a home run in a big moment to advance them in the playoffs. He played quarterback in high school, he had the ball in his hand in crucial moments. I loved his demeanor, it was never too high, never too low, very even-keeled. All those intrinsic things you’re looking for, he checked all those boxes.”
Whether it is those intangibles or outright talent evaluating, Kelly and Polian are ahead of their usual pace, a natural result of a new calendar.