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Back to the future for Notre Dame’s recruiting

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Amid all the current chaos and uncertainty, Notre Dame may be able to rely on familiar patterns in one realm, recruiting. If this Irish coaching staff was a new one, on the job for only one or two years, then the lack of clarity about anything whatsoever would extend to chasing the next stars on the roster. To some degree, it still does for Notre Dame, but Irish head coach Brian Kelly and recruiting coordinator Brian Polian are also both used to not getting up to speed on the next class until well into the spring.

That’s how it used to be for everyone.

The coronavirus pandemic led to Notre Dame canceling what was to be a vital on-campus recruiting event this weekend, one rife with consensus four-star prospects. Getting both that quantity and that quality of recruits on campus in March would have been seen as further progress toward cracking the top-five in recruiting rankings and led to more misguided praise of Kelly’s supposed renewed focus on recruiting.

Misguided in that Kelly has said his recruiting energies have not drastically improved in 2020, despite some spin that way; they have simply redirected as newly-applicable.

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“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 said in early February. “… 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.”

This all resulted from the early signing period first instituted more than halfway through the 2018 recruiting cycle. It took until the 2019 cycle for the Irish, and everyone else in the NCAA, to host earlier official visits. By the freshly-concluded 2020 cycle, that timing had been figured out and Notre Dame was able to spend more time, earlier time, on scouting the next wave. Thus, Kelly knew who to target out of the gate these last few months.

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This extended delay — the NCAA implemented a dead period through April 15 at the earliest, a maneuver that essentially halts all recruiting travel in either direction but allows for phone contact — will turn this cycle into one very similar to 2018’s.

That was the first winter with an early signing period, but high school juniors were not yet allowed to take official visits in the spring.

The Irish signed 21 recruits that December, adding six more in February, including three de-commitments from elsewhere (offensive lineman Luke Jones — Arkansas; cornerback DJ Brown — Virginia; running back C’Bo Flemister — Georgia Tech). By that pattern, Notre Dame should still sign much of its 2021 class in this calendar year, especially with seven current commitments led by consensus four-star quarterback Tyler Buchner (Helix High School; San Diego). UPDATE: Rather, with a Friday afternoon de-commitment, make that six.

That early set of signings will undoubtedly be Kelly’s preference.

“This is two years in a row now that this quote-unquote early signing day — this is the signing day for us, so I don’t know why we continue to call it an early signing day,” he said in December. “It is the signing day and it will be moving forward.”

But if travel is restricted well past April 15, a rather safe assumption, then the general recruiting calendar will be pushed further back, as well. For Notre Dame, in particular, that will make the fall a busy time.

It is difficult to get to South Bend, but both the school and the players want to before any commitment is accepted. Right now, it is more difficult than ever, but even if the world finds a more operational means of combating the spread of the novel coronavirus, the idea of jet setting around will take some time to become a comfortable one again.

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By no means will the Irish strike out entirely. It will just be more difficult.

That was long the norm, bunching up official visits from the Saturday morning of the Stanford game (scheduled for Oct. 10) or the Clemson tilt (Nov. 7) to the following Sunday evening. Some high schoolers would play their games Friday night and catch a redeye to Notre Dame Stadium. The trips became so hassled, recruiting events like this weekend’s became the preferable moments of recruitments.

Without a chance to focus on them as juniors, Polian will have to recall his closing abilities from as far back as 2017 to pursue these players in-person once they have begun their senior years. If this follows the timeline of the class of 2018, he and Kelly will still sign most of the class in December. If things progress slower than that, well, Polian and Kelly recruited like that for many, many years in the past. Doing so once more in the future should be old hand.

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