Things We Learned: Notre Dame lost its greatest recruiting strength, but still signed a Playoff-caliber class

Tyler Buchner
rivals.com
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Despite the pandemic robbing Notre Dame of its greatest recruiting strength, the Irish put together a complete recruiting class. Even after losing its defensive coordinator to the Vanderbilt head coaching gig just 48 hours before the primary (early) signing period began, Notre Dame kept its class intact.

With a heralded dual-threat quarterback and a trio of four-star receivers, with a five-star offensive tackle and a four-star defensive tackle wide as a “Volkswagen,” to use Irish recruiting coordinator Brian Polian’s description, and with a bevy of raw defensive prospects, Notre Dame hauled in the No. 10 recruiting class in the country, per rivals.com, capped off by consensus three-star running back Logan Diggs’ as the 27th and final signature, the largest class Brian Kelly has ever brought to South Bend in 12 years.

“The coaches haven’t been on the road since January,” Kelly said during December’s signing period, a fact that remains true now and for the foreseeable future. “So losing a spring evaluation period and the contact period made it very difficult, and not getting [recruits] on campus. When you have a national footprint, it’s a challenge, but I really am proud of our coaches, how they adjusted and overcame these very unique circumstances. I thought we developed a great plan for telling our story digitally.”

The crux of that digital pitch came to be known as the Excellence Presentation, delivered over Zoom countless times by the Irish coaching staff. Polian estimated his personal tally at 80 in mid-December, all given from his kitchen table.

Some of those aspects will remain moving forward, some will not. As with all things during the coronavirus pandemic, the forced changes revealed some institutional inefficiencies to be improved upon. More than dwelling on past recruiting rankings, maintaining an acceptable status quo while improvising in 2020 bodes favorably for the future.

Yes, a recruiting class ranking No. 10 should be considered acceptable. Per Polian, Notre Dame gauged it put together an average ranking of No. 10 across the preceding five years. Those classes led to two Playoff berths and a 43-8 record across the last four seasons.

“We are not yet where we ultimately want to be, which is a national champion,” Polian said Wednesday. “But as we look back and take stock and reflect, we are really proud of a lot of things that we’ve done and a lot of things that these young men have accomplished in their time with us on campus. …

“We feel like we’re recruiting at a good clip. We can always be better, but we are recruiting at a good clip. Then under coach Kelly’s leadership, our staff, our development within the program is translating to wins on the field.”

Self-congratulatory? Absolutely. Inaccurate? Not at all.

A recruiting class containing seven of the top-150 players should be considered acceptable, particularly when that collection encompasses the make-or-break positions of college football in 2021. Quarterbacks (Tyler Buchner, No. 114), offensive linemen (tackle Blake Fisher, No. 25; guard Rocco Spindler, No. 67) and defensive tackles (Gabriel Rubio, No. 109) set a program’s floor while receivers (Lorenzo Styles, No. 55; Deion Colzie, No. 144) and running backs (Audric Estime, No. 132) set its ceiling.

To piece together that class in a year when not a single signee had officially visited Notre Dame beforehand is not only impressive but also encouraging moving forward.

Recruiting will return to in-person visits in high schools and on campus, to the summer camp circuit as well as on-campus workouts, to dinners with parents and tours of the football facilities. But it will not return to those alone.

Kelly would prefer Zoom replace some of the text message etiquette currently used to highlight recruiting passion.

“We want them on campus. Certainly, we want that ability to have them on campus,” Kelly said in December. “But I have felt so much better in this recruiting process because I can talk to the parents more. I can talk to the recruits more through Zoom than at any other time in my recruiting process.”

If the Irish coaching staff can combine its best asset that was lost in the pandemic, the unique atmosphere of Notre Dame on a game day, with the audible it grew into during the pandemic, the more authentic nature of communicating via Zoom compared to incessant and inane texts, then Kelly’s dreams of a better recruiting ranking may become reality.

“I don’t think we want to put a ceiling on it,” he said. “Where my mindset has changed is I don’t want to put a ceiling on where we should be in the rankings. … From a recruiting standpoint, we know who we want to be and we know who fits here. If that puts us at an artificial ceiling, then so be it., but we shouldn’t create one on our own and maybe I slipped in creating an artificial ceiling where there shouldn’t have been one.”

That spoken artificial ceiling came on 2017’s Signing Day, when Kelly placed the Irish recruiting range between No. 5 and No. 15. Saying so publicly was indeed a slip, but his last 14 months of suggesting Notre Dame could break into that top 5 does not mean anything more substantial, either.

The pandemic meant the class of 2021 was never going to be a valid litmus test of that corrected ambition, but the class of 2022 will most likely fall within that range all the same.

Associate head coach and defensive line coach Mike Elston estimated the Irish look at the rankings’ top 100 and “less than half are guys that we can target and go after for one reason or another.” That right there is not an artificial ceiling, but a very real one.

And it does not factor in the geographic disadvantage forever felt in northern Indiana, with fewer top-tier prospects within a six-hour drive than most football powers. Notre Dame counters that disadvantage by casting a nationwide net, and it attempts to the “less than half” ceiling by focusing on particular prospects earlier, but then again, those are strategies every program can employ.

The ceiling exists, daydreams and public relations aside. Perhaps the ceiling can be met by new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s glee that at Notre Dame, “you can get every player in the country to answer your phone call,” but the ceiling exists all the same. If one year flashes a No. 1 recruiting class, consider that the exception to prove the rule.

Fortunately, the rankings in February are not what is remembered.

“Nobody really knows on signing day if you have a top-10 class or a top-5 class or a top-3 class until you see the fruition on the football field,” Elston said. “Let’s face it. You’re going to put them through a developmental process within your program and then you’re going to find out what kind of class you signed.”

Notre Dame took five years of classes equivalent to a No. 10 ranking and turned them into multiple top-5 finishes and two Playoff appearances. Adding another class at No. 10 should only further that trend.