Does the way which Notre Dame competes in Recruiting represent a problem for the Fighting Irish football program?
With Arizona four-star Wide Receiver Davonte Neal committing to play college football at Notre Dame next year, Notre Dame has dodged a bullet from signing day when Deontay Greenberry flipped his commitment away from Notre Dame to Houston, creating a major offensive void in the Irish’s previously impressive recruiting haul. While Neal isn’t as highly regarded as Greenberry was by recruitniks, his signature makes him the highest rated wide receiver in the Irish’s 2012 recruiting class.
That’s good. Though the way Neal went about his commitment today doesn’t make it entirely clear that he’s doing what he thought would be best for him:
Reportedly, there is an ongoing “power struggle” over the decision. The player apparently wants to stay near home and play for the Wildcats, while the father wants his son to play for the Irish.
Simply put, the entire Neal family should be embarrassed over and ashamed of what took place late Tuesday morning at the receiver’s former elementary school.
And this incident reminds me a little bit of this from a month ago:
“From what I have been told, [QB Gunner Kiel] is no longer coming to LSU,” recruiting expert Michael Scarborough of Rivals.com told the Times. “He wants to come to LSU, but his mother (Aleta Kiel) got very emotional Monday and did not want her son to leave. He plans to enroll in classes at Notre Dame on Tuesday.”
Scarborough went on to add that “[w]hat has been relayed to me is that he wants to come to LSU, but his parents want him at Notre Dame because it is closer to home.”
Sure, the takeaway here is that Brian Kelly is managing to compete with the big dogs in college recruiting using tactics that going back to the very beginning of his tenure at Notre Dame, has allowed him to routinely land 4 and 5 star recruits without enjoying the advantages of being an annual national championship contender and also without Notre Dame being the pro-football factory it once was. And part of the reason Kelly is the head coach at Notre Dame is so that he can modernize the Notre Dame football program and re-brand it as a modern football powerhouse, instead of the relic it’s detractors claim it to be.
It would be an issue if Notre Dame falls down the recruiting rankings because they can’t get the elite players to sign. But the problem preceding Kelly’s administration wasn’t that they weren’t winning on signing day.
Notre Dame Rivals.com Recruiting Rankings 2002-2012
2012 – #22
2011 – #10
2010* – #14
2009 – #21
2008 – #2
2007 – #8
2006 – #8
2005* – #40
2004 – #32
2003 – #12
2002 – #24
Median recruiting ranking, by coach
Tyrone Willingham – 24th
Charlie Weis – 8th
Brian Kelly – 14th
Separated by coach, you can kind of see why there was reason to be concerned over the downward trend in recruiting under Ty Willingham, but after Charlie Weis put the Irish back in the BCS in his first two seasons, you can certainly see how recruiting simply hasn’t been an issue for the fighting Irish. Since 2006, their mean ranking according to rivals is 12th, which is much higher than the average finish in the AP poll for Notre Dame over that timeframe. Is is that the classes are overrated?
To a degree, sure, when you don’t win, anything that indicated future success is overrated. But looking at Charlie Weis’ best three classes, most of the big name prospects panned out. This is the second rated recruiting class according to Rivals in 2008. Braxston Cave and Kapron Lewis-Moore are slotted as excellent fifth year seniors, who will combine to start 7 seasons for the fighting Irish, although both were injured and missed the end of last season. Ethan Johnson was a three year starter. Of course, Kyle Rudolph and Michael Floyd are going to be very significant NFL players over the next few years. Rudolph profiles as one of the best in-line tight ends in football. Floyd is projected to go in the first round of this draft. Trevor Robinson has started for the Irish since 2009. Darius Fleming could go on the second day of the upcoming NFL draft. John Goodman and Jonas Gray were never starters, but bloomed late to contribute to Brian Kelly’s offense. Robert Blanton was a four year starter. If this class underachieved as the second best recruiting class as ranked by Rivals, it’s because Dayne Crist only provided ND with one injury-truncated season as a starter.
Both the 2006 and 2007 classes ranked and to list players who are in the NFL currently from those recruiting classes: Patriots DB Sergio Brown, Saints G Eric Olsen, 49ers TE Konrad Reuland, Cardinals G Chris Stewart, Dolphins TE Will Yeatman, Falcons CB Darrin Walls, Bills OL Sam Young, Bears RB Armando Allen, Browns LB Brian Smith, Seahawks WR Golden Tate, 49ers DT Ian Williams, and soon to be free agent Jimmy Clausen. How did those recruiting classes result in Charlie Weis getting fired?
Unlike the 2008 class, there were some pretty significant recruiting busts and painful transfers. Both Yeatman and Reuland transferred after they lost playing time to Rudolph. Allen started for four years at RB, but didn’t break out until Kelly came in. Darrin Walls was off the roster in 2008, perhaps when he was needed the most. And the five stars from those classes really didn’t pan out. Sam Young did not play like the best OL recruit of the last decade. James Aldridge was a five star RB out of nearby Crown Point, IN, and finished his career as a fullback on a team that needed someone to stop its spiral. And of course, Clausen didn’t stay long enough to achieve college immortality, instead giving way to another 5-star QB who never played like one (Dayne Crist).
But if it seems unfair to put the failures on an entire program on a couple of highly rated high school kids just to justify a theory about the Irish being unable to recruit elite athletes, it is only because it is unfair. It is very clear that the issues for the Notre Dame football program run deeper than recruiting. Perhaps a deeper examination of how Notre Dame is getting their recruits will show why they are struggling to consistently win with them.
Brian Kelly’s early success at Notre Dame was driven by the overachievement of Weis’ final recruiting class. That 2009 class was perhaps Weis’ best, even though it wasn’t as highly rated as the others. And over two years, Kelly changed the coaching staff and put elite defensive talent on that side of the ball, fixing the single biggest problem of the Weis era, a leaky defense.
It is in spite of the great treasure trove of offensive talent Kelly stepped into that the Notre Dame offense hasn’t been all that good under Brian Kelly. The quarterback play has been largely abysmal. The rushing attack consistently good, though if the backs had been able to contribute even a little bit in the passing game, that would take pressure off the overmatched quarterbacks. TE Tyler Eifert has developed great under Kelly and even considered leaving for the NFL draft this year with two years of eligibility remaining. The offensive line has gone from a highly recruited weakness to an overall strength with lesser recruits. But the receivers have been a largely frustrating group despite consistently high recruiting results. Combined with the quarterback play, Notre Dame’s potentially explosive passing attack has never been particularly strong.
Two or three results, like those seen in the cases of Kiel, Greenberry, and now Neal is not necessarily indicative of a bigger problem, but all three mean comprise the future of the passing attack that has held the Fighting Irish back to date. And it will be interesting to watch over the next few years: are the players who Notre Dame is signing going to help them compete on a national level, or are they specifically competing for ‘overrated’ high school recruits that SEC and Big XII schools are focusing elsewhere on. Is it problematic that the talent that the Irish are relying on for the future are considering Houston and Arizona, and decommitting from LSU en route to Notre Dame?
It’s probably not a big deal so long as ND is able to win those recruiting battles. It’s just something worth keeping an eye on if Brian Kelly’s recruiting classes don’t lead to more consistent winning.