SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A year ago, Notre Dame announced its 2015 recruiting class while cresting a wave of coaching changes. Three coaches departed for other jobs — quarterbacks coach Matt Lafleur, running backs coach Tony Alford and secondary coach Kerry Cooks — while outside linebackers coach Bob Elliott was shifted to an off-field analyst role.
Those departures didn’t have a negative effect on last year’s signing class, but easily could’ve hurt in the next cycle.
“At one point, I didn’t know if we’d be in the Top 25 with our recruiting class,” recruiting coordinator/linebackers coach Mike Elston, who took over both those roles a year ago, said.
Notre Dame officially signed 23 players on Wednesday, bringing in a recruiting class that ranks somewhere in the top 15 by the major four recruiting services (247, ESPN, Rivals, Scout). Adding five-star receiver Demetris Robertson — who is extending his recruitment beyond signing day — could push the Irish into the top 10 (as of Wednesday afternoon, only Rivals.com has the Irish in the top 10).
Kelly credited Elston, in just a year, with re-shaping those recruiting efforts. Notre Dame has tried new things and pushed the envelope in certain areas, like driving its equipment truck to Savannah, Ga., last week in an effort to pitch Robertson.
“In a very short period of time, he’s done a very admirable job but more importantly a very creative job,” Kelly, who also pointed to Notre Dame’s recruiting office staffers, said. “(It’s) one that has addressed the needs that we have within recruiting but also embraced what recruiting looks like right now moving forward.”
Notre Dame’s signing day breakdown is as follows, per Rivals.com’s ratings: One five-star player (LB/DE Daelin Hayes), 11 four-star players (DBs Donte’ Vaughn, Troy Pride, D.J. Jordan, Julian Love and Jalen Elliott, DEs Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem, WRs Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool and OLs Tommy Kraemer, Liam Eichenberg and Parker Boudreaux) nine three-star players (DBs Devin Studstill and Spencer Perry, linebackers Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones, running backs Tony Jones and Deon McIntosh, defensive end Ade Ogundeji, wide receiver Kevin Stepherson and quarterback Ian Book) and one two-star player (long snapper John Shannon).
The clear focus was on adding defensive backs to a unit that’s struggled with both production and depth over the last few years. Plenty of those seven players could see playing time right away, and Studstill and Perry enrolled early in the university last month.
What makes the success in landing so many defensive backs impressive is position coach Todd Lyght hadn’t recruited before he was hired last year. Lyght credited Notre Dame’s entire recruiting operation with making the transition a painless one for him.
“We got a great support staff,” Lyght said. “Coach Elston walked me through the process and how we go about our business here at the University of Notre Dame, which was really great. Autry Denson is one of our best recruiters that we have on the staff here, I really leaned on him. Guys in the staff room, Aaryn (Kearney), Jaz (Johnson) everybody, tremendous help. When you’re driving from school to school and you need some quick information, I could shoot them a text and get that information that I need back really, really fast to make my job easier.
Despite all the coaching staff turnover, Notre Dame didn’t have a single player go back on a verbal commitment, a testament to a sound recruiting strategy developed by Kelly & Co. over the last six years. Five players committed within two months of the new coaching staff being announced (Love, Shannon, Jones, Okwara, Eichenberg), and by Notre Dame’s annual Irish Invasion event in June, Kelly felt comfortable with the organization of the program’s recruiting efforts. Between Irish Invasion and the season-opening Texas game, eight players verbally committed (Stephenson, Elliott, Jamir Jones, Perry, Boudreaux, Claypool, Ogundeji, Book).
“This has been as good an organization as I’ve ever been a part of,” offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford, who former was Stanford and Boise State’s recruiting coordinator, said.
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Not all these recruits will pan out. Someone might not make it to campus by June. But top-15 classes are necessary precursors to playoff bids and championships, and Notre Dame has put together four consecutive recruiting crops that rate in that range.
Given the staff turnover a year ago, this one wasn’t necessarily going to be easy to compile. But here Notre Dame sits, ranked No. 9 by Rivals with a big fish or two still out there. That’s a sign of a strong program.
“It’s a tremendous amount of work that came up to the culmination of where we are today,” Elston said. “And to be where we are today, with the decimation of our staff, really, and then we completely turned over our recruiting department. … I’m very proud of where we are today, I’m very proud of the work that everybody’s done.”