Elite offensive skill allowed Notre Dame to chase raw defensive potential
Given the circumstances, Notre Dame’s recruiting class of 2020 could not have turned out better. Those circumstances extended past the usual Irish listing of admissions standards, academics and location. They reached to a key coaching change, an absolute demand to over-recruit cornerbacks and overall roster restrictions keeping the class to a tidy 18 commits.
Despite all those factors, the Irish pulled in the No. 15 class in the country, per rivals.com. That may not seem like much, but those rankings are skewed by a small class that includes both a long snapper and an abundance of cornerbacks high on raw talent but low on recruiting praise. That balance emphasizes the high-end talent Notre Dame found in this class, specifically on the offensive side of the ball, the type of talent the Irish have not hauled in en masse this century.
That is not an embellishment. As the South Bend Tribune’s Tyler James points out, Notre Dame signed its best receiver, by Rivals rankings, in the online recruiting database era with five-star Jordan Johnson, its best running back in six years in five-star Chris Tyree and its best tight end in more than a decade in four-star Michael Mayer. Because this class could not be much bigger than its current 18, if bigger at all, the offensive talent needed to be of such quality, there could not be the safety of quantity.
“You may have to slow down a little bit at a given position because can we get (the) best guy in the country?” Irish recruiting coordinator Brian Polian said Wednesday. “Or are we looking to take the ‘Yes’ that is willing to come as quickly as possible, given the fact that, for lack of a better term, we have a salary cap.”
Figuratively speaking, Notre Dame had the discipline to get those best guys in the country, undoubtedly spurning a few hopeful commitments in the process.
It did so without suffering a single de-commitment in the cycle, despite Irish head coach Brian Kelly firing offensive coordinator Chip Long a week before National Signing Day.
“We had deep, long-standing relationships. Not one guy recruits here at Notre Dame. It’s not your guy, it’s our guy,” Kelly said. “... So no one person is stronger than the University.
“And for those guys that decide to go to school based upon one individual, then you’re left up to those kinds of de-commitments based upon singular relationships. That’s never how we have recruited here at Notre Dame and that’s not how we’ll ever recruit.”
Closing this cycle without a de-commitment means the Irish have gone through the last two classes losing only one commitment, eventual Michigan signee four-star quarterback Cade McNamara. Polian credits that stability to the earlier signing day — “When you would sit there in January and into February with nothing to do but have coaches come through, and it takes a lot of discipline for kids to not take those calls.” — but it also ties to the overall stability of Notre Dame’s program.
Going 32-6 across three years with a College Football Playoff appearance will have that effect.
“No doubt 32 and 6 gets you in the door,” Kelly said. “You didn’t get in the door if you weren’t 32 and 6. … The reality is that you get in the door, but you got to sell it.”
While that Playoff appearance may have gotten the Irish in the door with the likes of Johnson, Tyree and Mayer, not to mention four-star quarterback Drew Pyne, four-star tight end Kevin Bauman and four-star offensive tackle Tosh Baker, it also may have been the key to getting their eventual signatures.
Even if its defense had stayed healthy against Clemson, Notre Dame never had the offensive speed to threaten the Tigers 51 weeks ago. After that 30-3 loss, the Irish coaching staff was optimistic about the program’s standing, if also cognizant of knowing it needed to bolster its play-makers moving forward.
That argument was never outright made in a living room, according to Kelly, but it could not be anything but apparent to those high schoolers watching the Cotton Bowl.
“We never go into a home and talk about what we can’t do,” Kelly said. “It’s what we can do with you and what it would look like adding you to this.
“When it comes to each one of these guys, it’s picturing yourself. Here’s where we are, here’s where we can go adding you to the success that we have already had. Painting that picture is certainly important, but we certainly do it from a positive perspective and then let them take it from there.”
To find that speed, to know it actually found it, Notre Dame stopped trusting recruits and their coaches. Anyone who claimed they could run a 4.4 40-yard dash needed to prove it, be it via home video, the recruiting camp circuit or through an adjusted track time.
“You know it when you see it on film, but — the discipline to walk away if we did not have a verified time,” Polian said. “Or to be transparent and say to a young man, and a coach, we love your film, we love your makeup, your grades are great, but until we have a verified time, we can’t pull the trigger.
“That would motivate some kids to go out to a camp and post a 40. … We can’t just take anybody’s word for it anymore. We got to find ways to verify the speed.”
That focus is how the Irish ended up adding Tyree’s 4.37 40-time to the roster, as well as four-star cornerback Ramon Henderson’s sub-10.6-second 100-yard dash and three-star receiver Jay Brunelle’s times at Notre Dame’s own summer camp, times so fast they drove his scholarship offer.
As the fourth cornerback in the class, Henderson represents the bullseye of a shotgun approach to fix a roster deficiency. Signing three more three-star cornerbacks did not help the Irish recruiting ranking, but to have a functioning secondary the next two seasons, such an influx was an absolute necessity.
“There are some years that you have the flexibility to just recruit a bunch of good athletes and let it fall,” Polian said. “This was a year where, honestly, we had to address the defensive back group. We had to. So we went into the class with, in that position, a very specific number that we had to hit and a very specific set of traits that we were looking for.”
Chasing raw cornerbacks was an acceptable sacrifice only if Notre Dame could sign offensive skill players with such talent as Johnson, Tyree and Mayer; it was a practical strategy only because of the offensive and defensive line recruiting successes the last two cycles; and it was a viable approach only if the class stayed intact.