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The ‘next echelon’ of recruiting already at hand for Notre Dame

Brian Kelly Notre Dame

ORLANDO, FL - DECEMBER 28: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish encourages his team during warmups before the Camping World Bowl against the Iowa State Cyclones at Camping World Stadium on December 28, 2019 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

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Notre Dame’s recruiting class of 2020 currently ranks No. 22 in the country, per, but by the end of Wednesday’s National Signing Day, it will fall from there. Maybe not far, but a drop is somewhat inevitable as the Irish do not add any prospects to its class at the traditional end of a recruiting cycle.

Such a slip may become an annual occurrence for Notre Dame as it focuses its attention on December’s Early Signing Period, but an overall uptick is expected moving forward aside from that. Irish head coach Brian Kelly boldly staked out that ground in Orlando, Fla., the week before Notre Dame’s appearance in the Camping World Bowl.

“We want to break out of the 15th-ranked or the 10th-ranked (class),” Kelly said. “We want to get into that next echelon.”

In Kelly’s now 11 Irish recruiting classes, including the abbreviated one immediately following his hiring, Notre Dame has finished in the top 10 twice and top 5 once, finishing No. 3 in 2013, a class aided by the headlines accompanying an undefeated run to the national championship game. The low pair came in 2012 (No. 21) and this current cycle, both done in more by their lack of size than their quality; recruiting class rankings factor the top-20 players signed by each school, so a group of 17 is at an innate disadvantage, particularly when it includes a long snapper and a trio of three-star cornerbacks, as this class does.

Jumping from routine No. 11 finishes into the top 10 may be but a marginal difference, but Kelly doubled down further. Asked if he thought top-5 classes were possible, he did not hesitate.

“I do now,” Kelly said. “I’ve changed. We’re going to change the way we do some things that I think will allow us to do that.”

When Kelly said he’s changed, he was referring to his words three years ago, when he rehauled the Irish coaching staff after a disastrous 4-8 season and still put together the No. 13 class in the country. That marked Notre Dame’s fourth class in a row ranked between Nos. 11 and 13, a stretch that extended to six classes if broadening to include last year’s No. 14-ranked group.

“Since I’ve been here, if you look at the average rankings, we’re anywhere from 5 to 15,” Kelly said in February of 2017. “We’re going to fall somewhere in that range because there’s a line there we can’t get over based upon what our distinctions are here. That line is going to keep us between 5 and 15.”

How the Irish overcome those academic and geographic distinctions to join the nation’s elite recruiters matters less than the focused intent to do so, though Kelly voicing it should come with acknowledgment or two of reality. Notre Dame currently has eight commitments in the class of 2021, placing it at No. 3 in Rivals’ rankings, including 7 four-star prospects. Ambitioning to recruit with the best is less intimidating when off to such a start.

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“Philosophically, we have to do some things to get to that level,” Kelly said in late December. “... Breakthrough that recruiting threshold, that I publicly talked about that we couldn’t, but we need to. I think we have some things that we’re going to implement that will allow us to do that.”

Starting so strongly in the 2021 cycle, getting to that desired level, breaking through the long-standing threshold all come a bit more naturally following a three-year, 33-6 stretch. Program stability does more for recruiting than expediting the logistics of it, private plane or commercial flights. Getting doors opened for the Irish is more crucial than getting to those doors quicker.

“No doubt 32 and 6 gets you in the door,” Kelly said during the Early Signing Period about some of the four- and five-star offensive skill players in the class of 2020. “You didn’t get in the door if you weren’t 32 and 6, it gets you in the door, but like anything else, you still got to sell.”

The recent success both on the field and selling — the latter evidenced by signing the likes of running back Chris Tyree, tight end Michael Mayer and receiver Jordan Johnson — makes Kelly’s top-five goal borderline realistic.

Even if that does not become the Signing Day eventuality, the 33-6 run speaks to a greater Irish success. The outgoing seniors, the recruiting class of 2016, became the No. 4 most productive group in the country, per The Athletic, a vast improvement from its No. 13 Signing Day ranking.

That in-season development matters more than recruiting rankings, though the latter typically foreshadows the former. If Kelly’s hopes of improved recruiting hold up, then those retroactive rankings should reflect the progress even more so.

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