He knows the pieces fit
Size, speed, power at the point of attack. Positional versatility.
All of the above rank atop the list of any college head coach's prospect wish list. For Notre Dame's Brian Kelly, a unique set of priorities were the focal point of his 2014 recruiting class, the coach's fourth full cycle in South Bend.
"When we were having this opportunity to recruit a young man, they had to have a passion for wanting to get a degree from Notre Dame and winning a National Championship," Kelly began. "If they want to come here just to hang their hat to play football and go to the NFL, we passed on some pretty good players, because I don't want guys to come here and not finish their degree. I want guys to come to Notre Dame, get their degree, help us win a National Championship, and be the No.1 pick in the NFL Draft. That's what I want, if that's what they want.
"So that was our charge going out is looking for guys that wanted a degree from Notre Dame, help Notre Dame win a National Championship, and then if they wanted to go to the NFL, that they would play on one of the greatest platforms in college football. They'd play at Notre Dame."
Scout.com 5-star MLB prospect Nyles Morgan
Kelly lost three expected seniors for the 2014 season, Stephon Tuitt, Troy Niklas, and George Atkinson, to early NFL entries after the 2013 campaign. Tuitt and Niklas were clear-cut starters and potential 2014 All-Americans. Atkinson started three games in 2013 and led the team in average yards per rush over both of the last two seasons.
"When you look at the list of guys, we vetted them out just like they vetted us out," Kelly offered. "So recruiting is a two-way street. A lot of times our fans ask why didn't they recruit this guy or they recruited this guy; it's a two-way street when it comes to the recruiting process."
90 percent mental
It's an annual question. One asked annually on National Signing Day…and on the last day of Spring Ball…and on the first day of August Camp…and on the final days leading up to a college football season.
"Which freshmen will have an instant impact?"
Kelly's previous four Irish teams have found playing time for 9, 9, 9, and 11 true freshmen, respectively. From that aggregate collection of 38, at least 26 ranked among key weekly competitors. It's a safe bet another 8-9-10 will see playing time as rookies again this fall.
But none of us can definitively say whom. That includes the team's head coach.
"Here's what I'm seeing…physically these guys are coming in so much more prepared, it's mentally-- it's the developmental mentally, it's developing them mentally to find out whether they're going to play. It's not physical," said Kelly of modern freshmen competitors. "And you really can't tell that until they get into camp and how they pick up the grind of going through double sessions and the grind of school and balancing all those things, because physically if you look at a number of these guys, you could say they could play right now. I don't know how they're going to handle it mentally.
Early Enrollee Justin Brent
"So that's really hard for me to answer now that I stand here at Notre Dame. At some other schools I could tell you. They're not physically ready to play. And then Steve Elmer steps on the field as a freshman and plays at the offensive line. So that's the long answer to the question, that I think now it's becoming who can handle it mentally. Most of these guys are physically able to play."
Better late than never
November 27th; December 15th and 16th; January 3rd and 24th; February 5th.
Notre Dame's final seven pledges (two joined on December 15) weren't initially on the recruiting radar -- either interested in, or receiving interest from -- the Irish.
But the late cycle additions of talents such as Jhonathan Williams and Kolin Hill, and late interest from Nyles Morgan, and exceptionally late offers to Pete Mokwuah and Daniel Cage, brought to light the essential truth of collegiate recruiting:
Never give up, never quit searching for talent that can help your program.
The former applies to the class's top-ranked player, Crete-Monee (Ill.) linebacker, Nyles Morgan.
"I would say that we kept banging at that door, even though there was no answer," said Kelly of his staff's attempt to garner interest. "And then we got an answer, and then obviously Coach (Chuck) Martin and Coach (Bob) Diaco left. There was only one guy left to recruit him, and that was me.
"But I think it started with him really recognizing and getting an opportunity to meet a lot of the players, too. I think that had something to do with it. We got him up here a couple of times, and then his parents were involved in the process, as well. I know his parents were favorably impressed with him going to an academic institution. I know his coaches were favorably impressed with Notre Dame, as well. So I think we had a lot of things working in favor. But I think it started with me getting involved in the process, and then everybody else kind of tag-teaming that."
As for local product Jhonathan Williams (Berrien Springs, Mich.) sometimes talent can -- at least temporarily -- slip through the cracks.
"I think that, you know, if it was an exact science, right, this recruiting process, well, we'd have it all down. It's not an exact science, and so there are factors that change things, and sometimes it's not just about what you watch on film but the way that you think about your team. Maybe it's the way you want your team to look like after the year or during the year.
"I have an influence in that, and so sometimes my opinion needs to be heard on some things, and it shifts the way we want to go. My guys are great. They're going to go the way I ask them to go, and sometimes I'll stay out of it and sometimes I'll get involved. In this instance, when it came to Jhonny Williams, that was a situation where we found out late about Jhonny Williams, and we got in late. That was one that flew under the radar."
So too did Cage and Mokwuah, and according to Kelly, past profile restrictions are partly to blame.
"As it related to the defensive line position, we just felt like we were-- we didn't cast a large enough net, and we just needed to be out there larger in terms of our number of candidates, and so that's why we went back in that way," Kelly said.
Asked if that "wider net" included one-gap linemen rather than the two-gap space eaters preferred previously, Kelly offered, "We have to be able to have inside guys that can play the nose and the shade. That's where you're starting to cast the wider net because it's not just one guy. So because we're going to play both three- and four-down, we're really duplicating the position. So we're adding one guy and instead of just saying one guy playing the position, we're saying two guys for that one position."
Notre Dame signed eight defensive line prospects, four of which (Cage, Mokwuah, Jay Hayes, and Andrew Trumbetti) could receive initial evaluations along its interior. Williams, Kolin Hill, Jonathan Bonner, and Grant Blankenship appear to be true defensive end competitors, at least upon arrival. Hill and Bonner could compete as outside linebackers pending alignment.
It never ends
Out with the old, in with the new.
A final truism of recruiting: Far fewer than half of the players signing letters of intent today across the nation will ever reach the heights expected from their school's fan base -- or match the glowing words offered by their head coach.
2015 prospects, on the other hand…well tomorrow's your day!
And for Irish fans, that means a quarterback (likely the already-pledged Blake Barnett), cornerbacks, running backs and a few more staple positions will top the wish list.
2015 QB pledge Blake Barnett
"Certainly quarterback, we need another quarterback at that position," said Kelly, by rule not allowed to reference the pending pledge of current high school junior Blake Barnett. "We'll be recruiting a running back. Certainly you always are filling the tackle position; the offensive tackle position will always be one that you're looking for. So early on when you're looking at your '15 class, you're trying to get those staple players right away, those guys that you know you're going for, and then the numbers start to kind of take shape.
"You've got 14, you've got 16, you've got 18 scholarships, then we start to target in on those specific positions that we may have a need at. Is it another defensive tackle? Is it another offensive receiver position? My point being, you're going to take those positions that you know are staple positions, and then you move from there."
The progress of 2014 seniors will play a key role in the program's 2015 recruiting process, at least in its latter stages. Of the squad's 20 seniors, 14 can apply for a 5th-season of eligibility in 2015. From that 14, only two definitely appear on the outside looking in prior to the season. 10 of the 14 have starting experience.
Positional glut could make recruitment of the nation's top prospects tricky, though Kelly has a solution for such issues.
"The first thing is we give them the depth chart," said Kelly, tongue planted-firmly-in-cheek. "'Here's where the guys are at that position' Now, if there's a lot of guys on the depth chart we don't give them a depth chart. But if there aren't we give them a depth chart."
All jokes aside, inside linebacker and running back prospects will likely be privy to Notre Dame's 2014 depth chart as the next 365 days of recruitment unfold.