There was little to be excited about after the lights were turned out in Miami this past Monday. Not only did Notre Dame fall short of its first championship in 24 years, they were humiliated in the process. The one lone bright spot amidst the haze of pain and disappointment involves Notre Dame’s future. Critics have said Notre Dame didn’t belong on the same field as Alabama in the national title game, and there is overwhelming evidence to support such a claim. However, following such logic, if Brian Kelly was able to navigate all the way to a championship game with inferior talent, how well could he possibly do if his talent matched or surpassed the likes of Alabama?
While Brian Kelly was unable to top Alabama on the football field, he has bested Nick Saban and the rest of the Crimson Tide staff on the recruiting trail. Notre Dame possessed the number one recruiting class in all of college football after falling to Bama, with a haul of three Rivals 5-stars, which has only been accomplished by the Fighting Irish once since Rivals.com began in 2000. While some recruiting analysts have opined ND could be at risk on the recruiting trail due to the blowout loss against the Crimson Tide, such a scenario is unlikely. If anything, Brian Kelly and his staff could argue they need just a bit more talent to get to the next level, which this current class provides. It would take something more jolting than a blowout loss to damage Notre Dame’s accomplishments on the recruiting trail.
That jolt turned into a tremor on Wednesday evening when ESPN reported Brian Kelly had indeed interviewed for the head coaching position of the Philadelphia Eagles. Very few things can dismantle a recruiting class as quickly as program instability, and Brian Kelly ducking media contact made the rumors and speculation all the more damaging and potent. While the overwhelming majority of Notre Dame’s recruiting class won’t sign their letter of intent until February, six members of Notre Dame’s class are set to enroll next week as early enrollees, providing a perfect litmus test for how damaging this latest news could be. And even though the Turning Point, a group of Notre Dame players from the Class of 2011, tweeted “All is well” earlier in the day, potentially indicating Kelly’s intention to stay, the damage had already been done.
Alex Anzalone, a Rivals 4-star linebacker and early enrollee from Pennsylvania, decommitted and switched his commitment to Florida, his other finalist. Anzalone’s decommittment comes less than 24 hours after the news of Kelly’s interview, and 24 hours before Anzalone would have travelled to South Bend to enroll as a Notre Dame student. The recruiting loss has since dropped Notre Dame from the top class in the country to #2 behind Florida, where Anzalone has given his commitment.
The implications of the decommitment are too still early to process. While Anzalone leaving is definitely a blow, how solid his commitment to Notre Dame actually was is debatable. In the past year Anzalone managed one of the wilder recruitments of the season, committing to Ohio State in early spring, only to decommit a few short weeks later. Anzalone then reopened his recruitment, eventually making his decision between Notre Dame and Penn State before selecting the Irish. Then, a few months ago, speculation began anew as Anzalone took an official visit to Florida, and word of a pending decommitment from Notre Dame began to grow. Anzalone admitted he considered leaving, but after a meeting with Kelly and staff he ultimately decided to stay. Now that Kelly’s future with the Irish appears to be in jeopardy, Anzalone has made a final decision regarding his future, and it doesn’t reside in South Bend.
While it’s impossible to know whether Anzalone truly intended to sign with Notre Dame, his decommitment serves as a potential warning sign for what lies ahead. Notre Dame still has five highly rated recruits set to enroll by next week, and it isn’t unreasonable for them to be wary of joining a program when the head coach’s future is unknown. If Notre Dame wishes to close the talent gap with the SEC – which was broadcast in the highest of high definition on Monday evening – Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick and head coach Brian Kelly must work out the details of a contract agreement, and do so much sooner than later.