Arguably one of the largest challenges a head coach may face at the University of Notre Dame is to keep pace with the speed of recruiting at an institution that values tradition and reflects before reacting. The university opts for a skeptical approach to change, preferring to dip its toe into new waters even if the majority has already dived in.
The old guard of recruiting strategy involved a program’s spring game, a tradition Notre Dame has held for 85 years. Spring games have helped many a team with recruiting and still do. Alabama made national headlines after landing four elite recruits at its annual A-Day game, a major piece in its seemingly unstoppable recruiting machine. But times change, and programs are constantly evolving to secure an edge.
In 2005 Florida Gators head coach Urban Meyer altered the landscape when he created Florida’s Friday Night Lights camp. Previously college programs would invite high school prospects to campus to work out in front of the coaching staff to potentially earn a scholarship offer, but Urban Meyer changed the paradigm by creating a massive event. Florida’s coaching staff scoured the very best talent and invited them all to a workout event held under the lights of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Music blares throughout the venue as highlight reels of Florida’s glory days are looped onto the jumbotron, all while recruits bond and showcase their skills to the coaching staff and one another. The success of Urban Meyer’s brainchild has caused a ripple effect throughout college football recruiting.
Florida’s Alligator Army publication calls the Friday Night Lights event “one of the most important days of the recruiting calendar” and it shows in the results. For the recruiting class of 2013 the Florida Gators held 20 commitments by July, nearly completing their entire recruiting class seven months prior to national signing day. The secret to Florida’s success lies with the opportunity for recruits to bond with one another as well as current players.
“You can hear coach speak stuff from the coaches. They can tell you all you want. ‘Our school is the greatest,’ this and that,” says Derek Tyson, Florida Gators beat writer for ESPN. “The fact is when you hear from the other recruits and the other guys who are going through the same process that you’re going through and you can hear why they chose Florida, I think that weighs more on them than anything else in the whole process. It’s huge to have all the commits down there at one time.”
The overwhelming success of Florida’s Friday Night Lights camp has spurred numerous alterations from programs all over the country, from Georgia to Ohio State, where Urban Meyer is currently the head coach. Texas A&M has created its own event which it also calls Friday Night Lights, and it entails a spring football scrimmage under the lights of Kyle Field and is open to recruits as well as the general public. The most recent Friday Night Lights event secured an offensive line commitment for the Aggies that is drawing comparisons to famed Ole Miss standout Michael Oher.
Michigan established a similar recruiting event under former head coach Rich Rodriguez that continues to this day called BBQ at the Big House. The event is held late in May and offers recruits and their families an opportunity to meet Michigan’s coaching staff and current players in a relaxed, laid back atmosphere. The event is largely responsible for Michigan head coach Brady Hoke’s best recruiting classes since taking over in Ann Arbor.
Notre Dame is finally ready to test the waters with Brian Kelly’s version of Florida’s Friday Night Lights, one the Fighting Irish are calling the “Irish Invasion” camp taking place June 20-22. The objective for the Irish Invasion is to create a similar bonding experience from Florida and Michigan’s events but in a different manner. Rather than working out for the coaching staff at night inside a stadium or hosting a barbeque, Notre Dame is attempting to create a camp competition where only the very elite participate, which is why the Irish Invasion will be by invitation only.
To date Notre Dame’s “elite only” gamble is paying dividends. The best of Notre Dame’s current commitments – quarterback Blake Barnett and offensive lineman Tristen Hoge – will be in attendance as well as a host of the nation’s best high school recruits. A pair of blue chip linebackers are expected to attend in Tevon Coney and Adonis Thomas. Coney is a Rivals 4-star and Florida native with national offers from the likes of Auburn, Florida and Miami. Thomas, a Georgia native, is also a Rivals 4-star and one that Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has recruited with gusto. Thomas boasts offers from Alabama, Florida State and LSU.
Notre Dame is also expecting 4-star defensive lineman Natrez Patrick to be in attendance, which would represent a major coup for the Fighting Irish. Natrez holds offers from nearly every program in the country, including Alabama, Auburn and Texas. Word leaking out of Florida is that 4-star running back and Orlando native Jacques Patrick may also attend next month’s camp thanks to the tireless work of Notre Dame leading recruiter, Tony Alford. The Sunshine State running back has a national offer list and is coveted by historic powerhouses Alabama, Texas and USC.
The Irish Invasion camp represents Notre Dame dipping its toe into new recruiting waters nine years after Florida originally created its Friday Night Lights event. The success of the camp will play a very important role in defining the future of Notre Dame’s recruiting efforts, and all eyes should be kept on its progress.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his fiancée. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.