Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly has a method for success, and one that has carried him from the small town of Allendale, MI to overseeing one of college football’s most historic football programs. One of the critical elements contained within the winning formula is coaching continuity, a process Kelly had managed to achieve until this offseason when defensive coordinator Bob Diaco accepted the head coaching position at the University of Connecticut, and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin accepted the position as head man at Miami of Ohio in Dayton. With a new defensive coordinator, and the addition of a quarterback coach, dotting a normally unchanging coaching lineup, Notre Dame’s staff is currently crisscrossing the country for spring recruiting evaluations. How will the new assistants fair at recruiting, and what impact might they have?
Quarterback coach Matt LaFleur’s recruiting efforts were made simpler by inheriting 2015 quarterback commitment Blake Barnett, a California native that is arguably the most heralded quarterback commitment of the Kelly era. Standing a sturdy 6’4”, Barnett has the size to withstand punishment while also possessing the athleticism to draw comparisons to Oregon’s star quarterback, Marcus Mariota. Barnett has quietly been collecting accolades, winning the Elite 11 regional MVP as well as being the first high school football player to be invited to both The Opening and the Elite 11 competition. With such high performances, and with programs such as Alabama and Oregon knocking on Barnett’s door, it was imperative Barnett, who had a strong relationship with former offensive coordinator Chuck Martin, connect with LaFleur.
Barnett’s connection, and ultimately his excitement, with LaFleur stems from the quarterback coach’s biggest recruiting selling point: having been the quarterback coach of star NFL quarterback Robert Griffin III. RGIII’s popularity is literally without precedent after having smashed all NFL jersey sales records his rookie season, and being developed by the same coach who taught RGIII could become a recruiting windfall. The evidence is already beginning to surface for the recruiting Class of 2016.
LaFleur has developed a strong relationship with two Class of 2016 national quarterback prospects. K.J. Costello, a 6’4” California native, has already received scholarship offers from Florida State, Miami and Tennessee and is thought to have strong interest in Notre Dame. Jacob Eason is a legacy recruit, with his father, Tony Eason, having been a wide receiver under Lou Holtz in the 1980s. Eason has also begun to collect elite offers and is a contender to be tabbed as the #1 quarterback for the Class of 2016. Both elite signal callers have developed a relationship with LaFleur, an early indication that LaFleur is doing well on the recruiting trail.
New defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder brings a strong NFL background to South Bend, including blitzing schemes learned from New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan while serving as the Jets’ linebacker coach. The new aggressive nature has excited the Notre Dame defense, and there’s reason to believe such excitement could spread to recruits as well.
Notre Dame’s defensive line has switched from reacting under Diaco to attacking with VanGorder, stressing penetration up front. Rising star linebacker Jaylon Smith will rotate to different locations to limit the opposition’s ability to key him, and the secondary will be asked to play more man coverage, a challenge junior cornerback KeiVarae Russell has relished. The attacking, flexible mindset should offer appeal to nearly every level of the Irish defense.
One less discussed recruiting advantage VanGorder brings to the table is his history in the State of Georgia, an area Brian Kelly has targeted heavily in recent years. As of March, Georgia ranked 4th on Notre Dame’s recruiting board with the most recruits offered by state. With VanGorder’s success at the University of Georgia – including leading the SEC in scoring defense in 2002 – and his stint as defensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons, his Peach State ties run deep. For this very reason it comes as no surprise Brian Kelly’s first order of business was to send VanGorder south, and he has been spotted all over Georgia during the spring evaluation period.
Neither LaFleur nor VanGorder has secured a commitment for the class of 2015 as lead recruiters, though their backgrounds should eventually lead to positive returns. The spring evaluation period will provide an early sample for Irish fans as to how Notre Dame’s two new assistants stack up.
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 [email protected].