As tough as Notre Dame’s 2014 season nosedive was to swallow, diehard college football fans know how a program fares on the recruiting trail is equally as important as what it produces on the field, and how the outcome of one influences the other. Case in point, Notre Dame owes its upcoming elite talent – such as running backs Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant – to the undefeated 2012 regular season, but the opposite also holds true. Losing five out of the last six contests the way the Fighting Irish have this season can unravel a recruiting class in a hurry. Surprisingly, head coach Brian Kelly and staff have done an outstanding job of keeping Notre Dame’s No. 8 ranked recruiting class together despite an unexpectedly disappointing season.
Notre Dame hosted a large contingent of its committed recruits the second weekend of December for the football team’s annual sports banquet. Gathering the class together in one place provided an excellent opportunity for the commits to continue to develop relationships with one another, an important ingredient in keeping recruiting classes intact, particularly with quarterback commitment, Brandon Wimbush.
Wimbush is a Rivals 4-star quarterback and is listed as the No. 2 dual-threat quarterback in the country. What makes Wimbush so vitally important to this class is his unique skill set, skills that are desperately in need at Notre Dame. Current Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson has struggled with reading defenses, which has led to a seemingly unstoppable surge in turnovers. Sophomore quarterback Malik Zaire is athletic and proficient at running the read option but came from a run-first high school program, which limited Zaire’s passing experience heading into college. Wimbush represents the perfect blend of both worlds.
The New Jersey native completed nearly 76-percent of his passing attempts in high school for 2,700 yards and 31 touchdowns compared to only 4 interceptions. While Wimbush is still years away from seriously contributing at the college level, knowing Kelly has landed a dual-threat quarterback with a high completion percentage and a low turnover rate is welcome news for the Fighting Irish program.
Notre Dame accomplished more than simply solidifying its class with its sports banquet, however, and managed to make a serious run at remaining elite prospects in the process. The Irish played host to 4-star tight end Aliz’e Jones, a UCLA commitment and the kind of athlete that Notre Dame has not had at the position since Tyler Eifert’s departure. The trip to South Bend left an impression on the current Bruins commitment and placed Notre Dame in the mix for his services moving forward.
Notre Dame’s banquet may have also played a role in a Rivals Top 100 player decommitting from a BCS program. Ronald Jones, a 4-star running back committed to Oklahoma State, backed off his pledge from the Cowboys mere days after visiting Notre Dame. It is widely speculated that Jones has narrowed his list of options to Notre Dame and USC.
Brian Kelly also managed to put his best foot forward with Michigan safety commitment, Tyree Kinnel. Kinnel, a 4-star prospect, enjoyed his time in South Bend and reconnected with current Notre Dame commitment – and one-time Michigan Wolverines commitment – Shaun Crawford. Kinnel’s connection with Crawford could prove to be a wildcard in Kinnel’s recruitment, though Kinnel has made it clear he’s waiting to see who replaces recently terminated head coach Brady Hoke in Ann Arbor.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Kelly’s recruiting efforts thus far involves his handling of Notre Dame commitments that have shown a wandering eye. Offensive tackle Jerry Tillery is the crown jewel of yet another stellar offensive line class for Notre Dame. The 6-foot-6, 315-pound prospect represented a monumental achievement for the Irish when he gave his verbal commitment in June of 2013, marking the first recruit Notre Dame had landed from Louisiana during the Internet recruiting era. Prying elite talent from the heart of SEC country is no easy task, and Kelly has had to overcome repeated overtures by the likes of LSU, Texas A&M and Ole Miss to keep Tillery in the fold. While non-binding, Tillery has signed financial aid paperwork for Notre Dame, a very good indicator that Tillery intends to stick with his commitment.
Kelly and staff also took a proactive approach with the news safety commitment Prentice McKinney is planning to visit UCLA in January. Notre Dame wasted no time in offering 4-star safety Mykelti Williams, who committed the moment he was offered by defensive line coach, Mike Elston. Williams’ commitment creates depth at the position while the Irish continue to recruit McKinney to stay on board.
The 2014 football season may have been a bitter disappointment, but the Notre Dame coaching staff has done a superb job on the recruiting trail. If Notre Dame can find a way to defeat LSU in the Music City Bowl on December 30th in Nashville, the Fighting Irish will have another recruiting weapon to add to its arsenal.
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 wife and those around him. Scott can be reached at email@example.com.