Notre Dame is nearing the start of its second annual Irish Invasion camp, an invitation-only event head coach Brian Kelly created to attract elite high school recruits to campus. The Irish Invasion represented Notre Dame finally participating in the continuous evolution that is college football recruiting.
Urban Meyer got the ball rolling in 2005 while coaching the Florida Gators. Traditionally, the sole recruiting event taking place in the spring for nearly every major college program involved annual spring games. Looking for an edge, Meyer created Florida’s “Friday Night Lights” camp. The Friday Night Lights camp at Florida was for elite level recruits who were invited to engage in workouts in front of the Florida coaching staff inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. With music blaring over the sound system and the jumbotron playing continuous highlight reels of the Florida Gators in action, elite recruits were bonding with the coaching staff as well as one another.
Meyer’s brainchild was wildly successful and within a short period other major programs began to create their own version of Florida’s “Friday Night Lights” (and others continue to search for unique ways to get noticed, such as Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh choosing to coach a satellite camp shirtless). With Notre Dame’s version set to begin its second session on June 19th, how did Notre Dame fare with its initial Irish Invasion camp last year? Did it make a difference?
Many Irish fans were frustrated by the lack of immediate impact at the close of the Irish Invasion. None of the attendees had committed while on campus, and the lone commitment came two days later from kicker Justin Yoon. Yoon’s signing will be far more important than many realize, not only because he will immediately replace outgoing kicker Kyle Brindza, but because he has shown early indications of being a rare talent. Yoon, perhaps bored with being extremely talented at kicking field goals only with his dominant foot, decided to post a YouTube video of him hitting a 40-yard field goal with his left foot.
But how did Notre Dame’s recruiting efforts fare with its high profile visitors?
Jacques Patrick was a 5-star running back hailing from Orlando, FL, with an elite offer list that included Alabama, Ohio State, Texas and USC. Due to his longstanding connection to Alabama and Florida State, Patrick’s attendance at the Irish Invasion was a major coup for Notre Dame, and hope began to appear that the Irish had a real shot considering Patrick had been on campus mere days before the camp, making the Irish Invasion his second trip to South Bend in one week. Kelly discussed the potency of a Notre Dame degree and teamed Patrick up with running backs Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston, both one-time highly-touted running back recruits as well as natives of Florida.
While Notre Dame put its best foot forward, there were obstacles too deep to overcome. Patrick had visited Florida State numerous times over the years and was extremely comfortable with head coach Jimbo Fisher’s staff, and it didn’t hurt that several of Patrick’s friends on the Florida State roster had compiled a 27-1 record over the past two seasons. Patrick signed his letter of intent with Florida State.
Justin Hilliard was a 4-star outside linebacker recruit from Cincinnati, OH, with offers from the likes of Alabama, Ohio State and USC, though his recruitment was primarily a two-way race between Ohio State and Notre Dame. You could almost feel his internal struggle whenever he spoke to the media about his recruitment – should the standout Ohioan attend Notre Dame, a school reminiscent of his high school, St. Xavier, which is education-centric and small with a strong tradition, or Ohio State, the large, in-state public university closer to home with far more things to do on campus?
Hilliard visited Notre Dame for the Irish Invasion and then the next day made his final visit to Ohio State before ultimately announcing his decision two weeks later. Hilliard indicated his three main priorities were to receive a great education, feel comfortable in his surroundings and to win a national championship. Irish fans should have become concerned when Hilliard described both Notre Dame and Ohio State’s business schools as being great, as the only element in Notre Dame’s favor was education. Hilliard committed to Ohio State.
Notre Dame didn’t lose all of its one-on-one recruiting battles with Irish Invasion attendees. Tevon Coney was a 4-star linebacker prospect from Palm Beach Gardens, FL, with major offers from programs like Alabama, Florida and Ohio State. Coney attended the Irish Invasion with Florida as his clear favorite, but left South Bend so impressed he named Notre Dame his co-leader Notre Dame and Florida jockeyed for top position until Coney committed to Notre Dame in October, but the battle for his services continued up to the date of his early enrollment, with persistent rumors the talented Floridian was still considering a last minute visit to Gainesville. The trip would never materialize, and Coney is currently enrolled at Notre Dame.
The Irish Invasion played an important role in fostering relationships with the Class of 2016 as well. Liam Eichenberg, one of the top offensive linemen in Ohio, arrived for last year’s Irish Invasion with Michigan as his leader. Eichenberg’s leader board changed dramatically after his experience, with Eichenberg labeling offensive line coach Harry Hiestand as the best offensive line coach in the country. Notre Dame went toe-to-toe with Ohio State for Eichenberg’s services – a tough circumstance after Ohio State was coming off a national championship victory — but the relationships Eichenberg developed with the Notre Dame coaching staff at least year’s Irish Invasion proved too much, and Eichenberg is now a Notre Dame commitment.
Notre Dame didn’t win all of its recruiting battles stemming from the Irish Invasion, but that was never its designed purpose. The Irish Invasion was created to get the elite high school athletes who fit Notre Dame’s unique personality onto campus and win the recruiting battles they were meant to win, which they did. An argument could be made that Notre Dame should have won the battle for Justin Hilliard, but even if Notre Dame had landed his commitment, Ohio State winning the national championship may have been too powerful of a lure to Columbus.
Overall, the first Irish Invasion was rather successful. And the second event could not come at a better time, as Notre Dame recently lost two in-state, high profile talents to other programs (Auston Robertson to Michigan State and Austin Mack to Ohio State).
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 protected] or follow him on Twitter.