Notre Dame went all-in on their recruitment of Will Shipley, unlike any recruitment we have ever seen from the Brian Kelly coaching regime. Part of their approach was to almost wholly back off all other backs and sell Shipley on the fact that he was the only back on their board. The rewards for all of that? Shipley still spurred the Irish last week and selected Clemson and joined a stable of elite running backs in Death Valley. Now Notre Dame is left to pick up the pieces. Something they might not be able to do for the class of 2021.
Had it worked, every Notre Dame fan would have been singing the praises of the Notre Dame coaching staff for their gutsy call to back off of other running backs and sell Shipley on being their one and only guy. Instead, now the Irish staff is scrambling not just to reset their running back board, but completely rebuild it.
The approach was admirable in a way. Notre Dame has to start beating Clemson and Alabama for elite skill position players instead of beating schools like Michigan and Washington if they want to seriously challenge for a national championship and not just playoff appearances that end rather unceremoniously.
The problem, in this case, is Notre Dame’s gamble blew up in their face when Shipley looked at a backfield at Notre Dame that only featured one other elite prospect – 2020 freshman Chris Tyree – and still picked Clemson despite the Tigers already having a commitment from 4-star running back Phil Mafah this year alone.
Since news began breaking last week that Shipley had decided and would be announcing for Clemson, Notre Dame has thrown out a serious of offers including on to top-100 running back prospect LJ Johnson. That’s great and all, but the odds of landing a top-100 overall player that you only just offer a little over seven months from the early signing period are minuscule.
Notre Dame will hopefully put on the full-court press for Donovan Edwards now as well. Edwards is also a top-50 overall prospect that was very interested at one point. He visited in December along with master recruiter Blake Fisher, but since then, Notre Dame had backed off some as they focused all of their attention on Shipley. The chances of landing a top-50 recruit that can see how publicly Notre Dame let it be known that they were all in on Shipley are also remote, though.
This is what makes the Notre Dame staff’s decision all that more questionable in retrospect. Donovan Edwards is a top-50 overall player who has had strong interest in Notre Dame. Did the staff really think that Shipley was just on such a different level that it was worth potentially losing them both just for the chance to maybe sign Shipley? And why not at least offer Johnson months ago to start building some sort of relationship there?
If Notre Dame somehow manages to land either Johnson or Edwards, no one will really care much that they lost Will Shipley to Clemson. And that isn’t a slight at Shipley. He is a bonafide elite running back that would have been a perfect fit in the Notre Dame offense and helped take it to the next level. Edwards and Johnson could also both help take this offense to a new level in different ways, though.
Part of the reason fans were so invested in the recruitment of Shipley, though, was because everyone saw that it was probably going to be “Shipley or Bust” at running back in this cycle. Land either Johnson or Edwards, and while fans will always compare whoever the Irish land with Shipley, no one will fault the staff for landing a back of Johnson or Edwards’s caliber.
Instead, the most likely scenario for Notre Dame this year is taking a chance on a low floor, high ceiling type player in the hopes of Lance Taylor being able to develop him into an elite back. That is not a great situation to be in, and in all honesty, it’s pretty much the exact scenario that Notre Dame was in two years ago when Autry Denson failed to lure elite running backs to South Bend. The one difference is that in between, Notre Dame did land an elite back in Tyree. Alabama and Clemson don’t just have one elite back on their rosters, though. They have stables of elite running backs.
This approach has worked out for Notre Dame in the past. Josh Adams, for instance, wasn’t an overly highly recruited player because of injury concerns. He ended up having an excellent career for Notre Dame capped off with 1,430 yards and nine touchdowns in 2017. And that was with injuries slowing him down at the end of the season. Adams is the exception, not the norm, though for Notre Dame when it comes to developmental backs.
When Denson left Notre Dame following the 2018 season, Notre Dame knew it had to get better at recruiting running backs. In the 2019 class, Notre Dame swung and missed at almost all of their top targets before landing Kyren Williams. The year before that, Notre Dame ended up taking fliers on Jahmir Smith and C’bo Flemister after Markese Stepp decommitted, and Notre Dame had no other fall back.
With so much uncertainty surrounding recruiting right now as the NCAA extended the dead period once again through June and the possibilities for on-campus visits dwindling, Notre Dame could find itself right back in the same situation they were before Taylor’s arrival. Now, it could work out for them with a little bit of luck, but if it doesn’t, Notre Dame’s approach this year with going all-in on Shipley could haunt them for years to come if Edwards lands at say Michigan and turns into an elite college running back.
There is still time for Notre Dame and Taylor to work some magic, but they will need more than just the luck of the Irish for things to work out well at running back in this cycle.