The Midwest finally had its moment this past bowl season. Notre Dame’s victory over LSU in the Music City Bowl marked the first out of conference loss the SEC West had suffered up to that point, and Ohio State’s convincing playoff win over Alabama – with their third string quarterback, no less – sent shockwaves of humility down the Dixie Highway. But any talk of a power shift in college football should be put into proper context.
Fourteen of the 16 BCS National Champions were programs below the Mason-Dixon line, and this year’s Oregon-Ohio State championship bout was the first time a Southern program had been shut out of the title game since before the BCS era. The majority of the nation’s high school talent also now resides in the South, as highlighted by a previous UHND article that noted 61-percent of prospects within the Rivals 250 for the Class of 2014 hailed from Southern states. Southern dominance in college football is not a trend – it’s the future – and this fact played a large role in Notre Dame’s desire to seek affiliation with the ACC.
Head coach Brian Kelly has made major strides bringing Notre Dame into the 21st Century by successfully tapping into the Southern talent pool. Between 2011 and 2014, Texas and Florida topped Notre Dame’s list of states with the most signed recruits, being bested only by Ohio. The problem for Notre Dame is that Tony Alford and Kerry Cooks – both assistant coaches who left the Notre Dame coaching staff this offseason – were the key components reeling in Southern targets.
Secondary coach Kerry Cooks was extremely effective bringing Texas talent to Notre Dame, an area where Notre Dame had languished for years. Former team captain Cam McDaniel, former Nike’s The Opening MVP, Torii Hunter Jr., and emerging wide receiver Corey Robinson were all lured to South Bend by Cooks. His success at recruiting the Lone Star State is ultimately what caused the Oklahoma Sooners, who are heavily reliant on talent from Texas, to poach him from the Notre Dame staff.
Running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Tony Alford was an even more dynamic recruiter. Alford made the Fighting Irish a household name in Florida, prying game-changing talent away from the in-state Florida Gators, Miami Hurricanes and Florida State Seminoles on a regular basis. Alford’s list of successes in Florida is extensive and includes the likes of Louis Nix, Greg Bryant, Tarean Folston and Tevon Coney. His talent for recruiting also landed him the status as a wild card Kelly would call upon when making a push for a highly sought after prospect, a skill that ultimately encouraged Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer to offer Alford a position in Columbus.
If the South is integral to Notre Dame’s future success and the Irish lost their two best Southern recruiters, what’s the answer for Notre Dame moving forward?
Losing Cooks and Alford are undeniable setbacks but their departures are not as devastating as they may initially appear. The relationships the University of Notre Dame developed with local high school football coaches in Texas and Florida remain – the only change will involve who is representing Notre Dame’s message to those players and coaches.
If rumors prove to be true and former Notre Dame running back Autry Denson is named Alford’s replacement, Denson should be able to somewhat mitigate the loss of Alford due to Denson being a Florida native originally. Former All-American Todd Lyght, should he replace Cooks, may have a steeper hill to climb if he becomes responsible for recruiting Texas. Cooks was familiar with the territory as a Dallas, TX, native, whereas Lyght was born and raised in Flint, MI.
All is not lost for Notre Dame’s push for Southern prospects. It will simply take time for Alford and Cooks’ replacements to develop as recruiters and to learn to follow the trails already blazed by their predecessors. So where should Notre Dame look while it reorganizes its Southern strategy? The answer may very well reside out West.
The idea of prospecting future Golden Domers in California may cause Irish fans to cringe, and with good reason. Notre Dame’s relationship with California has been tenuous under Brian Kelly, ranging from being jilted on National Signing Day (Deontay Greenberry) to signing a 5-star prospect only to have him transfer before ever setting foot on campus (Eddie Vanderdoes). But that should all change if Notre Dame does indeed hire Mike Sanford to be its next offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
Sanford, Boise State’s offensive coordinator and quarterback coach in 2014, is widely regarded as one of the best up-and-coming offensive minds in college football, leading the Broncos to a 14th overall ranking in total offensive yards and averaging 39.7 points per game (9th nationally). But Sanford’s knack for recruiting has equally drawn praise.
Not only does the 32-year old offensive coordinator have experience recruiting at rigorous academic settings such as Yale and Stanford, he’s thrived. In his one season as Stanford’s recruiting coordinator Sanford managed to sign the No. 5 ranked recruiting class in the nation – the best in Stanford history – a not-so-small accomplishment considering the recruiting successes in Palo Alto under Jim Harbaugh’s watch. Sanford managed to sign three 5-star prospects with his historic haul.
The addition of Sanford would allow Notre Dame to unleash one of the best recruiters in the nation on California, another talent-rich state which, prior to Kelly’s tenure, had been historically kind to Notre Dame. Sanford’s hiring would open the door to elite talent out West while Kelly’s staff reestablishes its relationships down South with new faces.
As was said last week, Notre Dame fans should relax. Kelly and his staff will still retain the ability to sign blue chip prospects – they’ll just temporarily hail from a different region of the United States.
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 or follow him on twitter.