Commentary

Trenches a recruiting priority for Kelly

Notre Dame focusing on line of scrimmage and defense on recruiting trail

Originally Published: July 14, 2010
By Jamie Newberg | Special to ESPN.com

How does a football program with the tradition, prestige and notoriety Notre Dame enjoys struggle like the Fighting Irish have in recent years? A 1-9 record in bowl games since 1995 and a pedestrian-like 91-68 record since Lou Holtz left the program in 1996 are not good enough in South Bend. Not even close.

Notre Dame has won 11 national championships, produced seven Heisman Trophy winners and 463 NFL draft picks. The Irish began playing football in 1887 and have won 837 games. They have been directed by some of the game's greatest coaches, and Notre Dame's is arguably the most storied program in the nation.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
AP Photo/Joe RaymondBrian Kelly and his staff have taken an aggressive approach to national recruiting.

However, the Fighting Irish are playing for their fourth head coach in 15 years, and it's now Brian Kelly's job to lead Notre Dame football back to prominence.

Everything will hinge on getting players to South Bend, Ind. For the Irish to work their way back up the ranks, recruiting must improve. This is Kelly's first full year of recruiting, and although he has been on the job for just 216 days, his 2011 Irish recruiting class is coming together just fine.

"Coach Kelly and the entire Notre Dame staff has been very aggressive in recruiting," said Mike Frank, the publisher of IrishSportsDaily.com. "They are getting the offers quickly out the door. They are organized and they grind it and work very hard. This staff is much more aggressive than the previous one."

You have to be the aggressor in today's recruiting world because there are just too many big-time programs and coaches getting the job done on the recruiting front. With Notre Dame recruiting on a national scale, the Irish must be aggressive in their approach because they can get eaten alive trying to make their living in other people's backyards. That's difficult to do, especially if you are not winning.

"Notre Dame really picked it up with me once the new staff came on board," said OT Jordan Prestwood, an Irish commit from Plant City, Fla. "I definitely noticed the recruiting intensity between this staff and the old one. The bottom line was that Notre Dame has everything I am looking for in a school. It's so unique. You either fit in or you don't."

The first thing Kelly wants to do is rebuild the lines of scrimmage. When all is said and done, the 2011 class will have its share of linemen. Kelly knows the Irish have to dominate the line of scrimmage because they may not be able to land the same perimeter athletes as some of the elite schools in the South or out West.

The next priority is to find players who fit into his 3-4 defense and to upgrade quickness and athleticism on the perimeter. That means the defense as a whole will be well-accounted for with this recruiting class.

The Fighting Irish hope to land around 20 recruits for 2011 and are already more than halfway there, with a dozen commits on board. Kelly and his staff are addressing needs on the offensive line with tackle prospects like Prestwood, Matthew Hegarty (Aztec, N.M./Aztec) and Tony Springmann (Fort Wayne, Ind./Bishop Dwenger) all committed to Notre Dame.

Prestwood and Hegarty, both four-star prospects and members of the ESPNU 150, are good athletes and the Irish also have a commitment from three-star guard prospect Conor Hanratty (New Canaan, Conn./New Canaan).

One of Notre Dame's highest-rated commits is four-star TE Ben Koyack (Oil City, Pa./Oil City), who is also a member of the ESPNU 150. Koyack is the nation's No. 4 tight end and has a chance to become a big-time threat in the Irish passing attack.

On the other side of the ball, Notre Dame has defensive end commitments from four-star Clay Burton (Venice, Fla./Venice) and three-star Brad Carrico (Dublin, Ohio/Dublin Coffman). The Irish have landed two three-star outside linebacker prospects in Jarrett Grace (Cincinnati/Colerain) and Ben Councell (Asheville, N.C./A. C. Reynolds). Safety Eilar Hardy (Pickerington, Ohio/Pickerington Central) is a talented guy in the secondary and ATH Matthias Farley (Charlotte N.C./Charlotte Christian) is an interesting prospect who could play on either side of the ball. However, with defense being the bigger priority in South Bend, Farley could end up in the Notre Dame secondary.

Kelly will comb the country from coast to coast to fill out his Notre Dame roster, but the Irish concentrates hard on the Midwest, especially the state of Ohio. While at Cincinnati, Kelly did a masterful job with evaluations and the development of the players once they got to campus. He will depend on those two traits once again in South Bend.

This spring and summer, Notre Dame has done a nice job of getting players on campus. More, such as Ishaq Williams (Brooklyn, N.Y./Lincoln), Anthony Rabasa (Miami/Christopher Columbus), Kasen Williams (Sammamish, Wash./Skyline) and Antonio Richardson (Nashville, Tenn./Ensworth), are coming in over the next few weeks. Will these four be a part of the 2011 Notre Dame class? They have a shot.

The Irish are also hot and heavy after RB Savon Huggins (Jersey City, N.J./St. Peter's), OL Cyrus Kouandjio (Hyattsville Md.), DEs Aaron Lynch (Cape Coral, Fla./Island Coast) and Stephon Tuitt (Monroe, Ga.), and ATHs George Atkinson Jr. (Livermore, Calif./Granada) and Christian French (Cedar Rapids, Iowa/John F. Kennedy).

There is no question that this is a different Notre Dame team when it comes to recruiting. Kelly and his staff are working hard and it's paying off. The Irish don't have to finish with the nation's top class, but they must fill needs by trusting their evaluations. Kelly has a plan to build Notre Dame back to a power and it must stick to his plan. Right now, Notre Dame is selling a vision and prospects are buying into it.

Tuberville making an impact
I wondered what type of recruiting impact Tommy Tuberville would have at Texas Tech, especially in the Lone Star State. So far the Red Raiders are off to a good start with 14 commitments. Included in that group are four-star RBs Kenny Williams (Pflugerville, Texas/Hendrickson) and Bradley Marquez (Odessa, Texas/Odessa) and three-star prospects like QB Michael Brewer (Austin, Texas/Lake Travis), OT Le'Raven Clark (Rockdale, Texas/Rockdale) and WR Derek Edwards (Brenham, Texas/Brenham).

While the top six Texas Tech commitments are all offensive players, you still have to be impressed with Tuberville's start, and it will certainly close well. The Big 12 is on notice.

"I think Tuberville and his staff are a little scary," one Big 12 assistant coach said. "They are really doing a great job in the state of Texas. He has brought that SEC mentality of grinding and grinding when it comes to recruiting. They are a lot tougher than I thought they would be and it's certainly different then [former coach Mike] Leach and his staff."

UNC rolling
Within the last week Butch Davis and North Carolina have collected big commitments from four prospects: four-star QB Marquise Williams (Charlotte, N.C./Mallard Creek), four-star G Landon Turner (Harrisonburg, Va./Harrisonburg), three-star DT Shaun Underwood (Fuquay-Varina, N.C./Fuquay-Varina) and LB Christian Russell (Fayetteville, N.C./Hoke County).

The Tar Heels have quietly put together a nice class and have a total of 15 commitments, including a pair of ESPNU 150 prospects in ATH Everett Golson (Myrtle Beach, S.C./Myrtle Beach) and G Kiaro Holts (Indianapolis/Warren Central).

Anthony's six
Under Armour All-American Stephone Anthony, the No. 1 outside linebacker in the nation, is no longer considering USC. The ESPNU 150 standout from Wadesboro (N.C.) Anson Senior High School has named six favorites: Florida, Virginia Tech, Clemson, North Carolina, NC State and Georgia.

The feeling at this point is that the Tigers and Gators are his front runners. Anthony will announce his decision at the Under Armour All-America Game in early January.

Wolfpack loses a D-tackle
Thomas Niles was one of four North Carolina State commitments, but the Wolfpack is down to three after Niles decided to open things back up.

"I like NC State," Niles said. "I like the school, coaches, people and environment. I just want to check out more options. I want to make sure I explore everything just to make sure I am making the right decision."

Niles, a three-star defensive tackle from Gainesville (Ga.) High School, committed to the Wolfpack in May. He now has scholarship offers from NC State, Tennessee, Arkansas, Middle Tennessee State, Florida International and Central Florida.

"I am open to everyone now," he said. "I like NC State, Tennessee, Arkansas, FIU and many more."

Niles, at 6-foot-2 and 260 pounds, recorded 75 tackles, six sacks and 12 tackles for a loss as a junior.

Long snapper gets offer and commits
Who says long snappers don't get scholarship offers? Sam Rodgers received an offer from Syracuse after attending the Orange football camp. The 6-1, 215-pounder from Mercersburg (Pa.) Academy committed Tuesday.

"The academics fit to what I want to do," Rodgers said. "Coach [Doug] Marrone and coach [Bob] Casullo are special teams guys. So everything was right for me."

Rodgers was one of 10 long snappers who camped at Syracuse, and the group knew one lucky guy could receive a scholarship.

"It's a pretty special feeling because I know not too many long snappers earn scholarships out of high school," Rodgers said. "This is pretty special."

Rodgers was rated as the No. 5 long snapper at Chris Sailer's special teams camp this past spring.

Jamie Newberg has been covering recruiting both in the Southeast and nationally for 19 years. He can be reached at jamienewbergbw@yahoo.com.