Dec. 20, 2017
By John Heisler
Mike Elston, the University of Notre Dame's assistant head football coach and a key player in the Irish recruiting derby, readily admits he is thankful for Amazon.com.
That's how he was able to take care of holiday present plans for his three daughters -- in great part because Amazon would not just deliver those items to his door but also send them gift-wrapped.
All that was important to Elston and plenty of others on the Notre Dame staff once the football recruiting calendar officially changed last summer to feature an early signing date.
While football staffs previously focused on the first Wednesday in February, 2017 marked the first time prospects could officially sign in late December -- and Irish coach Brian Kelly made it clear to the players with whom Notre Dame was involved that if they were committed to the Irish they were expected to sign today.
That's why 20 names joined the Irish roster by late morning today -- with Kelly declaring based on the size and quality of the class that, at least for the time being, the Irish likely have the best signed recruiting class in the nation: "I don't know of another school that will sign 20 players today like this group."
But the earlier date made for a crazier-than-usual period once the regular season ended – with Kelly making home visits to nearly all 20 of today's signees since the time Notre Dame finished the year at Stanford.
Today's work provided no real surprises. Beneath the "Recruit Like A Champion Today" sign in the Irish football staff meeting room, Notre Dame compliance staffers kept track of the electronic documents as they arrived, while Irish recruiting coordinator Brian Polian manned the phones as he, Kelly, Elston and the rest of the Irish staff took turns FaceTiming and speaking with each player as his signing became official. Even with two signees from California, that process became complete a little after 10 a.m. EST.
Gone are the days of the FAX (facsimile) machine that collected letters of intent -- replaced by plenty of modern technology, from the two-hour live digital Notre Dame signing show to all sorts of social media produced by the Notre Dame recruiting team. The hashtag #IRISHBOUND18 could be found everywhere in sight of a camera. The Notre Dame Stadium locker room and the Guglielmino Athletics Complex staff room resembled sound stages as much as they served as working venues.
"Any hiccups?" asked Irish defensive back coach Todd Lyght at one point. "Everything going smoothly?"
"So far so good," responded Polian. And so it went.
While the jury on the early signing philosophy may remain out nationally, the Irish embraced it.
Kelly, noting that his staff spent anywhere from nine months to two years-plus recruiting the 20 new members of his squad, said, "We have a great story to tell."
That included a middle-of-the-process change just before the start of the 2017 season when Elston was promoted to assistant head coach and Polian gained the title of recruiting coordinator. It also included two new coordinators -- Chip Long on offense and Mike Elko on defense -- who needed to sell their visions and plans. It also did not hurt that the 2017 Irish won eight of their first nine games.
Kelly also noted that director of scouting Bill Rees had great input on the football abilities of the players the Irish were considering, while director of player personnel Dave Peloquin was charged with making sure the players the coaches zeroed in on were good fits for the football program and for the University.
And that began with all 20 receiving the thumbs-up from an academic standpoint to sign today. Seven of the 20 will be early enrollees next month.
"And we're still open for business," said Kelly. "Most assuredly we'll sign more in February."
Offensive line, defensive back and wide receiver remain target areas.
Kelly, in particular, loved the early signing date because it helped eliminate what he would often term the "soft" commitment.
"It brings the definition of commitment back into play," he noted. "If you say you are committed to Notre Dame, then you are. That's what it means to us at Notre Dame."
The extended and intensified weeks of December recruiting at times meant some skeleton crews for a few pre-bowl practices, but Kelly felt the schedule "worked out the way I thought it would. This class set up nicely for us."
Polian noted that many assistant coaches in December would be on the road recruiting -- then scouting Citrus Bowl opponent LSU on their laptops in hotel rooms in the evening to prepare their scouting reports.
Kelly also liked the elimination of some of the "circus atmosphere" of signing day, plus the Irish staff now has 20 players they know are in the fold as opposed to having to spend six more weeks worrying about those individuals.
"Everybody knew the parameters going into this," he said. "This the first time you feel you've got a chance to get ahead of it (in recruiting). It was a shorter window and we just said, ‘Let's get after it.'"
Here's more from Kelly:
"We had 20 young men commit to this University and it wasn't just because they liked our uniforms. They love the University and what it stands for, they loved the fit for each of them and they want the challenge of what's ahead of them both athletically and academically. They are committing themselves to what our mission is here at Notre Dame.
"We had to do a lot of work up front on the academic side to make sure that all of these individuals either were admitted to the University or that they were undoubtedly going to be admitted. And if you are sure this is where you want to be, how does it sound that for the next six weeks you aren't going to have people visiting you and pulling you out of class and calling you at home when you don't want to answer? There was a lot of traction with that.
"This period goes for 48 hours and we feel there may be a couple more opportunities for us to sign people before Friday. Then the February date is still available to us, and we'll look at a couple of priority targets. And then we have a chance to get ahead of the game a little and look at players in future classes. We can stretch our January recruiting to evaluation of sophomores and juniors.
"This group provides competition in the defensive backfield and that will make us better. We've upped the competition level at corner and safety. It brings in some skill players on offense that will give us some flexibility at split end and tight end. Overall the holes of graduation have been filled.
"Last year we had 22 new employees in the football building. We do not want to go through that again. And we're not going to go through that again. To have continuity going into year two with this staff is huge. Having everybody back allows us to grow. We're going to make great improvement in the development of our team mentally and physically."
Here's more from Polian:
"As we plan this process, it starts with Coach Kelly and determining where he needs to be. After the Stanford game he and I were all up and down the West Coast for three and a half days. Then we made sure that everyone we were going to sign had someone in front of them very quickly -- it was important that we get into those homes and make sure everyone understood we were not taking anyone for granted.
"We've got three weeks left in January and February, but it's uncharted territory for everyone. We expect to get a big jump on our 2019 class. You may make a home visit for this class and still stop in six high schools and pick up transcripts and talk to coaches of 2019 prospects. It may be the first time that you really have your fingers into both classes at one time.
"What you learn being here is how important fit is at Notre Dame. When it's not a good fit and a prospect does not embrace what this place is all about, it's not good for anyone. We think we know who we are, and we think the guys who signed today embrace who we are. It's important to have a work ethic and a desire to be here."
Here's more from Elston:
"We need to continue to grow this and make it really challenging for the guys who are really good fits for us to say no to us."
John Heisler has been following Irish football fortunes as a member of Notre Dame's athletic communications staff since 1978.