Monday, December 17, 2007

And a Child (or 22) Shall Lead Them...

With each successive loss on the football field this season, the condition of being a Notre Dame fan turned more and more dire. More hand wringing, more message board rampaging, more scrutiny heaped on Charlie Weis and the entire Irish team at every turn, every missed assignment, every nausea-inducing defeat.

And when Irish fans were done with all that, they began worrying about recruiting.

The popular theory for any program goes that a season acts like a long bellwether - good years punctuated by signature wins indicate more success to come because more people will seek to join in the prosperity. Bad years, on the flip side, naturally and without fail chase people away, presaging even more doom and despair to come. Couple this with the fact that Notre Dame lost three prized verbal commitments in the last weeks before Signing Day last season (defensive end Justin Trattou, who switched to Florida; wideout Greg & offensive lineman Chris Little (no relation) who both flipped at the last possible moment to North Carolina & Georgia, respectively) and also seemed to lose momentum in the aftermath of the USC and LSU blowouts to end the season, as a number of potential impact players who'd all been seen as quite high on the Irish (Chris Donald, Ben Martin, Arrelious Benn, Martez Wilson, Major Wright, Joseph Barksdale) chose to go elsewhere, and anxiety naturally runs high after a 3-9 season.

The fade at the finish left many an Irish fan smarting, but perhaps the most telling post-signing analysis came from Weis himself:
I think when we sent offer letters, when you send them early, like now for a junior, we've added one of our key words on that offer letter, "commitment." I think what we're going to do is we're going to spend a lot more time making sure that if a guy wants to commit to us, verbally commit to us, everyone is under a clear understanding of what that means. No soft verbals, no silent verbals, no quiet verbals, okay? Either you're committed or you're not committed.
At the time, some took it as a sour-grapes moment from a coach stung by the loss of one significant 'silent verbal' (Benn) who was trying to establish some vice-like grip on the minds of impressionable young men. Somebody probably wise-cracked that it wasn't a great selling strategy to basically threaten 18-year olds when recruiting them to come to your school.

Flash-forward almost 10 months. It sure seems like the joker was right - it hasn't been a great strategy, it's been a fantastic strategy. Including offensive lineman Trevor Robinson, who committed to the Irish after an in-home visit by Weis Thursday evening, the Irish have 22 verbal pledges, heading towards what could be the nation's top-ranked recruiting class even without the likely addition of a few choice prospects still on the Irish radar. What's noteworthy about this class, though, is how evident the Weis doctrine concerning the meaning of a commitment has trickled through - and the feeling from current high schoolers that commitment represents a two-way street.

When Weis sought to give the most heralded word in recruiting a re-definition, the intent was to let whomever was "all in" understand that they weren't only committing to Notre Dame. Notre Dame was committing to them. As a result, stellar high school players who could choose to go anywhere have turned away the inevitable attempts by rival coaches to get them to reconsider. The Chicago Tribune recently caught up with a number of the most coveted Irish commits, starting with QB Dayne Crist of Sherman Oaks, CA:
The breadth and depth of the Irish's miseries this season spared few from collateral damage, and indeed Notre Dame's ballyhooed recruiting class endured more than a few caustic barbs.

Despite the slings and arrows that accompanied Notre Dame's outrageous misfortune, though, that class so far is undeterred. Not a single component of what is widely considered the nation's top talent haul has wavered publicly after the implosion of 2007.

Of course, some fallout zones were more toxic than others.

"It was just non-stop, people in my ear 'Oh my God, you're an idiot, why would you do that?'" Crist said. "'You better get on the phone with [USC] coach [Pete] Carroll, I can't believe you made a decision like this, you're going to be terrible for the next four years.' I heard it all."
The hits will keep on coming, of course, until the ink finally dries on February 6th. But to hear the Irish recruits talk about it, the resurrection has already begun in earnest, not only amongst themselves but from the interaction they have with their future teammates and the Irish coaching staff. Crist and Steve Filer explain:
The Irish's plan to match the recruits' commitment apparently was a successful ploy. Notre Dame didn't fax over game plans, but the staff apparently offered just enough of a taste, to where Crist felt "as if we were sitting in a meeting with the rest of the guys."

"In some instances, they asked me to evaluate the game, they asked me what I think I can add to the program," Filer said.
Keeping with the theme that Weis has had since he arrived at Notre Dame - namely, that there's no reason Notre Dame can't recruit with the big boys on account of academic standards, its tepid social scene, or the fact that national championship drought is about to reach 20 seasons - the class is not just stocked with talent but with 'high-character' kids who grasp the bigger picture. The fear about bad seasons breaking up recruiting efforts grows because of the assumption that high-school kids want to have a good time in college while preparing for the next level. The messy details of having to go to class, or compete for a starting job, or play their way through adversity are things everyone assumes an elite college football player would like to avoid. Not so fast:
"We know what Notre Dame is all about," said Chicago (St. Rita) linebacker Darius Fleming, who committed to the Irish in April. "We know that everyone has a bad year every now and then. Lately, Notre Dame hasn't had that bad year. Unfortunately, this year was it. But we're not going to let that continue."
Tight end Kyle Rudolph out of Cincinnati, the consensus #1 prospect at his position, noted the strange amount of compassion opposing coaches would come at him with:
Coaches called Rudolph with the same refrain: It's a big decision. We don't want you to rush into it. We want you to check out all your options.

"They try to play that card," Rudolph said. "Then they'll be like, 'Are you sure that's what you want to get into?' They always pull that. I tell them, I'm solid with my commitment and I'm happy with my decision."
Finally, according to wide receiver commitment John Goodman, when all else fails, recruiters from other schools tend to get chippy:
After Notre Dame dropped to 0-4, Goodman received a call from a Penn State assistant whose negative approach did little toward that end.

“They definitely tried all the negatives,” Goodman said of the coach whose name he couldn’t recall. “They talked about coach Weis, how he’s a bad coach, he’s a bad recruiter and about how Notre Dame’s doing terribly right now and all that, their stadium’s better. They never really said anything good about themselves, and I was just listening and I was like, ‘Whoa, this guy’s an idiot.’”
What's encouraging is how quickly the bond has formed between those players already committed, a bond that was quite evident when 11 of them - Crist, Filer, Fleming, Goodman, offensive linemen Braxston Cave & Mike Golic, Jr., defensive linemen Brandon Newman, Hafis Williams & Sean Cwynar, safety Dan McCarthy, and linebacker Anthony McDonald - visited Notre Dame on the weekend of December 7th, taking in the season-ending football banquet and planning among themselves which number they'd like to wear. That must have left an impression on Robinson, who was also visiting and then committed one week later.

The Irish have room for potentially five more commitments in this class - two players, Cwynar & Robinson, will enroll in January and thus count against last year's smaller haul of 18 players, meaning up to 27 prospects could end up signing and still keep the Irish inside the limit of 25 scholarships per academic year. The remaining targets on the Irish board aren't exactly fill-ins either: offensive lineman Kenneth Page, wide receivers Gerrell Robinson and Deion Walker, running backs Cyrus Gray & Milton Knox, and defensive ends Datone Jones & Kapron Lewis-Moore are all landing in the Top 100 player lists and filling up the rosters at high school All-American games.

The top ranking is nice, and certainly Notre Dame needs all the help it can get between the white lines in 2008. But the real impact of this class and how it came together will be gauged in two or three years time, when this class and the current freshman/sophomores form the backbone of a talented, experienced depth chart (as opposed to this season, in which more than 20 players made their first career starts). Just as importantly, the players still with the team and this incoming freshman class don't just refuse to shy away from the challenge of leading Notre Dame out of the wilderness - they're hell-bent on doing it as fast as possible.

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