Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Results Are In

While the American political landscape was busying sorting itself out (or clouding itself back up, depending on your point of view) on Tuesday, college football's powerhouses and upstarts alike had a little delegate breakdown of their own today as months of hard work on the recruiting trail finally ended with National Signing Day. In sum the Irish added the letters-of-intent from 23 players in 17 states. A quick breakdown of the various analyst rankings for where the Irish ended up:

ESPN ranked the Irish at ninth, while giving a big boost to Clemson (ranked 10th, 12th, & 12th in the other services), which might signify nothing or could justify all the conspiracy theories regarding the Worldwide Leader's fetish for southern speed. Either way, Nick Saban makes a big splash in his first full-fledged recruiting swing for 'Bama, leading the Tide to a consensus overall #1 ranking with the Irish close behind.

Justifiably, this fourth recruiting class for Charlie Weis generated plenty of ink, particularly as many pundits tried to decipher how places like ND and Miami could pull in such stellar classes in the wake of abysmal seasons (the Irish, as we all know, went 3-9; their one-time archnemesis went 5-6, and that was with gimmes like Duke and FIU on the schedule). Yahoo/Rivals columnist Dan Wetzel tailed Weis in the predawn hours before the signatures rolled in:
[Weis has] never been afraid to "talk Jersey," to say and think bold, confident things. Some of it has left him up to mockery – "schematic advantage" anyone? Some has left him chasing self-imposed, sky-high expectations.

But it is also the mentality that has served him as an excellent recruiter, despite a background almost exclusively in the NFL. From the start, he's refused to accept the conventional wisdom that Notre Dame's serious admissions standards prohibit the signing of the kind of athlete needed to win.

"We need good kids who are not hypocritical about academics (and) who can play ball," he said. "We have to hit the trifecta. That doesn't mean they have to be magna cum laude, but not hypocritical about academics.

"That minimizes your list. But I'm not an excuse guy. Everyone said how tough it is, but that's not the case at all."

He just challenged his assistants to find those players. While this is certainly his best recruiting class, it is also his third consecutive strong one.

"To recruit at Notre Dame you have to be willing to go into any state in the country and lose," Weis said. "You have to go into California and beat the California schools. Go into Nebraska and beat the University of Nebraska, go into Ohio and beat Ohio State, go into Michigan and beat Michigan and Michigan State.

"But you've got to go in and fight that fight."
Over at ESPN, former Alabama coach Bill Curry weighed in by recounting his own recent sitdown with Charlie:
"Ideally, over time, we will develop to the point that we have roughly 21 players in each of the four classes, with an occasional fifth-year player under the right circumstances," Weis said. "That allows for the really gifted freshmen to play early, and the others time to develop. That way the freshmen can 'supplement' rather than 'supplant.' That is much healthier and more conducive to winning than what we were forced to do last year." In 2007, the Irish played 11 true freshmen.

I agreed, and asked how he was selling his product -- bad mistake if one is talking to Charlie Weis.

"We are not salesmen! We are representatives of Notre Dame -- starting with the head coach," said Weis. "We want to build relationships and let the facts speak to the prospects and parents. Here is Notre Dame, here is what we are: a great university of 8,200 students; a great education -- no Bubblegum 101; great winning tradition; a serious value system and a graduation rate of 100 percent for our football players."

When asked about all of the nightmare stories coaches tell about parents these days, Weis offered this surprise: "Getting the parents to want Notre Dame is easy. They have been wonderful. But this generation of student-athletes has never seen Notre Dame win big. They want to win, and we must show them that we will do that. The kids want to win!"
One of the interesting things about these two articles is how suddenly candid Weis seems to have become. Maybe it's the byproduct of a pre-established relationship with the media in question. Maybe it stems from the realization that after going 3-9 and getting throughly dressed down in the process, Weis realized there was nothing left to hide and nowhere to go but up.

Personally, I felt Weis' growth as a coach, and his staff's ability to develop players, took a big leap forward with the decision to go after (and, as fate would have it, hire) Jon Tenuta, a defensive coach who's every bit as gung-ho as Weis is and has the stat sheets proving a through dismantling of the Irish to boot. Weis did not broach that subject during his press conference today, but said he'll address the burning issues about players who may or may not be eligible (Pat Kuntz, Will Yeatman) and how/if the hierarchy of the coaching staff will change with Tenuta's addition at another press conference this Friday.

Speaking of today's press conference, just to get the business over and done with, one intrepid reporter had the courage to mention Omar Hunter by name and asked about what went down. Weis' response?
I'm not going to talk about somebody who's not on this 23 right here.
Guess that ends that affair.

In total the Irish banked 23 prospects, including Deion Walker, who stayed with the Irish despite a late push from Penn State, and defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore of Weatherford, TX. Weis had actually mentioned the specifics of Moore's decision in the Curry article, though at the time he was not allowed to 'name names', such as it were:
I asked Weis about the disappointments he's faced on the recruiting trail.

Weis answered, "Oh yeah, we had one or two, but even that has turned to our advantage. We called the committed players to tell them about the defection, and they responded that we should let him go, that they didn't want the guy. So in a sense, they have already bonded.

"The biggest highlight for me, personally, is the great player from a distant place that decided to go to another school. Obviously, I can't say his name. As much as it hurt, I called him and wished him the very best. It turns out the Mom was in our corner, and the next night he called back and asked, 'You still got that scholarship?' When I said 'Yes I do,' he responded, 'Well, I came to my senses. I am coming to Notre Dame.' That was a great feeling that we had handled things the right way."
Weis' press conference recap of each prospect plus a brief bit of verbal ping-pong between him and the press corps is available here as part of's coverage of Signing Day; the ND Sports Properties boys also have assembled prep highlight packages of each member of the class here (you'll also find links to video Weis' press conference plus the ESPN-style 90-minute "Signing Day Special" hosted by Jack Nolan which featured Weis, Rob Ianello, plus NDSP regulars Reggie Brooks & Mirko Jurkovic).

All things considered, this day could've been a lot worse, and certainly would've been under the direction of any coach who doesn't believe in Notre Dame as strongly as the one currently holding the head office does. We throw a lot of obsession and adulation at 17 and 18-year old kids, many of whom will not develop into superstars despite all the predictions that they can't miss; others who were barely registering will go on to become All-Americans. While the Irish missed out a chance to add one last top player in Milton Knox, who resisted the constant text messaging from Dayne Crist, Jimmy Clausen, & Joseph Fauria to honor his commitment to UCLA, there's few reasons not to feel good about the future of Notre Dame football.

Okay, I can hear the skeptics out there. So to wrap up, another Recruiting Moment of Zen, courtesy Chicago linebacker (and official member of Notre Dame's class of 2012) Darius Fleming:
“I’ve read a lot of stuff. And I see people and they talk about us and how we’ve got to come in and do this and do that. We’ve got a lot of expectations...but I don’t think it should be a problem with us proving it. I think we’re going to come in and do just what people are expecting us to.”


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