Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s recruiting has reached new heights – Inside the Irish

Five-star safety Peyton Bowen’s chaotic week may have robbed Notre Dame of some recruiting momentum, but if there is ever a moment for that fictional intangible to disappear in recruiting, it is on National Signing Day, when the rest of a class is signed, sealed and delivered.

His de-commitment initially to Oregon and eventually to Oklahoma may have made it seem like things have not changed for the Irish under Marcus Freeman, especially when combined with a pair of other de-commitments in the last two weeks, but that is a judgment based on recency bias. Not to mention, it overlooks Notre Dame snagging flips from quarterback Kenny Minchey (Pittsburgh), offensive lineman Chris Terek (Wisconsin) and receiver Kaleb Smith (Texas Tech) in the last month.

To complain about Bowen or running backs Jayden Limar (Oregon) or Dylan Edwards (Colorado) is to also gripe about the process that landed the Irish their class of 2023 quarterback and shiftiest receiver.

All of that has always been par for the course in recruiting. It was how these things played out before the database terrifyingly known as the transfer portal. It was the reality before name, image and likeness rights validated payments that were already happening.

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Al Golden had been out of college coaching for six years before he arrived in South Bend following last year’s Super Bowl. His first recruiting cycle back amid the chaos, one that saw him land 12 defensive recruits, reminded him of what he used to do at Miami and Temple a decade ago.

“I don’t know how different it is,” Golden said Wednesday. “Obviously the portal has made a little bit of an impact, there’s no doubt about that. We’re not immune to the irregularities of recruiting or some of the sideshows that go with recruiting.”

Golden then launched into the usual praises coaches heap onto Notre Dame when they first learned recruiting with that monogram on their chest is a bit different; they are going after a different set of players, both on the field and off. Every high school in the country will welcome an Irish coach, no matter the location. Things are just a touch different for coaches recruiting for Notre Dame. For them, there is change.

For the Irish, there has also been a change. But it is not one spurred by losing Bowen to two schools in one week. It is not a change marked by five-star defensive end Keon Keeley choosing Alabama over Notre Dame. That would have been the case before NIL deals, and it will be the case as long as Nick Saban presides in Tuscaloosa.

The change is that the Irish just put together their best two-year recruiting cycle perhaps ever.

Recruiting is best gauged in rolling two-year cycles, to minimize the downgrading impact of a kicker or a long-snapper on rankings and to better conceive of entire roster development, rather than one year’s emphasis. Furthermore, on-field results typically come in cycles, so a two-year view builds into the coming developmental cycle, as well.

In the last two years, Notre Dame signed 46 recruits, and 78.26 percent of them were four- or five-stars, otherwise known as “blue-chip recruits.”

To put that into quick context: The general consensus is no team can be considered a viable national title contender without at least half its roster being blue-chip recruits. That metric alone narrows the national pool to 8-12 teams each preseason. Alabama and Ohio State will be north of 80 percent; Notre Dame is usually somewhere between 50 and 60 percent.

All but five of this year’s 24 signees are four-stars, per rivals.com, including a top-300 player at each position, a program first, per Irish head coach Marcus Freeman. Many of them were Notre Dame’s longest commits, the likes of linebacker Drayk Bowen and defensive end Brenan Vernon committed for more than a year.

“Today is a day to celebrate because you have to continue to make sure you get the right guys to this place,” Freeman said. “That’s what we did. We got a great recruiting class, a great group of young men at multiple different positions that will continue to be the framework of what Notre Dame football is all about.”

Freeman undersold it.

Only one class under Brian Kelly or Charlie Weis had a higher blue-chip ratio than this year’s 79.17 percent. The class of 2008, led by Kyle Rudolph, Dayne Crist and Michael Floyd, boasted an 82.61 percentage. Combined with the class of 2007 (Jimmy Clausen, Armando Allen, offensive lineman Matt Romine), that two-year cycle had a blue-chip ratio of 78.05 percent, tenths of a percentage behind this most-recent two-year grouping, but behind it, nevertheless.

That was Weis’ peak. By the end of his tenure, only 20 of 41 recruits were blue chips in the 2009 and 2010 classes.

Kelly’s peak came with a 75 percent mark in 2013, the class coinciding with Notre Dame’s run to the national championship game. The years sandwiching that combined for a mark of exactly 50 percent, only 20 of 40 signees as four- or five-stars.

The Irish have not enjoyed back-to-back recruiting classes near this quality in 15 years.

If anything around Notre Dame and recruiting has changed, it has been that, no worries about “acquisition fees” or late de-commitments. While Freeman would not delve into either concept on Wednesday, feigning some version of ignorance about the phrase “acquisition fees” for a moment, they are still recruiting standards.

“We don’t speak to that,” he said. “Is it a part of recruiting? Yeah, because we discuss it. It’s a topic of discussion, but in terms of acquisition fees, we’re not going to get into that. We can’t, because again, if that’s going to be the reason you decide to come here, it’s hard to keep you here.”

There is hardly any difference between that conversation in 2022 and the bag men of previous decades. Yet, now is when Freeman led the way to this recruiting surge.

“We need guys that understand the value of this place and what it will provide in the long run,” Freeman said. “Because you’re not just going to get that instant gratification that some guys are looking for.”

Freeman emphasizes to those players that the instant gratification of a payday is not the only thing they should not expect at Notre Dame. This class will not, for the most part, contribute in 2023. Cornerback Christian Gray may look like a day-one prospect, but it would be a surprise to see a third freshman cornerback emerge in just two years. Receivers Rico Flores and Jaden Greathouse may have been praised as physical enough to play now, but both doing so would be a change for a Tommy Rees offense.

Looking at last year’s class, only three players made notable statistical contributions: cornerbacks Benjamin Morrison and Jaden Mickey, and receiver Tobias Merriweather. Other players got on the field, namely linebackers Junior Tuihalamaka and Jaylen Sneed, but their playing time came late and was not the determining factor in any game.

The payoff of this recruiting surge will come down the line in 2024 or 2025, not in 2023.

“When you bring these guys in, it’s going to take a little bit of time to really be able to run out there at Notre Dame Stadium and have a huge impact on our program,” Freeman said. “It takes time. Very few guys can come in here and play and start right away.”

Even the best two-year recruiting cycle of the modern era at Notre Dame will not change that.

NOTRE DAME BLUE-CHIP RATIOS
2023: 19 of 24 recruits, 79.17 percent, No. 8 overall class, per rivals.com.
2022: 17 of 22, 77.27 percent, No. 6 overall class.
2021: 12 of 27, 44.44 percent, No. 9
2020: 10 of 17, 58.82 percent, No. 22
2019: 12 of 22, 54.55 percent, No. 14
2018: 12 of 27, 44.44 percent, No. 11
2017: 8 of 21, 38.0 percent, No. 13
2016: 13 of 23, 56.52 percent, No. 13
2015: 13 of 24, 54.17 percent, No. 11
2014: 11 of 23, 47.83 percent, No. 11
2013: 18 of 24, 75 percent, No. 3
2012: 9 of 17, 52.94 percent, No. 20
2011: 10 of 23, 43.48 percent, No. 10
2010: 10 of 23, 43.48 percent, No. 14
2009: 10 of 18, 55.56 percent, No. 21
2008: 19 of 23, 82.61 percent, No. 2
2007: 13 of 18, 72.22 percent, No. 8
2006: 12 of 28, 42.86 percent, No. 8

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