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Fighting Irish not afraid to dip into the land of the Longhorn

Wednesday, February 12, 2014 - 12:01 am

SOUTH BEND – When it has come to recruiting the Lone Star State over the years, Notre Dame football has been about as welcome as Santa Anna's Mexican army in 1836.

While Santa Anna was eventually captured and defeated, the Fighting Irish have never wavered in their attempts to pluck high schoolers from the talent-rich state of Texas.

But grabbing recruits with offers from the University of Texas is different.

In fact, it has been almost impossible for Notre Dame. In the last decade before national signing day a week ago, the Irish could claim just two players they had persuaded to come to South Bend instead of playing for the Longhorns.

But Notre Dame surpassed that total in the just-completed cycle, beating Texas for defensive lineman Grant Blankenship, linebacker Kolin Hill and defensive back Nick Watkins.

It represents a significant accomplishment for the Irish coaching staff, particularly Texas native Kerry Cooks, Notre Dame's defensive backs coach who recruits the state.

“I think Kerry Cooks did a great job incidentally in the state of Texas,” coach Brian Kelly said. “I don't know if that happens very often. But we're very fortunate, and it's a great area for us."

While the uncertainty and coaching change in Austin surely played a role in Kelly and his staff grabbing talent from Texas, a variety of other factors also went into the accomplishment. A BCS National Championship appearance, Cooks' ability to relate to players and families, and the Shamrock Series game in San Antonio have all contributed to the recent upward trend.

The recent success has been a result of long-term commitment.

“Kerry has been recruiting the state of Texas for a long time before he got to Notre Dame, so Kerry has had a great network down there for a period time, and we've been digging hard down there,” Kelly said. “I can't tell you how many flights I've been in and out of there, and we haven't necessarily hit home runs, but we've got some good players out of Texas.”

Recruiting is just as much about building relationships within high schools as it is building relationships with individual players and their families. Notre Dame has done a good job developing pipelines with prep programs such as St. Thomas Aquinas in Florida and St. Ignatius in Ohio. The Irish have made it a priority to identify the high-profile institutions in Texas that produce players who can compete on the field and in the classroom in South Bend.

“We started early at Bishop Dunne (with Nick Watkins),” Kelly said. “We're getting into the right schools and to the right kids.”

Notre Dame hopes it can continue to grab talent away from the Longhorns in this next cycle. The Irish currently have scholarship offers out to 10 juniors in Texas. Of those players, nine also have offers from the Longhorns.

It is a tough road to get prospects to leave a state where football is king to come to Indiana, especially when they have a Longhorns offer to mull over. But Notre Dame showed this past cycle it is making inroads in that endeavor.

“Are we going to get three kids from Texas every year that get offered by Texas? That's going to be tough sledding,” Kelly said. “But there are going to be years that I think we're going to be able to do well in Texas, and that's a great area for us. We've got a great network and a great alumni network there, as well.”