Brian Kelly was ‘incredible’ in his focus on recruiting the 2018 Notre Dame football class

Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly speaks to the media at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex Wednesday in South Bend. The Fighting Irish coaches were taking part in festivities for National Signing Day. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
Notre Dame football recruiting coordinator Brian Polian speaks to the media at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex Wednesday in South Bend. The Fighting Irish coaches were taking part in festivities for National Signing Day. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)

SOUTH BEND – In December of 2016, Brian Kelly reflected on his nearly three decades as a head coach in wake of his Notre Dame program tumbling to a frustrating 4-8 season.

He did a great amount of inner soul-searching partially because he is a competitor that hates to fail, but also in part because at a program like Notre Dame, even with its Catholic foundation, a coach can get a second chance at redemption in life, but not on the football field.

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The Fighting Irish improved to a 10-win season this past autumn, which culminated in a thrilling win over LSU in the Citrus Bowl, and that success had its origins in Kelly altering many of his professional and even some personal habits, one of which was devoting more attention to recruiting.

The Irish signed 27 student-athletes in its 2018 recruiting class, 21 in the early signing period in December and six more Wednesday, and first-year Notre Dame recruiting coordinator Brian Polian said that Kelly’s diligence was crucial to that.

“Coach Kelly was incredible in terms of his willingness to get out this year,” Polian said on National Signing Day in December. “He was out a lot during the season watching guys play. The sped-up time period here made it important that he get out and Coach’s willingness to be out those first three weeks of contact were incredibly important as we were trying to close guys up before this date. Coach Kelly was tremendous.”

Kelly and his staff had a number of obstacles to overcome in signing this class, but somehow they managed.

As the first three-day signing period was being conducted (Dec. 20-22), the Irish were preparing for its bowl game on Jan. 1, but later in the recruiting cycle, a couple of Kelly’s key assistants, defensive coordinator Mike Elko and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand took other jobs at Texas A&M and Chicago Bears, respectively.

Kelly quickly promoted linebackers coach Clark Lea to coordinate the defense, while also promoting offensive analyst Jeff Quinn to coach the offensive line.

In addition, he brought in safeties coach Terry Joseph from North Carolina. He did all of that while also maintaining the recruiting relationships leading to Wednesday’s success.

“Often real people, real people make a difference late,” Kelly said of his new hires helping to smooth the recruiting process. “If you’re shallow and are not presenting yourself as genuine and authentic, you’re going to get squeezed out late in this process. You don’t get them all. Sometimes it’s out of your control individually.”

Polian said that Quinn was really effective in helping secure a commitment from California offensive lineman Jarrett Pattetrson, who finally pledged his services after 12 a.m. EST Wednesday with a phone call to Quinn.

“Both (Quinn and Joseph) are great fits at Notre Dame because they know what we’re recruiting and why we’re doing it,” Kelly said. “We’re here to develop our players holistically, and then prepare them for whatever that next step is. Jeff is able to articulate that. Jeff is able to talk about that in homes in terms of building that relationship, and Terry is, as well, on his hand.”

Realistically, even with a stronger commitment to recruiting, Kelly can’t be everywhere in terms of finding players, evaluating them, and then building the relationships necessary to secure a commitment. Polian explained that the head coach affords his assistants the independence to do that work themselves, which develops them professionally.

“He’s as active and competitive about (recruiting) as anybody else I’ve worked for,” Polian said of Kelly. “The great thing about coach Kelly is that if the coordinators or a position coach has a strong conviction about a young man, (Kelly) will hear them out and say ‘OK, if everybody is on board, let’s go.’ But he not a micromanager (and) that’s a good thing sometimes. The coordinators know what they’re looking for and know what they want and we were able to build that way.”

For more on college football, follow Tom Davis on Twitter at Tom101010 and on Facebook at Thomas Davis.

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