SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The winningest active FBS coach stepped to the podium on national signing day and thanked his assistants and their wives for their work on the road this past year. He thanked the admissions office for meeting with prospects. He thanked his athletic director for making himself available to incoming players and their families.
He thanked the academic support team for prepping recruits for expectations, and he thanked the digital media department for telling his program’s story. He thanked the facilities staff for making the complex accessible and clean, and he thanked the student workers for their brainpower and feedback.
Wednesday was a different signing day for Brian Kelly and Notre Dame, which eschewed the simple head coach news conference and invited the media in for a day of interviews with assistant coaches while the program’s internal signing day show played on a projector screen for all to see.
It was also a different signing day for the Fighting Irish in that their No. 16 ranking for their 2016 class was their lowest of the six full classes Kelly has signed.
And it was different in that that number wasn’t really the sticking point this week.
At last year’s signing day, Notre Dame employed four assistant coaches who would not be a part of the 2015 staff. Among those departures was running backs coach Tony Alford, the program’s recruiting coordinator. In stepped linebackers coach Mike Elston, who helped streamline the operation that, after a stellar if not spectacular Year 1, seems primed to fire on all cylinders come 2017 and beyond.
Consider: Notre Dame hauled in a 23-man class Wednesday that fills plenty of needs on the defensive line and in the defensive backfield. The Irish were hit by a grand total of zero de-commitments. Furthermore, not a single one of the committed players took an official visit elsewhere after pledging to the Irish, according to IrishIllustrated.
Let’s not forget, either, that ESPN300 receiver Demetris Robertson could still choose the Irish when he eventually announces his college decision later this month. You may remember Robertson from Notre Dame bringing its equipment truck to his house last week in Savannah, Georgia.
“You’re gonna go to the South and you’re gonna recruit, you better roll your sleeves up and go,” Elston said, adding: "We have some of the smartest students in the country going to school here and we have over 30 of them employed through our recruiting office. We’ve dealt with student employment and they have incredible cutting-edge ideas, and so you’re gonna start to see creative things and continue to see things creative things come from the recruiting department that separates us, hopefully, from everybody else but also keeps in mind our distinctions, so we’re not gonna lose focus on that.
“We wanna have some fun, too. We’re trying to build in a sense for guys that are following us, let’s say, for example, on social media; we want them to see our personality. We don’t wanna be the stuffy, hey, always serious -- we want them to see our personality.”
The Irish also locked up Kelly last week through the 2021 season, a move that, more than combating NFL rumors and the like, puts a stamp on an Irish program that is coming off a 10-win season despite a ridiculous amount of injuries. Revamping the recruiting department is one way Kelly has evolved. So, too, is taking a more pragmatic approach to early NFL departures, as Notre Dame had three degree-less players enter the pros after this past season.
“If, for example, one school wants to say Notre Dame can't do that or doesn't do it, we can have a really, really good conversation about how we have done that,” Kelly said of player development. “We'd prefer not to. We think we've got other things that are higher on the list, but when we do get to that, and we do, further down the line, we will highlight the guys that have developed and succeeded in the NFL and developed in this program in particular over the last six years.”
Contrast that with his comments in 2014 -- after the last bunch of early departures -- and the difference is striking.
This is Notre Dame football in 2016 now, with everyone on the same page, with a 10-win season to build off, with a blend of tradition and innovation that should make recruiting classes like this one an anomaly when compared with future, more touted hauls.