Impressive guest list

ND to host the largest group of top prospects during USC game

October 12, 2009, 9:38 AM

By: Eric Hansen

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- He still is weeks away from his next collision with a cornerback; still wearing a sling on his left arm; still limited to "coaching" on game days.

Charlie Weis

Matt Cashore/US Presswire

Mark Sanchez offered Charlie Weis a pat on the back after the Trojans destroyed Notre Dame, 38-0, in 2007.

That doesn't mean Notre Dame sophomore Michael Floyd won't have an impact on Saturday's showdown at Notre Dame Stadium between the 25th-ranked Irish (4-1) and No. 6 USC (4-1).

In fact, you can argue, Floyd -- out until at least late November with a broken collarbone -- already has had an impact.

Dial back to the 2007 ND-USC mismatch, the last time the Trojans came to town.

In the hours following a 38-0 demoralization by USC on Oct. 20 of that year, sealing the 13th losing season in Irish history at a time when anti-Charlie Weis rhetoric was at its peak, Floyd reversed the momentum.

He verbally committed to the Irish amidst the smattering of boos, the stream of harsh headlines and the statistical carnage of the second-most-lopsided home loss ever by a Notre Dame squad.

"That commitment really was huge for Charlie and Notre Dame," said ESPN recruiting analyst and former Ohio State assistant coach Bill Conley. "Not only did they get a great player, but they got a player who attracted other great players to Notre Dame.

"I remember way back in the 1980s, when Chris Spielman and Cris Carter were at Ohio State. They were two of our best recruiters. And that's the kind of impact Michael Floyd has off the field, not to mention the impact he has on the field when he's healthy."

That 2007-08 recruiting class grew as the losses piled up. And it held together with just one defection -- defensive lineman Omar Hunter to Florida -- when poaching season hit its crescendo in the weeks just before the February national signing day.

"I think that kind of defined their character," Weis said of the class unity. "Before they got here, you knew you had a special group, because they were getting hammered every day, everywhere they went. By their peers. At school. At the grocery store

"And certainly by every other college in America. So that's one of the reasons you know they're special."

Fast-forward to 2009, and the Irish welcome the largest and most star-heavy in-season recruiting contingent ever.

No fewer than 10 members of the ESPNU 150 will be in attendance. That doesn't count 11 of the 15 prospects already committed to the Irish who will be in the stands, or the 11 elite juniors scheduled to attend on unofficial visits.

Three of the senior visitors are committed to other schools but open to switching -- free safety Corey Cooper of Maywood, Ill. (Illinois); wide receiver Tai-ler Jones of Gainesville, Ga. (Stanford) and free safety Devon Carrington of Chandler, Ariz. (Stanford).

Five of the blue-chip seniors are involved in a recruiting tug-of-war between ND and the Trojans, including the highest-rated prospect of the whole bunch, ESPNU No. 4 Seantrel Henderson.

Henderson is a 6-foot-8, 330-pound offensive tackle from Cretin-Derham Hall High in St. Paul, Minn. -- the same school that produced Floyd. In fact, Henderson dropped the Irish earlier in the recruiting process, but those in recruiting circles credit Floyd with getting ND back in the mix.

"Seantrel and I are real close," Floyd said earlier in the fall. "That's just how it is. I'm working on him -- we're working on him -- to come here. He's a cool guy and a lot like me, kind of a goofball who gets the job done in school. The guy can play. That's how it is."

Floyd is one of five Irish starters (or would-be starters) who were heavily involved with USC during the recruiting process and vice versa. The others are quarterback Jimmy Clausen, offensive tackle Sam Young, defensive tackle Ethan Johnson and freshman linebacker Manti Te'o.

For Floyd, it was easy to see beyond the short-term turmoil when he made his decision.

"Sitting there and looking at stuff, I just got the feeling that this is the place for me," he said. "I didn't get a feeling like that from anywhere else as much as Notre Dame. This is the spot for me. This is a place I can have a career and keep going. It was just a good school for me to go to."

Interestingly, two of the other three elite prospects who made recruiting visits to ND that turbulent weekend in which the Irish fell to 1-7 -- offensive lineman Trevor Robinson and running back Jonas Gray -- also eventually ended up committing to Notre Dame. The third, South Carolina lineman Kenneth Page, signed with Clemson.

"This is going to be an interesting weekend on a lot of levels," ESPN recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill said. "I can remember three years ago, when the Irish just got it handed to them by USC at the [L.A. Memorial] Coliseum [44-24], and Charlie Weis at the podium talked about a talent disparity and how he intended to close that gap.

"Well, you weren't going to see that gap close the past two years, because when quarterback Jimmy Clausen walked into that huddle, all he had were other young players around him. Now he's experienced and everyone around him has kind of grown up with him. It's going to be interesting to see Saturday how much the talent gap has closed."

Conley said very seldom does one singular game, even one of this magnitude, weigh heavily in where a prospect eventually ends up. And Floyd is proof of that. But when a big game leads to a chain of events that either ensures or dilutes a head coach's job security, that's a different story.

"Recruits aren't talking about Charlie Weis' job right now," Conley said. "They're 4-1 and in the top 25. But things could move in another direction, for better or for worse, after Saturday. I don't think they get Manti Te'o last year if there was an inkling Charlie wasn't going to be around. It would have been a big game anyway for Notre Dame on Saturday. I think the stakes are even higher now."

Eric Hansen covers Notre Dame for ESPNChicago.com and the South Bend Tribune.

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