Updated: October 11, 2012, 5:36 PM ET
Cal Sport Media via AP Images, AP PhotoBrian Kelly (left) and Notre Dame take on David Shaw and Stanford on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET.

Notre Dame, Stanford take brand nationwide

By Mitch Sherman
ESPN RecruitingNation

Ryan Burns, tall and talented but inexperienced as a quarterback, carried a wish across the country when he traveled to Stanford for a football camp in June 2011.

Burns hoped the coaches he'd meet would like him as much as he liked the Cardinal.

Before the trip, with scholarship offers already secured from Boston College and Virginia, Burns described Stanford to his father as a dream destination. He knew of the university's reputation and had seen enough of Andrew Luck in two years to envision himself in control of the same offense.

Phrased differently, Burns -- now a senior at Ashburn (Va.) Stone Bridge and the nation's No. 3 pocket passer in the ESPN 150 -- was hooked.

Burns It was one of those decisions that I felt I would have regretted for the rest of my life if I hadn't said yes.

-- ESPN 150 QB Ryan Burns on Stanford

He got the coveted offer from coach David Shaw on that visit and waited nearly nine months to accept. But Burns never agonized over his college choice.

The 6-foot-5 gunslinger understood on that early-summer day in Palo Alto, Calif., the same truths he knew last March, when Burns traveled back to California to accept Shaw's invitation.

"It was one of those decisions," Burns said this week, "that I felt I would have regretted for the rest of my life if I hadn't said yes."

Behold the recruiting power of a worldwide brand.

Stanford and Notre Dame, which renew their rivalry Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET at Notre Dame Stadium, retain advantages in attracting prospects that even the most dominant programs can't match.

In this era of Southeastern Conference supremacy, realistic options to unseat the undisputed No. 1 league are in short supply. Recruiting powers USC and Florida State have already faltered this year.

There's the Oregon model -- devise a scheme, as difficult to duplicate as to defend, and place it in the hands of a visionary who's totally in tune with the players needed to succeed in his system. Easier said than done.

Or there's the truly national operation. Hope the best from coast to coast is strong enough to compete with the best of SEC country. Translation: Forget about that fence around your home state. If the lockdown corner 2,000 miles from campus fits better than the kid from a high school down the street, you get on a plane to recruit.

This is Stanford and Notre Dame. And it may just work, said Shaw, who's in his second year as coach of the Cardinal.

Until a school from outside the SEC wins a title -- that 2005 season when Texas was the national champ seems distant -- the conversation rages. How do you build a team to beat the best?

"We have kids on our team from SEC country and a lot of kids who were recruited by SEC schools," Shaw said. "They seem to think we'll be able to compete at the top of college football. But that'll be the debate until somebody else wins a national championship."

Shaw talks with excitement about the four-team playoff, still two years away, and about how to position the Cardinal to participate in it. He's a believer that Stanford's mode of constructing a roster, in a similar fashion to Notre Dame, offers a viable path to the top.

If the stars literally align for Shaw or third-year Irish coach Brian Kelly, perhaps they're best set to field a lineup that challenges the bullies of the SEC.

Notre Dame, 5-0 for the first time since 2002, is ranked No. 7 by the Associated Press. The climb marks its first appearance in the top 10 since 2006. No. 17 Stanford, meanwhile, has been ranked for 38 consecutive weeks, matching South Carolina for the fifth longest active streak behind Alabama, LSU, Oregon and Oklahoma.

Among the upper echelon of the sport, Notre Dame and Stanford remain unique in their approach to recruiting.

"You can walk into any high school in America, and they'll say, 'Oh, Notre Dame,' or 'Oh, Stanford,'" said Texas A&M assistant Brian Polian, who coached at Notre Dame from 2005 to 2009 and at Stanford for the next two years. "There's immediate name recognition, brand recognition. People understand what the two schools stand for."

Ohio State and Michigan can -- and do -- recruit anywhere, but the base stays near home. Texas makes its living in Texas. Others recruit nationally, but none with the same fervor and focus as Stanford or Notre Dame.

"I think from the outside looking in," Kelly said Tuesday at his weekly news conference, "you would say that there are a lot of similarities."

When the Irish recruited Manti Te'o out of Honolulu, Polian flew weekly in December 2008 and January 2009 to see the touted linebacker, arguably the top defender in college football this fall.

Te'o picked the Irish on signing day. Polian recalls that period as the most difficult recruiting stretch of his career.

"I didn't know which way was up," he said.

But he always put on a good face for Te'o and his coach at the Punahou School, Kale Ane. From his home in the middle of the Pacific, Ane has come to expect such professionalism from Stanford and Notre Dame.

"Their coaches are comfortable wherever they go, doing whatever they have to do," said Ane, who played at Michigan State and played seven years as a center in the NFL. "You can see it here, and we're as far from home as any place for most coaches to recruit."

Ane sent tight end Luke Kaumatule to Stanford this year. Punahou linebacker Isaac Savaiinaea, No. 140 in the ESPN 150, is committed to Stanford but continues to look at other options, including the Irish. He's set to see Notre Dame this weekend, in fact, on an official visit.

"It's a great privilege to hear from both of those schools," Savaiinaea said.

The selective recruiting for Stanford is a product of academic necessity. California fits in the recruiting assignments for six Cardinal assistants, but Stanford can't afford to focus too much even on the nation's most populous state because it doesn't provide enough Stanford-caliber academic prospects.

Among Stanford's 22-player class last February, one which ranked atop the Pac-12 and 12th nationally, it signed no more than three from a single state. This fall, since coaches hit the road to see prospects last month, Stanford coaches have visited 14 states and Washington, D.C.

Still, its Class of 2013, headlined by Burns and Savaiinaea, includes only six commits, equal to Kansas State for the fewest among schools in this week's AP Top 25.

That's by design, said Stanford running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Mike Sanford.

"Academically, for our admissions people, your senior year is your most important year," he said. "It's when you generate the momentum for your ride into college. We feel the same way about football."

Stanford studies recruiting targets so thoroughly that its coaches have developed a sense of the personality required to fit the school's cultural fabric.

When Shaw's staff identifies a "Stanford Man," football almost takes a backseat. The process, often painstaking, pays dividends when the Cardinal coaches discover they've recruited a locker room of like-minded players.

"Our biggest moment of the recruiting process is to convince a prospect to visit Stanford," Sanford said. "Once we get them here, it happens organically."

For Notre Dame, the academic standards, though stringent, don't match those at Stanford. But it can't field a roster of Indiana and Chicago-area players and attempt to catch the SEC schools.

Its 2013 group ranks No. 6, topped by outside linebacker Jaylon Smith of Fort Wayne (Ind.) Bishop Luers. He's the only Indiana prospect among the 21 pledges. The Irish went to Pennsylvania for three players, including linebacker Alex Anzalone. The group also includes players from Illinois, Kentucky, Georgia, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Minnesota, Texas, Virginia and Washington.

Last year, Kelly got third-rated QB Gunner Kiel from Columbus (Ind.) East, in addition to No. 1 athlete Davonte' Neal out of Scottsdale, Ariz., and tapped big-time programs Ramsey (N.J.) Don Bosco Prep for safety Elijah Shumate and Las Vegas Bishop Gorman for offensive lineman Ronnie Staley.

One of Notre Dame's big victories this year came when Prosper (Texas) High School receiver Torii Hunter Jr., No. 50 in the ESPN 150 and the son of the MLB outfielder, picked the Irish in September.

When he heard from Notre Dame assistant Kerry Cooks in March that Notre Dame wanted him, Hunter experienced much the same feeling as Burns did after his pivotal conversation with Shaw. Hunter got the news on the phone while attending a basketball game with his mother and aunt. And he couldn't wipe the smile off his face.

"I told everybody who would listen," Hunter said. "I looked at football. I looked at my future, life without football, and Notre Dame was still out front."

Yes, the Irish brand still resonates.

But as Stanford and Notre Dame excel, don't expect others to replicate their styles.

Last week in discussing his program's rise, South Carolina defensive line coach Brad Lawing said he's learned, over the years in recruiting, that the farther a school ventures from campus, the less it knows about a prospect.

"And the less you know about a kid," Lawing said, "the more you tend to make mistakes."

A regional approach works for the Gamecocks and others. It's a foreign concept, though, to Stanford.

Shaw said Stanford prefers to get into big markets like Atlanta, Dallas and Washington, D.C., where many families moved from other states and don't feel regional allegiances.

Next on the plan? More big wins, of course. And for both programs, Saturday represents a key step in enhancing their appeal to recruits across the nation.


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