- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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Wyomissing (Pa.) High School senior Alex Anzalone, the No. 5 outside linebacker prospect in the ESPN 150 and a Notre Dame football commit, met an Irish fan -- many of them, in fact -- last week in Florida as he prepared for the Under Armour All-America Game.
One fan, in particular, caught Anzalone's attention. They met at the Walt Disney World Resort hotel that headquartered the UA Game.
"I was walking around, and some guy just knew who I was," Anzalone said.
The fan had a Notre Dame helmet and asked Anzalone to sign it. He agreed, thrilling the fan.
"It's cool to see that kind of stuff," Anzalone said. "It shows how important Notre Dame is to some people."
A lot of people. As Notre Dame prepares to face Alabama on Monday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN in the Discover BCS National Championship, the Irish reawakening on the field has prompted a surge in passion from their fan base -- and a burst of energy in recruiting.
Commitments from No. 9-rated athlete Tarean Folston of Cocoa (Fla.) High School last week and No. 4 athlete Max Redfield of Mission Viejo (Calif.) High School on Friday during the UA Game pushed Notre Dame past Alabama to the No. 1 spot in the ESPN class rankings.
The Irish recruiting machine has officially returned. Perhaps even more formidable than the 12-0 team in search of the program's 12th national title, Notre Dame recruiting is a force to be reckoned with under third-year coach Brian Kelly.
Before Folston picked the Irish over Oregon and before Redfield, a former USC commit, spurned the Trojans, No. 2 ESPN 150 running back Greg Bryant of Delray Beach (Fla.) American Heritage committed to the Irish last month over offers from practically every Southeastern Conference power.
The Irish also count pledges from five-star linebacker and No. 9 ESPN 150 prospect Jaylon Smith of Fort Wayne (Ind.) Bishop Luers and fellow linebacker Anzalone, once committed to Ohio State and later considered a lean to Florida.
The list goes on. Ten of Kelly's 23 recruits are in the ESPN 150.
"You don't have to like us," said Irish offensive tackle pledge Hunter Bivin of Owensboro (Ky.) Apollo. "But you have to respect us now, because we're No. 1."
A win over the Crimson Tide would likely send Notre Dame recruiting further into overdrive.
"Look at that coaching staff and what they've done this year," said ESPN 150 tight end and Alabama commit O.J. Howard of Prattville (Ala.) Autauga Academy. "That makes you take notice as a recruit. It's kind of like Texas A&M."
Howard is solid to Alabama, but if this kind of revitalized Notre Dame had expressed interest in Howard before he decided on a school, would he have taken a look, even with Nick Saban's program in Howard's home state?
"Yeah, of course," Howard said. "You have to look at them right now."
Behold the power of the Irish.
"I'm still surprised," Michigan-committed quarterback Shane Morris said. "No one expected them to do what they're doing this year. It's insane."
Kelly's classes ranked ninth each of the past two years. The coach needed little time to display his power at Notre Dame as a recruiting giant. He signed elite defensive ends Aaron Lynch (who has since transferred to South Florida) out of Florida and Stephon Tuitt from Georgia in 2011, Kelly's first full year to recruit with those nine powerful letters stamped across his shirt.
Bivin committed at a junior day in March alongside fellow offensive tackle Colin McGovern of New Lenox (Ill.) Lincoln-Way East, No. 7 at his position nationally. Perhaps Irish bookends of the future, they met in South Bend this year for five games -- Purdue, Michigan, Stanford, Brigham Young and Wake Forest.
McGovern said he watched Irish wins over Navy and Purdue with tempered excitement. The Michigan game Sept. 22 really made him take notice.
Since then, it's been an amazing ride -- one that captivated some of the most unlikely prospects. Redfield, projected as a safety, remained committed to USC for nearly a month after he visited Notre Dame to watch the Oct. 13 Stanford game.
Clearly, he was smitten with the Irish immediately.
"It was a whole new experience, going there," Redfield said. "It was unlike any game I've been to."
For McGovern, everything that has happened over the past four months is gravy.
"I picked the school based on the education," he said. "For them to come back and be undefeated, it's the ultimate payoff. Some people are bitter about what Notre Dame is doing. They think we're lucky. But hey, 12 weeks of lucky is OK. I hope they've got one more.
"You either love or hate Notre Dame. Everyone feels strongly about it. But the most important thing is everyone will be watching that game. Everyone is watching now."