Sunday, February 06, 2005

Recruiting Roundtable | by Jay

This week we were coming back from our annual BGS corporate team-building retreat slash LOI Day beer-bender in Sun Valley, Idaho, when disaster struck – they cancelled the last leg of our flight, and we got stuck in the Memphis airport.

Seems we had loaned out the BGS learjet to Tommy Lee for his commutes back and forth for his reality TV show at the University of Nebraska, and he never gave it back, so we were forced to fly commercial (note to secretary: that’s the last time we trust Tommy with anything).

Not used to such bourgeois travel impediments, we promptly panicked and commandeered the entire Terminal 3 Chili’s, ordered an onion blossom, a plate of ribs, and a round of beers, and resorted to what we usually do in times of distress: we started talking Irish football recruiting. Here's the conversation that ensued.

Okay, as of right now I don't think Lorig is coming in, so the final tally is 15 recruits. We can talk about the new guys and how the class shapes up, but first I want to throw out a couple of quotes from this week:
"Next year's pitch will be our record," Minter said. "But for now, we're trying to get kids to jump on board based on faith without proof. We're saying, 'Have faith in Charlie, have faith in Rick, have faith in our staff, have faith in (quarterback) Brady Quinn, have faith in our players. We're going to get the job done.' That's a tough sell."
"This is a new beginning for Notre Dame. No more excuses," Lemming said. "Notre Dame could have a top-three class (next year) if the staff is up to it. Weis you know is up to it. If the coaches are as good as advertised, then there's no way it won't be a top-three class."
First off, I guess, do we agree that no matter how poor -- well, let me use the word "incomplete" instead of "poor" -- our class is this year, it won't matter that much in the long run, as long as we have a good season in '05?

Well, my first thought is: this onion blossom is exquisite. My second thought: how can anyone read that Lemming quote with a straight face? "Notre Dame could have a top-three class (next year) if the staff is up to it." If they're not, we won't, I guess. I am putting on my turtleneck and stating, for the record, that Notre Dame will win the National Championship in 2005. Unless they don't.

Regardless of what Lemming says, I think that Minter's right, but it has less to do with "believing" in what they'll accomplish than it did not having the opportunity to build the sort of relationships with this class of recruits that almost all of the other schools did. In the end, most of the best recruits still out on the board didn't know the Weis group and weren't willing to take the time and trouble to rectify that. And when ND has been on the skids for so long and you have the Oklahomas, Southern Cals and Texases jockeying for your services, it's an understandable state of mind.

Just look at someone like Eugene Monroe, the prized offensive line prospect from New Jersey who committed to Virginia. This is a kid who could have played for Miami or Oklahoma or any other number of top programs, but he's taking a leap of faith with Al Groh and the Cavaliers. I presume that he "believes" that Virginia will actually win more than 8 games someday, but it's certainly nothing he's gathered from their exploits on the field. Instead, I think that comes from knowing and being courted by the coaches for an extended period, buying their particular schtick. So that's an opportunity that Weis and his assistants will have next year, and they'll be ten times better for it, 2005 record be damned.

No question, we stand to fare better in recruiting next time around by winning 9 or 10 games right out of the gate, but I believe that the new staff's first full class will be better and more complete than any in recent memory, regardless of the results on the field. These guys appear to work very hard at it, and that's half the battle in recruiting. Most schools who bust their asses in this respect aren't selling what ND can and will.

Good point, and in another part of interview Minter talks about how he intends to "sell" Notre Dame, how he feels comfortable there, and how he looks at himself as a de facto "alum" of the school, or rather, a "coaching alum". Getting guys like Weis, Haywood, and Minter on board is light years away from the previous two regimes, where any affinity to the school really had to be learned and affected rather than deeply felt. Hell, I'm not sure Davie ever really bought into it in the first place. So I'm looking forward to seeing what the "Irish homies" can do with a full year of building relationships, scouting talent and selling the school.

Something else about what Minter said really rang true, too: much of it comes down our record on the field next year. This isn't Premier Properties, and no matter what Mitch and Murray say about the prime leads, we're not selling swampland. Our '05 season is really make-or-break as far as setting up the future of the Weis franchise, and if we muddle around .500 we're screwed. As much as we want to give Weis some breathing room for a year or two, winning is vitally important right out of the box. The good thing is, as I look at the '05 schedule, I can foresee a maximum 3-loss season pretty easily.

I think one important word here that has been mentioned and reflects the attitude the new staff is bringing is "selling". Notice in all of the quotes and actions that Weis and his staff are selling Notre Dame to the kids. They aren't content to just let Notre Dame sell itself. All of the proactive press releases on, the large photo spread of the half-completed Gug, it really seems like they realize that the current crop of high school kids might not be as familiar with the successful Notre Dame as we rabid fans might like. The fact that the current coaches already have experience with Notre Dame and so far appear to be hard-working in the recruiting front is a great early sign.

But by far the best sign in my mind is that they are selling the program and making sure that every kid they talk to realizes the full power of the Notre Dame Football Program when it is clicking on all cylinders. As Teds said, that image is one that the kids just have to trust for now. But if (once?) Weis gets the program headed in the right direction, the sell will be easier and some of the old excuses..too cold...too far...too many classes...too religious...will fall by the wayside as kids want come to Notre Dame to play football.

So, the official list has just been released by UND. Here's the link. Quick poll of the group: who was our biggest "get", who was the biggest one we missed out on, and who do you think is the biggest sleeper of the guys we picked up today?

This will probably sound like sour grapes, but I can't remember ever caring so little about landing or losing particular recruits on signing day. None of them is more than remotely likely to make a positive impact on the 2005 team. It's not as if there's a lockdown corner on the board who could help us out right away.

The guys this year like Roche, Wilson and Nelson have an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of something that could turn out to be pretty special. And if they choose to go elsewhere, so be it. My suspicion is that we'll be in very good position next year to land five to seven kids at any one of those slots who are at least as promising as the guys we might lose today, and a decent number will be talented enough to make up that one-year head start in college experience without much trouble by the time they need to be called on.

If you held a gun to my head, I'd say that Michael Turkovich and Paul Duncan are the most important recruits in this class, because they appear to be the sort of stable bookend tackles that could serve as a quality foundation for future Irish offenses. There are others like Evan Sharpley and D.J. Hord who might prove to be better or more renown players, but we need to work at building this thing from the ground up, and that begins with competent and technically-sound play on the lines. We've been missing that on offense since practically the day that Joe Moore skipped town.

And Scott Smith is someone I'd consider the sleeper of this class, at least in terms of how productive he might prove to be compared to the notice he got during the recruiting process. He appears to have the sort of aggressive mentality and hunger for contact that makes All-American college linebackers out of seemingly unimpressive physical specimens, like Rocky Calmus or Zach Thomas.

I can't remember the last time I was this nonplussed (positively or negatively) by a recruiting class, and I don't say that as a knock against these kids. The fact of the matter is that this was really just a chaotic, bizarre warm-up act for what is going to hopefully be the main event next recruiting season. Even as kids were falling out today - Wilson to Ohio State (enjoy probation, Larry) and Roche to Louisville - I didn't even really care because that's one more scholarship we have next season.

It's funny to look at the message boards and see people fretting about losing out on a couple of 18 year old kids. As downtrodden as people got, you'd think that a sinkhole just swallowed the Golden Dome and Sacred Heart. Seriously, none of us, not even the so called experts, know what any of these kids are going to do. Wilson is considered a very good player, but certainly no lock to contribute early. And Roche is considered a decent to good offensive lineman, who admittedly looked a lot better to us only because we are so starved for offensive linemen (like the old bit on Eddie Murphy "Raw"; when you haven't eaten in a month, a Ritz cracker looks like a steak dinner. Brian Roche is basically a Ritz cracker.)

Charlie Weis has not done a single thing since December 13 that leads me to believe he won't fill each of those slots with as good or better players than Roche and Wilson. This is not like CJ Leak in 1999, where it essentially started a ripple effect at the quarterback position that we are just now recovering from. Nor is it like Lorenzo Booker in 2002 who (at that time, at least) was considered a true impact player and difference maker. Roche and Wilson will be an afterthought this time next year, trust me.

Biggest get? Duncan and Turkovich. Without these two, we have a depth chart situation on the offensive line that no amount of five star athletes at other positons can cure. It's sad to see how far o-line recruiting had fallen under the Willingham regime. What was once a constant (landing o-linemen) is now a cause for celebration. So wrong.

Biggest miss? If I had to attach some names, I would say it was the group of offensive linemen who at least had us in the mix when Willingham was let go, and then just stopped looking at Notre Dame even after Weis was hired - Doering, Moosman, Trump, and Eubanks (although Eubanks did end up at least visiting). Any one of those four would have really solidified a still tenuous o-line situation.

Sleeper pick? Scott Smith, LB. I know the video clips are typically all positive plays for whoever the subject matter may be. That said, you can just tell from his video clips that Scott Smith is a player. He hits like a truck and had a few plays where he came out of nowhere to chase down players in the open field. On top of that, he was one of the few players who never wavered from his commitment to Notre Dame. He didn't care who the coach was, he just wanted to be a Notre Dame football player. I respect that. I'll go out on a limb and say that when this group of kids are seniors, Scott Smith will be one of the captains. (File that somewhere; I'm sure now he'll become the next Huntley Bakich.)

How about this for a category: monograms as freshmen. Scott Smith (LB), Evan Sharpley (QB), David Bruton (S). I think Smith will at the very least see time on special teams. Sharpley, I'm predicting, will quickly become the number two QB and Weis will get him reps at the right times throughout the season to get him some seasoning. As bad as our secondary was last year, it's hard to believe one of these frosh won't contribute there. Bruton is the most accomplished athletically of the trio of safeties, so I'll take him also. I was tempted to include Hord and Hiben, but we are very deep at WR and TE, and I think if Charlie can keep the redshirt on both of them, he will. My only other thought on recruiting in general is who signed Ryan Bain's letter of intent for him? There's no way he could have signed it himself without opposable thumbs.

As with everyone else apparently, Scott Smith would be my pick for sleeper. Conceding both that I know nothing about evaluating recruits from their high school video and that Smith's competition may not be the strongest, I was nonetheless quite impressed with Smith's highlights. Granted these were probably his best plays, but no one seemed to gain a yard after contact and he chased down a few RBs and WRs from behind.

As for biggest get - well, I thought we had five glaring needs in this recruiting class (which may conflict with my adherence to the "recruit every position, every year" school of thought) - QB, OT, DT, MLB, and CB. Thus I'll select my biggest get from these positions. Others have already mentioned Duncan and Turkovich, so I'll go with Sharpley. Ever since CJ Leak, our QB recruiting has been a clusterf---. Overrecruiting in some years, whiffing in others, landing headcases, etc. Pat Dillingham put a lot of effort in to the program, but it's absolutely godawful that he was our back-up QB for three years. Three years. Sharpley seems to combine a fair degree of talent with a level head. Given how many QB recruits these days are absolute prima donnas (sorry, I'm a moran, I meant premadonnas), a healthy attitude has surprisingly become a valuable asset in a QB.

Biggest miss - this goes back to the needs I addressed above. I'd also throw in RB, as I believe we should recruite an elite RB every single year. How many top-tier recruits were Willingham & Co. even able to interest at these positions? Did Willingham show even the slightest interested in recruiting a true DT? So while I can't give you the name of a specific recruit that we missed out on, I will say that a true cover corner was probably our biggest miss.

Biggest Miss- AJ Trump. We needed OL and we led for this kid. Real shame because Miami was able to sneak in and steal him despite being 4th...but Florida and ND fired their head coaches, and FSU fired their OL coach. That's simply what enabled Miami to move in and by the time our ducks were in a row, he had already established a strong relationship with their OL coach. Real shame because that kid was so athletic that, despite weighing 280 lbs) he was also playing LB for his high school in summer passing leagues. In Florida no less.

Biggest Get- Evan Sharpley. This is a tough call and we landed some very good kids at need positions (DJ Hord as a speed receiver, Duncan and Turkovich as OTs, Kuntz at DE/DT, Smith at LB/DE) but we needed to land one of our top QB targets and we did just that with Sharpley.

Sleeper- David Grimes. He's exactly the kind of WR that we need to complement what else we have, and he has great hands to go with good quickness. Good but not great speed, but what people who have seen him play tend to say is that he runs perfect routes and doesn't lose any speed going in and out of his cuts. Hardly played as a sophomore, as a junior he played in the shadow of his brother Carl (MSU beat out FSU last year) and Talonnie Russell, and rarely played, and finally, in 2004 he emerged and outplayed Russell. His best days of football are ahead of him...

Overall, it is a mediocre class with some holes, but like Weis said in his presser yesterday, "I'm content." Most importantly, we landed the most important recruit- a competent head coach, and he delivered an impressive staff. We'll see dividends on the field next year and in recruiting, though I can't get the idea out of my head that we won't be competing for a national championship anytime soon. I can see us as a consistent top 10-15 team by 2006 and beyond, but this year I really paid closer attention to other teams' recruiting more than I've done in past years and the Irish really have some built-in disadvantages...not being able to take in 30 recruits, not being able to take in JUCOs, not having the same flexibility with admissions, not being able to "give" recruits chicks and money like other schools do. Even USC, who has some of the best talent in the country in their own backyard, has been relegated to needing JUCOs to help push them over the top. I'm very anxious to see how things play out in the years ahead because I do think Weis will give us a distinct coaching advantage, but at the same time, is it enough without the top talent?

Either way - I can't wait to find out.

Do you have any examples of USC restocking with JUCOs?

This year they took Gabe Long (DT) and Kevin Myers (OL). Given that they lost their top two DTs (Cody & Patterson), Long has a shot to step in immediately and contribute. The beauty of JUCOs.

Last year they took four. Taitusi Lutui (OL) who played a lot at RT. Scott Ware (DB) who I think played quite a bit. Ryan Powdrell (LB) and Alatini Malu (OL).

Then the year before there was Will Poole (CB) and John Drake (OT/OG) who were big contributors. Poole would have been a first rounder except for a DUI arrest/conviction and Drake should go fairly high this year in the draft unless injury/weight concerns scare off teams. But he was USC's best OL (save Winston Justice) the last two years.

The biggest "get" in this class was Paul Duncan and Michael Turkovich. Offensive lineman, especially tackles, were a top priority and by all accounts ND got two good ones. That only gives Notre Dame six offensive lineman in the past three years which is really going to hurt in a few years unless the young players develop and develop fast. I'm of the opinion that the play of the offense depends largely on the play of the offensive line. Even the best QB in country can't do much if he's being chased around the field. And even though ND missed on a few other tackles and guards in this class, Duncan and Turkovich appear to be quality players and fill the position I figured was the most glaring need this year.

For the class sleeper, I'm going to pick Kevin Washington. We've had solid middle linebackers for the past few years, but where we've been beat is when some of our outside linebackers try to match up with fast running backs motioning out of the backfield. The interesting thing about Washington is that he played free safety in high school (in addition to quarterback) so he definetly has the speed to cover players in the passing game. To me he sounds like the kind of guy that may have been an average recruit at his high school position of free safety, but will develop into a highly productive outside linebacker.

The biggest miss would have to be the complete lack of a running back in this class. Granted Darius is a only a freshman and Justin Hoskins has shown flashes as well, but running back is the one position I think should be addressed every year. They are the guys that take the most hits and injuries are not uncommon at all. Depth at running back is almost as important as who is starting. Another reason I had hoped ND would sign a running back is they tend to be the most versitale athletes on the team. If things get crowded at running back, they can be moved to cornerback, safety, linebacker, or fullback. No question that landing at least two running backs is the number one priority heading into the 2006 recruiting campaign.

The class is obviously a small one and I don't see any freshman making an immediate impact outside of special teams next year, but this class seems to have the type of guys that quickly become fan favorites. Half of the class had committed to Willingham and firmly stuck by their committments to Notre Dame even when the school didn't have a head coach. That type of loyalty goes a long way with Notre Dame fans. Others like Herring, Kuntz, and McCarthy seem to be the high energy types that fire up the crowd, outplay guys who may have more physical size/talent, and end up as captains their senior year.

What's scary about the OL situation is that it's actually only 5.

Harris, because he played as a freshman, runs out of eligibility at the same time as the OL from the 2002 class. So that leaves only Sullivan, Kadous, Incarnato, Duncan & Turkovich. But my guess - and I think Smitty commented on this somewhere - is that Nicolas will end up at OG.

Pat, I really like the Washington pick. He's going to be a very good LB. He has consistently run in the 4.6 range despite being 215-220 lbs and he's already strong (19-20 reps of 185 lbs). Considering his free safety background, he's perfect to play at Will. Wouldn't surprise me if we heard the same accolades about him this fall that we heard about Crum last fall.

To your point about Washington, the other thing I like about him is the level of competition he's played. Sugar Land is in the Houston area, which is a high school football hot bed, and I know the school he plays at plays top notch opponents.

Since I'm certainly not an expert at evaluating game film, the two things I always look at when evaluating the recruits is (1) level of competition, and (2) who else was recruiting them. Last few years we've had way too many guys who have their finalists as "Indiana, Stanford, Pittsbirgh, and Notre Dame". I'm looking forward to ND butting heads with USC and the Florida and Texas schools again.

But if that's the case, then you're contradicting yourself and you can't like Washington because he had offers from only Wisconsin and Notre Dame, and even the schools in his region passed on him. I know there was one - whether it was Houston or Baylor - that invited him to their summer camp, saw him up close and still didn't offer.

Huh? I'm not sure where I said that a recruit had to have both of those qualities (tough competition and big time schools pursuing them) for me to "like them" as players, just that I myself use those two facets as a barometer (along with other things) when trying to evaluate how successful they may or may not be. All I was saying about Washington was that the level of competition was "the other thing I like about him". The perfect college player would be a supreme athlete, good student, who played stellar competition in high school, and was recruited by other heavyweights in the Top 25. Kevin Washington is a supreme athlete, good student, played stellar competition in high school, but was only recruited heavily by Notre Dame and Wisconsin. So I "can't like" him? Uh, ok.

I just wonder if you're applying the same "logic" to all the recruits, including the ones who only had "offers from Indiana, Stanford, Pittsburgh et al." Were you as aware of their level of competition as you are of Washington's?

As far as the level of competition a junior, Washington played FS. As a senior, he played QB and didn't play defense at all because he was so vital to his team as its sole offensive playmaker. Further, how can level of competition even be a factor when projecting him as a college LB since he didn't even play defense his senior year and only during his junior year did he even play FS, not even LB?

Well, from 1994 through 2001, I lived about 10 minutes from where Washington lives, and attended several high school football games in Sugar Land, so I do have a working knowledge of his part of the country and have many other areas I can compare to from live viewing, having lived in Connectiuct, Pennsylvania, Texas, Indiana, Colorado, and now Chicago. So while I could name every team in Kevin Washington's district, no, I couldn't break down the strength of schedule for Kyle McCarthy at Cardinal Mooney. So, you got me. Red handed.

Anyway, how can "level of competition" NOT be a factor in evaluating him? Athletically speaking, the speed, strength, football sense of his opposition in Distrcit 20-5A in Houston is among the best in the country, and the game at the college level will certainly be slower for someone like Washington than for, say, Asaph Schwapp, who played in the mighty CCC-West in suburban Hartford, where he was probably bigger and faster than all of the offensive linemen on his opposition all year. (I know this because my high school plays in Schwapp's conference. The conference is much better known for soccer than football. Just trust me.)

Michael's right about Trump. I don't usually get mistyeyed over losing offensive line recruits, but Trump appeared to be an unbelievably versatile player who is poised to explode at the next level. If I had to guess at it, I'd say that Trump will turn out to be a better college offensive lineman than any of the others that ND missed out on.

It nagged at me that he never gave Weis a chance after having the Irish as an odds-on favorite for some time. But it also seemed this situation was more a case of an existing recruit who simply tired of the process than one who was stuck on Willingham's cult of personality like David Nelson and a couple others.

After reading the UND recap and wondering if it’s really necessary to point out that so-and-so is the 77th most highly rated player at his position, I started thinking that the rag-tag bunch of loveable misfits that comprise next year’s freshman class could, in four years, resemble another storied class of college athletes. Fifteen years from now, might those fifteen names hold a place of honor in ND lore similar to the one at Kentucky held by Woods, Feldhaus, Pelphrey, and Farmer? Those four average (at least in terms of their college careers; Woods had been the second-highest rated prep point guard in the country behind Chrismoud Jabdulckson-Rauf) players had their jerseys retired at the school that has won more basketball games than any other. Why? Because they stuck around when UK was pole-axed by the NCAA after Chris Mills received the most famous package ever delivered by Emery. The causes are different, but it’s hard to argue that ND’s football program is in any better shape than UK’s basketball program was after the post-probation exodus from Lexington. Might these “Fab Fifteen” be our version of “The Unforgettables?”

(Stay tuned for part II of our Recruiting Roundtable, where Dylan reaches for the last rib on the plate, and gets his comeuppance.)