Monday, May 02, 2005

Sweet Sassy Molassey | by Jay

Make it #6.

Charlie Weis left Merrillville High School on Monday morning and was on his way to Chicago when he received the call.

Merrillville star running back James Aldridge anxiously wanted to inform Notre Dame's head coach of his decision to play football for the Fighting Irish.

"I told him I was ready to hop on board and he said he was really glad to hear that,'' Aldridge said. "He was really excited about it.''

Weis was at Merrillville to talk with Pirates coach Jeff Yelton about Aldridge's academics. Because of NCAA rules, the coach wasn't allowed to meet with Aldridge.

Considered one of the nation's top running back prospects, Aldridge chose ND over Oklahoma State.

"I'm pretty sure (the Cowboys) were disappointed,'' Aldridge said. "I talked to (running backs) coach Curtis Luper and he wished me good luck.''

Aldridge said he was relieved and pleased with his decision.

"It was a gut feeling I had,'' he said. "I was kind of favoring Notre Dame. It's just about right down the street from my house. At first I didn't think the distance to Oklahoma State mattered that much, but when I started thinking about it I realized my parents (James and Lisa) have never missed any of my games.''

The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Aldridge, who rushed for more than 2,000 yards last season as a junior, will be reunited at ND with another Irish recruit, Munir Prince.

Prince, who committed to ND earlier, was best friends with Aldridge in Missouri when the two were in grade school.

"I think it's cool that I get to play with my friend,'' Aldridge said. "I don't think it's something you really look at so much in the recruiting process, but we played football together in junior high school. I know we're going to have a pretty good recruiting class coming in, so I think it's great we're both going to have the chance to play together.''

Having grown tired of all the attention -- it seemed like his phones never stopped ringing -- Aldridge was relieved the recruiting process was over.

"I thought it was fun at first, but then I didn't want it to carry on any longer,'' he said. "I think it's fun to be wanted so much, but after a while.... I'm glad it's over. I'm extremely confident about my decision. I feel like I made a real good decision and my parents feel the same way.''

Yelton noticed how relieved Aldridge was to end the recruiting saga.

"I think Notre Dame is a great fit for him,'' Yelton said. "James had a big smile on his face after talking to Coach Weis. You could tell he was pleased. He knew he made the right decision. Now, he can focus on finishing the school year and getting ready for football season.''

What is it, May 2nd? And we've already got six recruits in hand, including Weis's top quarterback target, his two top running backs, the #1 tight end on his list, a great defensive end, and also the first wide receiver he deigned to offer. Ironically, today kicked off the "May evaluation period" for college recruiting (defined here), but the Irish are already well on their way to a great class. It's like starting the race a full lap ahead of everybody else.

If you were keeping an eye on the various ND boards yesterday you no doubt saw the news of Aldridge's announcement (first reported by Mike Frank of Irish Eyes.) And if you follow recruiting, you're probably a bit familiar with Aldridge already: he's big and fast, with broad shoulders and an upright-running style that reminds you of Eddie George, or maybe former Irish back Tony Brooks. "Moose", as he's known around school, seems to be the complete running back:
"Ever since I started football, I've been known as 'Moose,'" said Aldridge, Merrillville's instant impact running back. "I think it's because I'm such an aggressive runner. I can run around you, but I also don't mind dropping a shoulder, either."
A typical blurb on Aldridge from his junior year season goes like this:
Merrillville Pirates Junior Running Back James Aldridge ran for 258 yards and scored seven touchdowns as Merrillville's football team improved to 2-0 on the season with a 49-0 win over Chicago Dunbar. Aldridge, a move-in from Missouri, scored on runs of 28, 34, 43, 29, 2, and two 1-yard runs. This effort came on the heels of a 172-yard, 2-touchdown effort the week before in a win over East Chicago.
There's a little bit of videotape available on Aldridge out there (premium video from Rivals and Irish Eyes), which mostly show Aldridge busting through the line and outrunning everyone else to the end zone. Also check out this free clip of Aldridge bowling over some poor kid last fall.

It's interesting that Aldridge would announce this soon, as he was sure to be one of the top running back targets in the country, and various reports had him willing to wait it out a bit and think things through. Oklahoma State was hot on his heels, and supposedly a major factor for him was the availability of playing time as soon as possible, something OSU had in their favor.

And how's this: reportedly, Pete Carroll was supposed to visit Aldridge on Tuesday. Hope that flight is refundable, Pete.

So what was the tipping point? A couple of reports mention Aldridge might be allowed to enroll early at ND next January, something he greatly desires, but also something that admissions has been loathe to do for football players in the past. Yet head of admissions Dan Saracino apparently opened the door to the possibility:
"We would make an exception, but it would have to be an exceptional case," Saracino said. "I really don't like it; it should be an exception. It should be for a student who is doing it for the right reasons."
Aldridge seems tailor-made for just such an exception.

In the end, I suspect the main reason Aldridge chose ND is the one he gives above: it's close to home, and close to his family. So it's probably not too much of a surprise that Aldridge ended up in South Bend, and even if he had played the recruiting game for the whole year, entertaining offers from far and wide, I'm willing to bet he would have picked the Irish eventually anyway. As he said to BGI:
"I just wanted my father and my mother to see me play. I wanted to go somewhere nearby, somewhere where I could still get a good education. I'm the first person to get a free education out of my whole family. I want to make my family proud."
What is suprising, however, is just how quickly this class is coming together. I can't remember when we had this many truly great recruits committed this early in the recruiting season, and I'm not sure even Lou Holtz ever had this big of a head start. And now with Aldridge in the fold, the floodgates may just burst open. From BGI:
Aldridge called his future coach to break the news. "He was excited, it was pretty cool. He told me that this can have a snowball effect and we can pick up a lot more commitments. Hopefully this can be the best recruiting class in a while for Notre Dame."
And to think, it's only May 2nd.