Friday, January 26, 2007

Shot Through the Heart | by Pat

In one of the bigger recruiting shockers that I can remember, defensive end Justin Trattou pulled a last minute stunner and flipped his verbal commitment from Notre Dame to Florida. The New Jersey native had committed to ND way back on June 2nd, but in the span of about a week, Trattou went from not seriously considering the Gators to their newest commit.

So what happened? How did it happen? Who's to blame? And where do we go from here?

What & How. The dizzying turn of events hit hard and fast. Last week, Justin Trattou and his dad made a trip down to Florida for a big Gator recruiting weekend. The trip was surprising news to ND fans, but many saw it as a chance to take a mid-winter vacation and hang out with a team still partying from it's BCS championship win. Justin returned, still committed to ND, and the Irish quickly set up an in-home meeting with him that Monday and arranged for an unofficial visit back to ND for this weekend. Charlie Weis and Jappy Oliver flew out to Jersey on Monday to meet with the Trattous, while Corwin Brown went to Chicago to visit Robert Hughes. Weis left with Trattou still in ND's corner.

Then, Urban Meyer flew up to Jersey on Thursday night (with two guys in tow who used to coach for the Irish, Greg Mattison and Steve Addazio, no doubt there to give Justin the "straight dope" on ND). Meyer left with a verbal committment from the talented defensive end, and Trattou's trip to ND was cancelled. As it stands right now, it appears that there's no chance for ND to get back into the race.

Who's to blame. It appears that the biggest culprit might be, ironically, our new defensive coordinator, and the new scheme he's bringing with him.

"Florida called me the day after they won the national championship and it really opened my eyes. Once Notre Dame changed defenses, I had to think about other options. Notre Dame is a great place, but it's just not for me...

"In a 3-4, they'd want me to play rush end or outside linebacker, and while that's tempting, that's not really where I see myself," Trattou said. "I've always been a down lineman and that's what I prefer. At the end of the day, that makes a big difference."
Irony of ironies: we clamor for a new defensive coordinator, and when we finally get one, it costs us our top defensive recruit.

Visiting sunny Florida in January and hanging out with the national champs certainly must have been a nice trip for the New Jersey native. But, in the end he made a football decision to attend Florida, and that's what really hurts about this. Notre Dame's defensive recruiting has been very shaky, and Trattou surely realized this (no doubt with some help from the Florida coaches) and made his decision. You really can't blame the kid for trying to find the best spot for his skills and cast his lot with a team that seems miles ahead of Notre Dame.

Where do we go now? The short-term consequence is that for the second year in a row, defensive recruiting will come up short. We've picked on Ty Willingham's lackluster recruiting and the holes he left in the depth chart, but now there are similar holes attributable solely to Charlie Weis. Consider that ND currently has six defensive recruits in the Class of 2007. Six. The quality of the recruits is higher than it has been in years past, but the quantity is sorely lacking, especially following a 2006 class that only had 9 defensive recruits (10 if you generously count Paddy Mullen, a TE/DL recruit). That's 16 defensive recruits versus 29 offensive recruits in the Charlie's last two classes.

It's clear that some of those offensive recruits will have to switch to defense. We're already seeing it with the news that OL recruits Andrew Nuss, and possibly Emeka Nwankwo, will start out on the defensive line. Furthermore, I wouldn't be surprised to see a number of different players already on the roster tested out at defense during spring practice, in an attempt to put the best 22 players on the field. That will make for an interesting and news-filled spring, but as we saw with the Travis Thomas to linebacker experiment, what sounds great in the spring doesn't always pan out in the fall.

Long-term, losing Trattou puts a real crimp in the depth of ND's defense. The defensive line and linebacker recruiting has not been up to par, and Trattou was a superstar. There definitely is talent there, but the numbers and depth are lacking, and that certainly will come back to bite ND in the future. And it also affects future recruiting. Great players aren't usually scared of competition (notice how Trattou is the 5th defensive end currently committed to Florida), in fact, it's just the opposite: great players want to be surrounded by other great players. Just listen to Trattou, back when he committed to Notre Dame:
I think with the next couple recruiting classes [at ND] that we’ll be competing for a national championship. I definitely want to play on a team with a bunch of good guys and I know over the years that I’m there that we’ll be a very competitive team.
Well, that's exactly what he's getting with Florida. As for ND...let's hope nobody else jumps ship.