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Difficult 5-7 season hurts recruiting process

Pat Leonard | Thursday, February 5, 2004

Winning only five games does not just mean another losing season for the Irish.

Tyrone Willingham knows this now as well as anybody.

The Notre Dame football team went 5-7 last year, and the effects of last season’s performance on this year’s recruiting are blatant and visible.

Sure, the Irish got their target at running back in Georgia’s Gatorade Player of the Year Darius Walker.

They got the athleticism of Anthony Vernaglia and the shiftiness of Justin Hoskins.

But last season’s class of quarterback Brady Quinn and defensive end Victor Abiamiri was rated among the top five national recruiting classes.

This year’s class might not make it into the top 25.

Starting a freshman quarterback and struggling to fill the holes in the offensive line and other positions vacated by graduating seniors, the Irish expected to have rough times through a tough 2003 schedule. The problem was that while Notre Dame was getting thumped at home by rival USC (45-14) and southern powerhouse Florida State (37-0), recruits were in South Bend visiting and attending the games.

The players obviously did not like what they saw.

Quarterback Brian Brohm and offensive linemen Jeff Byers and Allen Smith all visited on the weekend of Oct. 17. They witnessed a game between Notre Dame and eventual national champion USC.

Brohm committed to Louisville. Byers went to USC. Smith eventually signed with Stanford.

The methods of the coaching staff came under heavy scrutiny as the months passed and numerous schools, before bowl week even approached, began to reach the double-digits in commitments while Willingham and his staff remained with five or six players verbally committed.

Coaches weren’t doing enough early, and fans complained. So the coaches invited players for visits during game weekends.

That didn’t seem to work either.

Willingham explained Wednesday that he believes the recruiting process must be thorough, and therefore sometimes slower, in order to correctly evaluate a prospect. The academic requirements of such an institution also have an effect.

That could be the case, but then why did Stanford get Smith over Notre Dame?

Why did Virginia, a rigorous academic institution, sweep cornerback Nate Lyles away from the Irish?

The common opinion said Notre Dame had lost many of its first options to competing recruiting efforts and had been forced to move to other options.

Coaches likely would not and definetly should not admit that any player was not a first option. Such an admission hurt the health of the program.

But the reason so many players on the official recruiting list are listed at multiple positions – and the reason many of the players do not have the stats of players in past recruiting classes is simple.

This is a class based solely on potential.

In a year in which Willingham and the Irish seemingly could not buy a win, they had trouble selling recruits as well.

No one knows for sure how the players in the class of 2008 will develop. Players like linebacker Abdel Banda and defensive end Justin Brown have been described as having “raw talent.”

Raw talent is good, if it develops.

It the talent does not develop, it is a waste of a scholarship.

“The potential is what it’s all about,” Willingham said. “And it’s about really coaching and developing young people. Do you want to put your futures just in potential? No. Because at some point you’ve got to change that where it’s got to be production.”

The opinions of this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Pat Leonard at pleonard@nd.edu.