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Football Commentary: Cause and effect affects smaller schools most

Ken Fowler | Thursday, February 8, 2007

Justin Trattou is a star defensive end out of Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, N.J. He verbally committed to Notre Dame way back in June, and it made perfect sense. He’s a kid from a Catholic high school less than an hour from Franklin Township, where Irish coach Charlie Weis led a team to a state title. He was going to be the next big defensive end for the Irish.

Until Florida stepped in.

Gators coach Urban Meyer nabbed Trattou from Notre Dame en route to Florida’s consensus No. 1 recruiting class. With the loss of Trattou, a scholarship spot opened for the Irish.

Brian Smith is a mid- to high-level linebacker from Overland Park, Kan. He was Iowa’s second-best linebacker recruit when he verbally committed to the Hawkeyes. A kid from a good family with a football background, he looked destined to be a great addition for Iowa.

Until Notre Dame stepped in.

The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Smith wasn’t a target for Notre Dame early, even though his father is a member of the school’s Monogram Club. But then, the Irish had an extra spot in the recruiting class and new defensive coordinator Corwin Brown decided Smith was a perfect fit. Smith verbally committed just days after Trattou’s spot opened up.

Bruce Davis is a weak-side linebacker from Cleveland. He wasn’t the biggest recruit – in fact, he wasn’t even listed as one of Scout.com’s 50-best players at his position. But he was a solid land for Ball State.

Until Iowa stepped in.

The Hawkeyes only found out about Davis during the winter and offered the 5-foot-11, 230-pound linebacker in January as soon as Smith was destined for Notre Dame. Davis accepted the spot immediately and signed with Iowa Wednesday.

Thanks to Florida, Notre Dame lost one of its best defensive recruits. Instead, the Irish got a second option. Thanks to Notre Dame, Iowa lost one of its best defensive recruits. Instead, the Hawkeyes went to their second option. Thanks to all three, Ball State lost one of its best defensive recruits. In a year when they went to the South to sign a quarterback prospect out of Georgia, the Cardinals were out of luck for a key defender.

In today’s college football, that’s what happens when you’re in the Mid-America Conference, and recruits start to treat verbal commitments like statements of emotion.

“On a national basis … more guys switched last year and this year than ever before,” said Tom Lemming, national recruiting analyst for CSTV. “It’s happening more and more nowadays.”

And the complaints poured in across the country Wednesday. But while the reality hurts Notre Dame and Iowa because they haven’t dominated lately like Florida has, it hurts teams like Ball State the most.

“The simple thing that happened with us was really a reaction from when the young man who was committed to Notre Dame committed to Florida,” Ball State coach Brady Hoke said in a telephone interview with The Observer Wednesday. “That chain reaction happens, and that’s part of [recruiting].”

Hoke said his staff debates how best to keep players committed to Ball State, a program close in geography to Notre Dame but far apart in almost every other way that matters in recruiting. The idea of an early signing day intrigues him, but schools like his – which he wishes weren’t called “mid-majors” – don’t have the financial and human resources to handle the increased burden of hosting official visits nearly every home game, Hoke said.

What he didn’t mention is that most players could hold out hope for getting an offer from a major conference school as the early signing day comes and goes.

“I think then you’ve got a real conflict of preparing your team and recruiting,” he said. “For the major schools, it’s probably not as major a problem, but for schools of our level, I think it would be.”

Hoke’s right. For the Irish, with an extensive support staff and the resources to oil the wheels every week, in-season visits aren’t a problem.

In fact, Weis wants an early signing period with an Aug. 1 national signing day. He says this allows high school players to finish the recruiting cycle before their senior season and gives coaches a chance to look for replacements if a verbal commitment has a last-minute change of heart. For Notre Dame, when wide receiver Greg Little of Raleigh, N.C., went to the Tar Heels and offensive lineman Chris Little of Jeffersonville, Ga., faxed his letter of intent to the Bulldogs Wednesday, the Irish had no time to react. Twenty recruits became 18, and the Irish were out two top-150 prospects.

Lemming said that most coaches don’t like the number of late switches and the custom of recruiting powerhouses poaching from other schools, but they’re not sure what to do about it. He said athletic directors worry about kids signing binding letters of intent before the usual time for a coach to resign or be fired, and an early signing period would cause that situation at 15 or more schools every year.

This year, the Irish indeed benefited by allowing players to reconsider their commitments once a coach leaves.

In an interview last week with The Observer, kicker/punter signee Brandon Walker’s former coach, Cliff Hite, said Walker knew he wanted to go to Notre Dame when he was a sophomore. But the Irish didn’t come calling during the early recruiting season, and Walker chose to go Louisville.

He was happy with his decision until Louisville coach Bobby Petrino jettisoned the Cardinals for the Falcons of the NFL. Hite said Walker decided to open up his recruitment again, and Notre Dame’s kicking woes in 2006 steered the Irish to the Findlay, Ohio, product.

A week ago, Walker grabbed the offer from the Irish. He signed his letter of intent Wednesday.

Notre Dame’s main problem is when a recruit says he’s coming and the Irish feel confident that he’s telling the truth only to have the prospect sign elsewhere. So Weis has a new policy for commitments, and it’s simple: no soft verbals, no silent commits, no quiet verbals and no visits to or conversations with other schools if you commit to Notre Dame.

But Ball State can’t afford that sort of a policy, which is where Weis’ parallel thought – “if you’re looking, we’re looking” – only keeps schools like Ball State mired in unwinnable recruiting situations.

Weis’ two-pronged approach certainly isn’t hypocritical; it just doesn’t solve the problems for the smaller schools. The early signing day and refusal to accept soft verbal commitments will protect major-conference powers, but the belief that any player “looking” is fair game leaves the smaller schools vulnerable to poaching by bigger schools.

So why should the NCAA make it easier for big-time programs to recruit while not doing anything to help the schools with less prestige or tradition? An early signing period would help only some, and those some are the major programs with national reputations that aren’t able to convince players to stick with them come February.

Weis is trying to do what’s best for his team and the entire Irish program. But the early signing day, which the NCAA would have to pass, will amount only to elitist protectionism.

But then again, when was the NCAA charged with anything else?

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Ken Fowler at kfowler1@nd.edu