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ND survives chaotic period

Sam Werner | Thursday, February 3, 2011

As up and down as Notre Dame’s season was on the football field, it may have fluctuated even more on the recruiting trail.

There were commitments, decommitments and, rarest of all, recommitments leading up to National Signing Day Wednesday, when the Irish signed 23 new players to join the team next fall.

Mike Frank, who covers recruiting for the ESPN-affiliated website Irish Sports Daily, said the arrival of Irish coach Brian Kelly gave Notre Dame an immediate bump at the beginning of the recruiting process.

“Any time you get a new coach in, you’re going to get a lot of intrigue by a lot of prospects,” Frank said.

Before the season even started, Kelly used the buzz surrounding his arrival to land a number of elite prospects, including four-star defensive end Aaron Lynch, who committed July 30 during his official visit to Notre Dame. That same day, the Irish also landed three-star linebacker Anthony Rabasa and four-star running back Justice Hayes. When the season kicked off, Kelly already had 15 players verbally committed.

“[Notre Dame] had a great run in the summer of getting a lot of elite players committed,” Frank said.

After early-season struggles — including losses to Michigan, Michigan State and Stanford — Frank said some players began to waver in their commitment to Notre Dame.

“Those three in a row were tough for anybody to stomach and that kind of started to show the cracks in the armor,” he said.

The Irish still landed a big commitment from four-star defensive end Stephon Tuitt. Wins against Boston College, Pittsburgh and Western Michigan got the Irish back on track and seemed to assuage the minds of potential recruits — at least, until their now-infamous 35-17 loss to Navy in the Meadowlands.

“Notre Dame obviously turned around and played pretty well there for three games, and then Navy happened,” Frank said. “I think a lot of the top kids started to have some doubts about where the program was headed.”

In the month that followed, both Lynch and offensive lineman Jordan Prestwood switched their commitment to Florida State and Hayes flipped to Michigan. At his National Signing Day­­ press conference Wednesday, Kelly said Lynch’s early commitment made it easier for opposing teams to negatively recruit against Notre Dame.

“They knew their competition,” Kelly said. “When [Lynch] committed to us, everybody in the country knew who they had to work against. They didn’t have to work against Auburn or Florida or Miami, they just had to beat Notre Dame because he committed to Notre Dame.”

The Irish bounced back, though, winning their final four games and allowing just three touchdowns in the process.

“Kids focus on wins,” Kelly said. “That’s definitely part of the equation here. Winning helps in this process.”

After the season ended, the Irish secured commitments from four-star quarterback Everett Golson and made up for the loss of Hayes by snagging three-star running back Cam McDaniel.

“[McDaniel] is a kid who wants to win more than anything,” Frank said. “He’s the type of guy who’s going to push everyone in front of him. He’s one of those guys that’s going to really surprise a lot of people once he gets there.”

Notre Dame’s stretch run apparently caught Lynch’s eye, as well. At the Army All-American game Jan. 9, he decommitted from Florida State, but said Notre Dame was not under consideration. A week later on Jan. 15, though, he took an official visit to South Bend, recommitted to the Irish and began classes as an early enrollee just a few days later.

“Our staff just kept at it and we got back to why he made this decision to come to Notre Dame in the first place and we’re happy he’s here,” Kelly said.

The same weekend Lynch recommitted, Kelly and his staff were hard at work securing a pledge from five-star linebacker Ishaq Williams. Williams was down to Notre Dame or Penn State, and was set to take an official visit to State College on Jan. 15, but the night before, Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco reportedly visited Williams in his Brooklyn home at 4:30 a.m. and not only got him to cancel his trip to Penn State, but got a verbal commitment on the spot. Like Lynch, Williams enrolled early and is already taking classes at Notre Dame.

“When Bob Diaco came and visited him at the last minute, I think that’s where [Williams] said, ‘These people really, really want me and this is a good thing for my future,'” Frank said.

Kelly said Diaco’s early-morning visit was not the only time the staff went to great lengths to land Williams. He said defensive line coach Mike Elston once sat in his car outside Williams’ home for 4 ½ hours waiting for Williams after one of his high school playoff games.

Just as it looked like things were slowing down for Kelly and his staff, they got one last scare from Tuitt. The defensive end had been taking visits to other schools and Jan. 18 switched his commitment to Georgia Tech. Kelly, Diaco, Elston and recruiting coordinator Chuck Martin immediately flew down to Tuitt’s home in Monroe, Ga., and, the next day, Tuitt recommitted to the Irish.

“Having [four coaches] there was really, for us, making a statement and making sure that what we were talking about and what he saw when he came to Notre Dame and what his family saw was really the truth of the matter, and sometimes you have to overcommunicate that message,” Kelly said. “We had four coaches there to make sure that message was clear.”

Now that all 23 letters of intent are signed and received, the drama of the 2011 recruiting cycle has finally come to a close.