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National Signing Day 2011

Eric Prister | Friday, April 15, 2011

Irish coach Brian Kelly said he and his coaching staff went into the recruiting season with a plan — improve on the defensive line. By adding six players listed at that position, including two ranked in the top-5 defensive linemen by most experts, Notre Dame followed through on that plan.

“I really would like to say that the plan came together,” Kelly said. “We had a plan, and that’s clear. I think I spoke at this press conference last year and said ‘listen, in 2011, our focus is the edge of our defense, it’s defensive linemen, it’s speed, it’s length.’ And we hit that. We had a plan and it’s nice when a plan comes together like it did with this recruiting class. And now the next step is what we believe we’re really good at, and that’s developing these young men.”

Kelly said recruiting defensive players is key for any team, simply because of the nature of the game.

“You can’t fake it on defense,” he said. “You can fake it a little on offense. Defensively, you have to win the one-on-one matchups. Sometimes you can not block the defensive end and option him. Sometimes you can do things with misdirection. But on defense, it’s about players making plays, and you can’t hide there. So the recruiting efforts start with the defensive line, and they work out from there. You can’t fake it on defense — you have to be able to recruit the players.”

The recruiting process was difficult for the Irish coaches, both emotionally and physically. Fourteen states are represented in Notre Dame’s recruiting class of 2011, more than any other class in the country.

“If you take a look at the major BCS programs, their recruiting five or six states, and that’s a lot,” Kelly said. “Just look at the nation and how they recruit compared to the 14 different states. I think Stanford is the only other school that even comes close to recruiting that many states.

“In just two months time I put up over 15,000 miles in terms of air travel and 55 hours in the air. It just requires a lot of time. And you can’t just have six guys recruiting. You can’t have six really good position coaches and three professional recruiters. All nine at Notre Dame have to recruit, and I think that you’ll see that all nine of our coaches played a very important part of putting this class together.”

The Irish coaching staff traveled the country following recruits, but they had one clear message to present — come to Notre Dame if you want to be at Notre Dame.

“I think you really have to be able to sell the message of Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “It’s really clear. Number one, you would come to Notre Dame for a degree, and what that does for you. That’s number one, so the player has to have a connection there. If they have no value of a degree from Notre Dame, move to the next guy. Number two, he’s coming to play for Notre Dame, and to win championships at Notre Dame. That has to be clear, that he’s coming here, and he’s going to be part of a team at the University of Notre Dame. And three, that he wants to be developed — physically, socially, spiritually, in his skill. Those are the three things that we stayed with as our bullet points, and we did not waver from those three things. We didn’t promise playing time. We didn’t promise 10 national championships. We didn’t promise anything. We told them, ‘This is what we’re about, and this is what you’ll get if you come to Notre Dame.'”

Committing to Notre Dame also requires some flexibility. Kelly and his coaching staff separate players into three different categories rather than traditional positions — ‘Skill,’ which includes quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and defensive backs, ‘Big Skill,’ which includes fullbacks, tight ends and linebackers, and ‘Power,’ which includes offensive and defensive linemen. Kelly said that most players are not turned off by the potential that they will end up at a new position, as long as communication stays consistent.

“Once we’re able to communicate what we’re doing and how we’re doing it instead of listening to someone else who knows more sometimes about our system than we do — which is absolutely ridiculous — as long as we get an opportunity to show you what our plans are for you and continue that message, we’re fine. Most of these young men, they want to be in the best position to help the team win. And obviously each of these young men that we have on this roster, they have dreams too, about getting a degree and playing in the NFL, and that’s fine. I want those kind of guys. So I think it’s less about ‘no, I’m only this.’ And when we do get that, that sends up a bit of a red flag for us. And that doesn’t mean we’re going to drop him, but it sends up a bit of a red flag.”

Because high school positions are not as important for the Irish coaching staff, they have more flexibility to attract players of the same position. Kelly said that an overabundance at a single position, defensive line for instance, is not a problem.

“I just want the very best players,” he said. “That will all sort itself out very early in the process. I don’t think it’ll be two or three years down the road. I think it sorts itself out very quickly. I know that we’ve got a great understanding of our players, even in this one year, more than anything else, we know where our guys will best fit our program. So I’m very confident that in a very short period of time, a lot of this will take care of itself. If your assets are on the defensive line, that’s a good place to start, and that’s where we’ll start.