Irish hope to showcase bright future to recruits on biggest stage versus Clemson
Aidan Thomas | Friday, November 6, 2020
At 7:30 PM Saturday, Clemson and Notre Dame will kick off their highly anticipated top-5 clash at Notre Dame Stadium, with the game televised nationally on NBC. The primetime slate would normally be a golden opportunity for Notre Dame to invite recruits to get a feel for the campus and stadium during such an electric contest. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, such opportunities are no longer available to Notre Dame. The Irish don’t have the luxury of inviting prized recruits to attend their biggest home game in 15 years.
Rather, Notre Dame coaches will have to find more creative ways to keep their recruits a priority during this trying time of virtual recruiting. Bryan Driskell of Sports Illustrated spoke on this challenge.
“You definitely still have to make [your recruits] a priority,” Driskell said. “It’s all about making sure they know they’re a priority, letting them know you wish they were there, and making sure they tune in for the big game.”
As Clemson has become an established premier program and Notre Dame has risen back into the ranks of the top 10 in recent seasons, the two teams have begun to more frequently compete for the same recruits. As of now, due to a bevy of reasons but in particular their consistent success, Clemson has beaten Notre Dame on the recruiting trail more often than not. One such notable victory was this past spring, when five-star all-purpose back Will Shipley opted for Dabo Swinney’s Tigers, temporarily leaving the Irish without a backfield recruit in their 2021 class.
Although they remedied that issue swiftly, the defeat on the recruiting trail made it clear that, regardless of how bright their golden helmets gleam, the national brand of Notre Dame will not suffice in attracting recruits to South Bend. They have to win big games, and no doubt their first clash since 2005 with a No. 1 team in the AP Poll qualifies as a big game.
“It matters a lot more for Notre Dame than Clemson,” Driskell noted. “Clemson has won two national championships in the past four years. But for Notre Dame, this is that elusive win Brian Kelly has struggled to get.”
Kelly is just 3-8 against top-10 teams during his tenure at Notre Dame, and many of his ‘big’ wins proved less than impressive against overhyped opponents early in the season. Examples of this came in 2015, when Notre Dame took down No. 14 Georgia Tech, who went on to lose nine of their final 10 games and finish 3-9. Or in 2018, when the Irish handled No. 8 Stanford without an issue, only to see the Cardinal falter to a 9-4 record and finish unranked.
However, there are no doubts about the legitimacy of this Clemson squad that is making its first trip to Notre Dame since 1979.
“This isn’t just an elite team, but an elite program,” Driskell said. “They’re up there with Ohio State and Alabama as the premier programs in the country — programs that Brian Kelly has pulled an o-fer against with Notre Dame.”
Between losing the 2013 BCS National Championship to Alabama, the 2015 Fiesta Bowl to Ohio State, plus a regular season defeat and Playoff loss to Clemson, the losses on the big stage to those premier programs are piling up. But with a veteran offensive line and a third-year starting quarterback and finally playing on their home field, there are few, if any, excuses that can be made this time around. This is a massive opportunity for Notre Dame to make a statement on the gridiron, a statement which could lead to increased success on the recruiting trail.
Beating Clemson head-to-head may also give Notre Dame a boost with recruiting those prospects in the Carolinas. While Notre Dame has certainly had some success in luring top players from that area, North Carolina in particular is becoming a hotbed of potential collegiate talent. Clemson tends to own that area, given its recent success and domination in the ACC, and a win on Saturday could give Notre Dame an added boost as it look to expand its recruiting prowess along the East Coast.
However, another factor that could help Notre Dame with recruiting is completely with the team’s ability and not dependent on Saturday’s result. And that is playing highly touted receiving prospects Jordan Johnson and Xavier Watts. Two of the Irish’s top prospects in their 2020 class, Johnson and Watts have barely touched the field, despite well-publicized struggles in the Irish passing game, as a bevy of receivers have failed to fill the hole left by 2nd-round draft pick Chase Claypool as well as Chris Finke, who now plays with the San Francisco 49ers.
“I would be very leery as a recruit. It makes sense if you’re sitting behind a Chase Claypool, or a Will Fuller, or a Miles Boykin, but watching Notre Dame get just over 200 passing yards a game, with none of the receivers really standing out, and you’ve got two to three premier freshman recruits standing on the sideline… it’s inexcusable,” Driskell said of the lack of playing time for Johnson and Watts. “[Notre Dame has] another strong class [of receivers] coming in 2021, but beyond that I think this could definitely impact their recruiting at the position.”
The passing game will likely need to be better than it has been on Saturday, and if Brian Kelly trusts his freshman receivers to make plays in a big situation, that may do just as much for recruiting as a win would. Recruits want to win, but they want to be wanted and needed as well. Driskell noted the message that the Irish could send to potential recruits via achieving these results on Saturday.
“This game is a chance for [Notre Dame] to say ‘Hey, we can beat Clemson, we can compete with these teams, and you’re the missing piece,” Driskell said.