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Tuesday, March 5, 2024
The Observer

Notre Dame welcomes record setting 27-member, 9th ranked recruiting class of 2021

Notre Dame football welcomed 27 new members to its program Wednesday on National Signing Day. The group — ranked ninth nationally — was comprised of a record-setting 14 early enrollees, while another 13 players will be welcomed to campus in the fall.

Despite the unusual recruiting circumstances of the past year, head coach Brian Kelly said he was proud of the way his coaching staff and recruits both rose to the occasion. 

“We really required our staff to do their due diligence and getting information and I think they did a great job,” Kelly said. “And, you know, we had to make some educated decisions as well along the way, but I thought our staff did a great job of sticking to our traits in terms of what we’re looking for and making sure that we valued those and making our final decisions.” 

Kelly emphasized the cross-department collaboration between the football program and the admissions office as being essential to the successful recruiting cycle. 

“I thought we developed a great plan for telling our story digitally, and our excellence presentation became a staple of the process that we put together.” 

Photo Courtesy of ND Athletics
Irish head coach Brian Kelly barks commands to his team during Notre Dame’s 31-17 victory over North Carolina on Nov. 27 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Special teams and recruiting coordinator Brian Polian reiterated Kelly’s thoughts about the numerous people who contributed to the football program’s success.

“That thing was built from scratch,” he said. “There were a lot of partnerships throughout the course of campus that helped us put that thing together.”

While Kelly left no doubt that he’s anxiously awaiting for the return of on-campus visits, he said several of the adjustments made this past year are likely to stick around for the foreseeable future.

“I think I can be much more available to the recruits through Zoom,” he said. “And, I think it creates a better relationship than just text messaging. At least I feel that way. And I know our coaches do. So I really think that that’s not going to go away. Certainly, we want them on campus.”

Polian commented on the importance of these long-term adjustments considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on recruiting availability will almost certainly affect the class of 2022 as well.

“It will continue to be for the ’22s because we lost all of those evaluation opportunities in the spring and in summer camp,” he said. 

In addition to the technological advancements made this past year, Kelly said a key component of building a strong relationship with prospective players was being realistic about the state of recruiting at the time.

“Each one of them, I tried to alert to them that they had to get their mind around the fact that in this unique recruiting process this year, that they were going to have to make a decision without visiting so I got involved in it, you know, with the individuals themselves and talking to their families about the reality of it,” Kelly said.

In addition to the various departments across campus who made this season possible, Kelly and Polian both identified Bill Rees as an x-factor in their recruiting efforts this past year. Rees, in his second year as director of scouting, is the father of offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and has earned a reputation for valuable in-depth analysis.

Kelly said he understands the playing philosophy of the program and has a natural eye for talent. 

“He’s just really looking at talent and an eye towards projecting some talents as well. I mean, it’s not all about ready made,” Kelly said. “What I like about him is that we share some similar visions in terms of looking at a guy and saying, well, he could play another position, and he’s a running back, but he could play corner or, you know, this is a guy that’s 6-foot-7 and could grow into playing another position.”

Polian said he has both the time and patience to provide “discerning eyes to help us on those guys.” 

All of these efforts combined produced a really successful recruit haul, headlined by 12 four-star commits. One of those commits, offensive tackle Blake Fisher committed over a year and a half ago and emerged as a leader throughout the process. 

“There is that guy in every class, and he’ll, you know, he’ll message you, ‘Hey, man, hey, coach, just talk to this guy. And he’d be really interested. And I think it’d be awesome.’ And meanwhile, we’ve seen that guy’s transcript and we know it’s not necessarily a fit. So there is a little bit of ‘A slowdown, we appreciate you.’ But that is much better than having a class of 24 or 25 and there’s no ringleader,” Polian said.

Quarterback Tyler Buchner, a fellow four-star commit and arguably the player with the biggest name recognition also earned a shoutout from his future coaches, who expect he’ll be a natural fit for the program.

“He’ll get big enough, we loved his energy, great smile, bounce, just that it factor that you’re looking for in quarterbacks.” Polian said.

While much of the recruiting process went smoothly, all things considered, Polian commented on the unexpected surprise of former defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s departure to take the head coaching position at Vanderbilt.

“We identified two or three players that we knew had very, very strong personal connections with Coach Lea,” Polian said. “And we were very proactive about, ‘Hey, you know, Coach Lea’s done a phenomenal job. He’s going to be a candidate here at some point, and especially when Vanderbilt opened, it was kind of easy to picture that.’ When it became official, and we had announced it to our own team, we got on the phone with every commit on defense.”

Ultimately, Kelly expressed confidence in his staff’s performance and said he feels like the program is in a good position going forward.

“This University, this culture, this football program, I think we addressed the needs,” he said.