Kelly accepting flexibility more than philosophy in recruiting wars
In previous jobs, Brian Kelly targeted football recruits bigger schools didn't want
Kelly arrived at Notre Dame planning to take hard line on previous commitments
But Kelly changed his tune and allowed recruits freedom to visit other schools
As he stood on the field at Cincinnati's Nippert Stadium last April, Brian Kelly explained his recruiting philosophy. At Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati, Kelly had to zero in on the players the big boys didn't want. At one point in the conversation, these words passed his lips.
"I'm not comfortable with four-star guys," Kelly said.
Last week, Kelly arrived at the American Football Coaches Association convention wearing a tie festooned with a leprechaun pugilist. A pin bearing the letters N and D gleamed proudly from Kelly's lapel. The conversation turned to his recruiting philosophy, prompting an obvious question. Now that he's the coach at Notre Dame, how does Kelly feel about four-star (and five-star) recruits?
"I don't really know that my philosophy has changed relative to the process," Kelly said. "I can project because of my background. I think I'll continue to do that, so maybe I won't be necessarily just about four- and five-star guys. But as it relates to this year, right now, that's who's been recruited. Those have been identified by the former staff, and I'm really just trying to reel this one in."
Kelly had better hope Weis used high-test line. This week, he had an in-home visit scheduled with St. Paul, Minn., offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson, a 6-foot-8, 345-pounder considered by Rivals.com to be the nation's top offensive line prospect and the No. 2 overall prospect. Wednesday, Kelly visited Dietrich Riley, a safety from La Canada, Calif., who also is considering USC and UCLA.
Kelly probably appreciates Henderson's approach to the recruiting process. Henderson hasn't committed to anyone. He's barely even hinted at a favorite.
Now that Kelly works at a school that attracts in-demand recruits, he has had to wrap his brain around the liquid definition of commitment as it relates to recruiting. When he arrived last month, Kelly's plan was to honor every commitment to Charlie Weis' staff -- provided the player didn't plan to still entertain other offers. "If there were kids that wanted to take other visits, then I made it clear that you're not committed," Kelly said. "I think I experienced that more than I had at any other school. That, 'I'm committed, but I'm taking my visit to XYZ school.' Well, you're not committed then. Let's get that straight. Other than that, I think it's pretty much been, if you're committed, let's make sure we finish this off."
Of all people, Kelly should understand that the process isn't that simple at this level. He spent the past month getting blasted for bailing on his undefeated Cincinnati team before the Sugar Bowl. Sometimes, people have to look out for No. 1.
That was the case with Andrew Hendrix, a quarterback from Cincinnati's Moeller High who committed to Weis last June. As the Fighting Irish floundered down the stretch last season, Hendrix realized the coaching staff he committed to might get fired. The most politically charged position in recruiting is quarterback. Coaches identify their guy early, and if a coach gets fired, the quarterback has no idea whether the next coach will honor a commitment or bring in his own guy. "I started thinking that I cannot be left out in the cold if thing turns south," Hendrix said this week. "That's when I started to entertain some of the schools that were still talking to me."
During the weeks Notre Dame didn't have a coach, Hendrix spoke to other coaches. He was intrigued most by Scot Loeffler, the quarterbacks coach at Florida, and he told Loeffler he would visit Gainesville in early January.
When Hendrix visited Notre Dame for the first time since Kelly's hiring, Hendrix told Kelly about the impending visit to Florida. "He was a little upset about it, and rightfully so," Hendrix said. "He came in thinking I was 100 percent in."
Fortunately for Kelly, he's smart enough to know that an in or out policy isn't exactly prudent at this stage of the process, and he probably knew he would have looked downright hypocritical had he yanked Hendrix's offer for doing essentially the same thing Kelly did a month earlier. Plus, he could have missed out on a very good quarterback. After a frank discussion, Kelly softened. A few minutes later, Hendrix said, he and Kelly were chatting like old friends.
It turned out Kelly had nothing to worry about. Hendrix enjoyed his visit to Florida, but it didn't sway him. Last week, Hendrix told Kelly he was 100 percent in. "Being Catholic and going to a Catholic high school," Hendrix said, "it's always a dream to go to Notre Dame."
As for the rest of the class, Kelly has kept most of the players who pledged to Weis with a pair of notable exceptions. Defensive end Chris Martin, the highest-rated player to commit to Weis, had reopened his recruitment before Weis was fired and now plans to sign with Cal. Meanwhile, Kelly is fighting to keep Giovanni Bernard, a running back from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who decided to entertain offers from North Carolina and Oregon State after the firing.
Five players -- quarterback Tommy Rees (Lake Forest, Ill.), receiver Tai-ler Jones (Gainesville, Ga.), safety Chris Badger (Provo, Utah), cornerback Lo Wood (Apopka, Fla.) and cornerback Spencer Boyd (Cape Coral, Fla.) -- already have begun taking classes in South Bend. One potential star, 320-pound Jacksonville, Fla., defensive tackle Louis Nix, said in an interview last month that he is solid to Notre Dame. With new Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco installing the same 3-4 he brought to Cincinnati last season, Nix would make a perfect anchor at nose tackle.
In the months after Kelly finishes his current fishing expedition on national signing day, he'll provide a better idea of how he'll approach recruiting now that a lot more doors are open to him. We'll have to see if he can enforce his you're-in-or-you're-out policy when he's recruiting four- and five-star players against some of the nation's best programs, but Kelly seems confident Notre Dame will give him the advantage he needs. "When you have the weight of a university that can carry the day over a coach, that's a good feeling," Kelly said. "Then I just have to make sure I don't mess it up."
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