It didn't take long for Notre Dame fans to get a recruiting tutorial from Brian Kelly. Irish fans quickly learned of RKGs (Right Kinda Guys). They gave up on looking for the next left tackle or inside linebacker, but rather focused on three different position groups: Power, Big Skill and Skill.
Kelly arrived in South Bend with a recruiting plan in place, refined over the past 20 years as he built programs at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati. After watching Charlie Weis struggle to learn the art of roster building on the fly, Kelly's system has been a great stabilizer for the Notre Dame program, winning 29 games over the last three seasons while getting 14 players drafted in the last two classes, including seven in the draft's first three rounds.
But changes have been implemented to the recruiting formula, creating a paradigm shift for Kelly and the Irish. And after holding strong to a belief system that worked quite successfully, both Brian VanGorder's hiring as defensive coordinator and Kelly's return to the spread offense have helped evolve the Irish's recruiting efforts.
Those changes started taking place late in last year's recruiting cycle, as the Irish coaching staff identified and landed key prospects Daniel Cage, Pete Mokwuah, Kolin Hill and Jhonny Williams. And while those recruits might be pegged to VanGorder's arrival in South Bend, 247Sports' director of recruiting Steve Wiltfong told me the different recruiting profiles are emblematic of the changes that are taking place in college football.
"Going back to last year, as college football evolves, Notre Dame is evolving the way they recruit," Wiltfong said.
We can see proof of that right now in Notre Dame's pursuit of cornerback Shaun Crawford. The Michigan commit spent the weekend in South Bend, where the Irish coaching staff put on a full-court press for the diminutive cover corner. The Irish haven't pursued a corner this small under Kelly before, with Bob Diaco preferring corners that are at least 5'11". But thanks to VanGorder's man coverage scheme and opposing offenses, the Irish staff has pivoted their search.
"Even in last year's recruiting class, Notre Dame began looking for cornerbacks that could cover those quicker, speedy slot receivers that are being utilized in college football right now," Wiltfong said. "Those guys are tough to cover, and the Irish are looking for players to cover those guys."
The Irish swung and missed on signing day, nearly pulling in Terrence Alexander, who picked Stanford over a late charge from Notre Dame. But when Florida transfer Cody Riggs committed to the Irish, Kelly gave a hint that finding versatile cover corners who can run with slot receivers is a true commodity, even if it's a short-term rental.
"It's hard to find those guys that can play inside," Kelly said in late February. "That nickel position is one of the most difficult ones to find. ... I was talking to Coach Belichick, it took him six years to find a shutdown corner. It's hard to find those guys. And to find a guy that can play inside and outside and can play safety, those are very valuable players. So Cody is an extremely valuable asset even though it's a one‑year asset for us."
Looking to the 2015 recruiting class, you begin to see targets that might not have been potential Irish recruits in years past. While it's mostly to find attacking, speed prospects for VanGorder's defensive system, Kelly continues to hunt for running backs and receivers for the Irish spread offense. The addition of C.J. Sanders gives Kelly a custom fit in the slot. But the Irish are chasing other waterbug receivers in 5'8" Ryan Newsome and 5'10" Malik Lovette.
With Notre Dame looking to take a smaller-than-average class that might not even reach 20, Wiltfong sees the Irish staff in a good position moving forward. They're chasing a talented group of prospects who will only hear more from Notre Dame as the fall grows closer.
"As the season goes on, Notre Dame is going to move up the list with guys, especially if they're having the type of year they think they're going to have," Wiltfong said.
Is Brian Kelly right to evolve his recruiting strategies?
That means staying in the lead group of national targets like inside linebacker Justin Hilliard and defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie. Wiltfong thinks the Irish are in great shape with that duo, as well as wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and cornerback John Reid, elite prospects in a still-shaping-up 2015 recruiting cycle.
"I don't think they're slow playing anyone, as they lead for some top players," Wiltfong said, as if already sensing worries from Notre Dame fans feeling uneasy about a recruiting class that sits at eight members. "It's just a matter of when guys are ready to pull the trigger. And the guys that Notre Dame is in for now, they aren't ready to pull the trigger."
With Notre Dame's "Irish Invasion" camp coming this June, expect more big names to check things out in South Bend. The Irish staff's emphasis on a national camp scene is just another tweak in a formula that's been successful so far.
But entering his fifth year as Notre Dame's head coach, Brian Kelly has proved different from the men who have come before him—as Bob Davie, Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis were gone at Notre Dame by the end of their fifth year. And Kelly's willingness to evolve his recruiting strategy gives you another idea why.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.