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Michael Carvell

Q&A with Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly

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Notre Dame has only signed 8 players from Georgia in the last 10 classes, but 4 since Brian Kelly took over in 2010 (AP)

Notre Dame has  signed 8 players from Georgia in its last 10 classes, but 4 since Brian Kelly took over in 2010 (AP)

Notre Dame hasn’t signed a lot of players out of Georgia in recent years. But when it does, it’s usually a good one.

Former Monroe Area High School standout Stephon Tuitt is the best prospect at defensive end not named Clowney for this year’s NFL draft, according to one analyst. Former Gainesville High School wide receiver TJ Jones was voted as Notre Dame’s MVP this past season.

This spring, there’s only one Georgia player on Notre Dame’s roster, defensive end Isaac Rochell of ELCA. The Fighting Irish have signed eight players from Georgia in their last 10 classes, but four since the coaching change in 2010.

“Certainly, those two (Tuitt and Jones) have been outstanding players here at Notre Dame,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly told the AJC. “But I think our reputation in the state certainly is about getting more than just a couple of players. We’ve recruited there for a long time.

“There has been a long tradition (of Notre Dame recruiting in Georgia). I’ve recruited down there ever since I’ve been a head coach.

“You know, I think the state itself turns out so many high school football players. Texas, Florida, California and Georgia – to me, those are the states you’ve got to be in …We’re going to continue recruiting down there because they turn out really good football players.”

Expect to see more Georgia players on Notre Dame’s roster in the future for several reasons, including the recent hiring of former UGA defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder in the same capacity for the Fighting Irish. He’s one of two assistants in charge of recruiting the state.

Notre Dame will also have a more tangible presence in the Southeast as a partial member of the ACC. They will play 15 games against ACC schools over the next three years, including Georgia Tech in the 2015 season. Even though Notre Dame football is a fixture on national TV, many of the Southeast’s top recruits will get to see the Irish play in person, too.

“I think it will help us in recruiting with visibility,” Kelly said. “I think when you talk about some of the schools we play, this will allow kids to see us play in person. Now they can come over and see you at Georgia Tech. Or they can see you at other schools in the ACC. I think it definitely is an added bonus.

“Certainly being on national television helped us when we weren’t in the ACC. But I do think there is an additional piece there that helps us … Atlanta is an area that we need to get into, and we’re obviously looking to continuously get into that area, whether it be playing in that area or recruiting in that area. Now with the ability to be in the ACC, it helps us.”

One of college football’s biggest games next season will be Notre Dame’s Oct. 18 matchup at Florida State. Kelly was asked if he’ll take advantage of that showdown to benefit his team’s recruiting efforts in Florida.

“Certainly because it’s a Florida State home game, we can’t have any contact with recruits,” he said. “But we’ll certainly talk about that game as a game where it’s one you need to go see. On our schedule, we send out all the information on the games that the kids need to come to. That’s not a home game, but that will be one that we point to.

Here’s the rest of the Q&A with Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly:

Last week, you told reporters that you decided to move spring practice indoors that day because it was -8 degrees in your car. In your opinion, how much of an impact does cold weather have on recruiting, especially when you’re pursuing kids from warmer climates, like Georgia? You always hear some people in the South mention that when a local recruit visits Ohio State, Michigan or Notre Dame. I guess there’s a perception that it’s a really big negative factor and I’m not so sure. “I think if a kid is deciding on the weather as if to whether or not he’s going to Notre Dame, then he’s not the right kid for us anyways. He should be making his decision based on what his future is going to look like. If he’s that short-sighted about the weather conditions, he’s probably not going to fit in here at Notre Dame anyways.”

Notre Dame’s director of football operations recently tweeted out a picture of eight new recliners you bought for the locker room. What’s the story behind that? “I think anytime you can do little things to enhance the player environment for your guys, especially when we’re in, as you mentioned, the long cold days of March, we want to do little things for our players that aren’t expected for them. Little things like that go a long way when the guys are getting up early and putting in long days.”

I guess it had to be kind of ironic that Atlanta had two ice storms this winter, and registered colder temperatures than Notre Dame or really cold places like Alaska? “You guys in Atlanta have lived through the cold as well. What we’re telling our guys right now is that there were a couple of times when we were going to send the weather reports down to recruits in Atlanta and remind them what the weather was like, too.”

For recruiting purposes, how big of a deal do you think it was for the rest of college football for a non-SEC team (which would be Florida State) to win it all last year? It appeared to show some high-profile recruits in Georgia that they don’t have to sign with an SEC school to win a national title. “I think it certainly helped balance it off. I think the SEC still has had a stranglehold on this for a number of years. I think now it’s starting to show that there are a number of programs that can compete for that championship, whether they’re in the Pac-12, Big 12 or the ACC. I think college football is going to show that there are elite teams from every conference. It’s not just in the SEC. The ACC has played great football and has dominated to a large degree. And I think now you’re going to get a chance to have an option in every one of the conferences, and that option is that you’ll have the chance to play for a national championship.”

2012 BCS Championship game (AP)

2012 BCS Championship game (AP)

Now that you’ve had time to reflect on it, what effect did Notre Dame’s appearance in the 2012 national championship game have on your overall recruiting efforts? “I think there’s a couple of things. One, our story is pretty well known because of the brand power of Notre Dame. But we needed to connect to the younger players out there that really didn’t know about some of the legends of Notre Dame. So it was important to let them see Notre Dame football as being a team that can play for a national championship. It really helped us with the younger kids and the younger generation that didn’t know about Jerome Bettis, Tim Brown and some of the all-time greats like Rocket Ismail and others. So it was very important to bridge the gap with some of the younger kids.”

Even though you lost that game to Alabama, is that a fond memory and something you talk about to recruits? Or do you shy away from talking about it? “No, we certainly let them know, from our standpoint, that’s that is the destination — getting to the national championship. And now, of course, getting to the playoffs. I think anytime you accomplish that goal, you now can put it in front of a recruit and say ‘Hey, we can get there.’ There’s no question we can answer all the critics and say ‘You can have the No. 1 graduation rates in the country and you can play for a national championship here at Notre Dame, too.’ I think that broke down a lot of barriers for us in terms of recruiting. It allowed us to go out and really sell our academics, and sell the fact that you can do both, and you can play for a national championship as well.”

What’s it like having star quarterback Everett Golson back on the team and participating in spring practice? “There’s a lot of energy. You know, when you have a playmaker back there that has an ability to make big plays every time he touches the ball, it’s pretty exciting. It’s like having that point guard who can really distribute the ball and do great things. It’s pretty exciting. I think he brings a lot of energy to what we’re doing on every single play.”

How has Golson looked so far? A little rusty or hasn’t missed a beat? “You know, I think it’s like everything else: There’s obviously the need to clean up some things here and there. He definitely has a lot he brings to the table in terms of knowledge that he has carried with him. But clearly, the timing and attention to details are things we are going to continue to work on. So far, so good. It has really been a good first week with him. I know there’s lot to work on, but I think everybody is feeling pretty good where we are right now.”

Ex-UGA defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder (AP)

Ex-UGA defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder (AP)

Your name seems to be thrown out there a lot when there’s job openings in college or the NFL. I’m sure other colleges use this against you in recruiting. How much “negative recruiting” is out there? “Oh, I think happens. But most of the kids now understand that it comes when you’re successful, more than when you are not. You know, I’ve made it pretty clear that I want to win a national championship here at Notre Dame. That’s my focus, and that’s my commitment. When your name is being thrown around there, that means you’re doing well and you’re successful. I think all the kids that come through here with their parents, I let them know that I want to be here at Notre Dame to win a national championship. They understand that your name is going to come up when you’re winning, and you want to be part of a winning program.”

How many coaches have you assigned to recruit Georgia?  “We’ve got two coaches in Georgia. Brian has got a great familiarity with Georgia having been the defensive coordinator at the University of Georgia. He has some great roots down there. His son played at Buford High School and is just finishing up there. He has a lot of ties to the area. And Scott Booker has recruited the state of Georgia for me at Notre Dame for the last four years. So we’ll have two in the state of Georgia.”

What’s your sales pitch to Georgia’s elite 2015 prospects that may be considering Notre Dame? “First and foremost, it’s going to allow the opportunity to play for a national championship and get a degree that’s going to open up doors for you for the rest of your life. I think that’s what everything centers around – an education that will take care of you. It’s the best 401k in America.”

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– By Michael Carvell, AJC’s Recruiting Blog

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