NOTRE DAME — Late hits in football games earn you a flag.
Late hits in football recruiting earn you points. Big points.
With the game well in hand, Notre Dame, for good measure, rocked one more pitch over the wall in the ninth inning Wednesday, Feb. 6, when it landed California native Eddie Vanderdoes, one of the most sought-after prep defensive linemen in the country. Vanderdoes announced his signing in a web feed Wednesday night, long after most recruits had made their firm commitments.
Added to 5-star notables like Fort Wayne linebacker Jaylon Smith, Florida halfback Greg Bryant, and California safety Max Redfield, the Fighting Irish matched pitch-for-pitch with the likes of Alabama, Ohio State, Florida and Michigan in the recruiting pennant race.
“By and large, we’ve made the case in recruiting where we see you, and we’re honest with them,” said ND coach Brian Kelly, who officially high-fived 24 incoming freshmen. “Here’s where we see you and this is where you’re going to be, and if you do this, you’re going to get your playing time.
“So I think from our end, the elite players have that confidence, that no matter who’s in front of me, I’m going to beat them out.”
Kelly conceded that some recruits still evaluate the school’s playing-time landscape before making a choice, sizing up the opportunities before putting ink to national letter-of-intent paper. The Irish believe they’ve got a class that looks beyond that to the big picture — winning and championships.
And it may have started by bagging Indiana’s top prospect and, in some recruiting circles, the No. 2 all-around player in the country: Smith, the heralded Luers High School star.
“I think when you’re winning and you get those kind of players, it’s a burning desire to want to continue down that road,” Kelly said. “What is acceptable versus unacceptable is a higher bar. Seven-win seasons, six-win seasons ... unacceptable. Eight-win seasons ...
“You keep moving the bar higher and higher and higher when you recruit these kind of young men in this class, and we think we’ve got that, where we’ll have an influx of players that will continue to push the entire program and that’s why we’re excited about these kids.”
Winning any national and in-state battle for a top-flight high schooler is essential. Keeping Smith close to home was quite a coup in the intense recruiting tug-of-wars.
“I think it’s important that if there’s a player of that caliber, you need to recruit the heck out of him,” Kelly said, “but we go into every state in the country and we will pull one of their kids, if you will. And it’s a dogfight.”
Kelly isn’t about to tag Smith as the next Manti Te’o — on paper, they appear to be entirely different kinds of athletes — but leadership, as well as unlimited talent and drive, are common bonds between the two Butkus Award-winning backers.
And if Smith happens to emerge in the spring and next fall as one of the top 11 defensive players, he’ll play, according to Kelly.
“I think leadership takes different forms and (Smith) can be a leader just by his own actions, the way he handles himself, the way he’ll look you in the eye,” Kelly said. “Do I think he’s going to come in and be the vocal leader like Manti was on the field? No, I don’t think so. But his actions and the way that he prepares himself and the way he plays the game, I think a lot of people will want to model after him.”