Days after four-star recruit Deion Colzie backed off his commitment to Notre Dame and re-opened his recruitment in the Class of 2021, the Fighting Irish finally put newly elevated offensive coordinator Tommy Rees in front of the camera.
Due to social distancing, it was only a split-screen one-on-one with recruiting coordinator Brian Polian providing the questions, but considering the setback with Colzie — rated the nation’s No. 11 wide receiver as a rising senior at Athens (Ga.) Academy — the session was hardly a coincidence.
Nor, most likely, was it happenstance that Brian Kelly joined ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt on Wednesday night for his first media appearance since Day 1 of spring practice almost three weeks earlier.
That same day news leaked out that Langdon Tengwall, a four-star offensive tackle from the traditional Notre Dame pipeline of Good Counsel High School in Olney, Md., had picked Penn State over Kelly’s Irish.
Apparently, if the NFL can still throw around its non-guaranteed funny money in free agency, college football can proceed with recruiting as usual, national emergency or not.
“Every recruit is very popular right now,” Kelly told Van Pelt. “Coaches have plenty of time to be on the phone, to be using FaceTime, all the social platforms where you can get out. We’re being so creative with our graphics. You’re getting a lot of traffic right now.”
It’s been nearly four months since Kelly pulled a shocker and fired offensive coordinator Chip Long after three highly productive seasons in the role. Long, an Alabama native who is considered a master recruiter as well as an inspired play caller, landed at Tennessee as an offensive consultant while the Irish pay the bulk of his salary this year.
Did we mention Notre Dame went 33-6 in Long’s three seasons in South Bend?
Rees, at 27 the youngest coordinator in program history, had a chance to test drive the offense in a Camping World Bowl blowout of Iowa State. A close bond with Ian Book, 20-3 as the starting quarterback, should help Rees make the transition, even without a full spring practice to make the engine purr.
Yet, there’s still the matter of recruiting and holding down the sort of Deep South commitments Long was so good at securing, a la Colzie and fellow Peach Stater Tommy Tremble, projected to follow Cole Kmet as Notre Dame’s next star tight end.
Notre Dame managed to avoid even a single de-commitment in the last recruiting cycle, even with Long’s December departure, but that remains an ongoing battle, especially in these uncertain times.
“I feel for the young men that are in this recruiting process right now,” Kelly said. “They probably are sick of us already, and we’ve only been at this a few weeks. We’ve got to be careful as well. We’ve got to have some semblance of normalcy here pretty soon when it comes to recruiting.”
Amid a national shutdown 2 ½ weeks ago, the NCAA instituted a mandatory dead period for recruiting in all sports until April 15. On-campus and off-campus in-person contact with recruits was prohibited, but coaches and recruits could still communicate electronically and via phone calls.
“Right now it’s unlimited in a sense,” Kelly said. “You can make that one phone call, but they can get back to you every single day.”
Rees, who went 23-8 as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback from 2010-13, was asked what it means to receive this opportunity at a place he knows so well. His father Bill, a longtime college and NFL assistant, is Notre Dame’s director of scouting.
“It’s funny, because for this thing to go well it would be exceptional, right?” Rees said. “To do this at your alma mater and to give back to a place that has given me so much, it’s as rewarding as it can get. It’s also high risk, though, because if things don’t go well, you’re probably not welcome back on campus.”
Lose out on too many four-star recruits, and it might not matter how creative those game plans are on fall Saturdays.