Two of the most successful programs in college football history, Notre Dame and Alabama, will square off at 8:30 tonight (ESPN) at Sun Life Stadium near Miami for the BCS National Championship.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and his staff have added the right pieces to allow the Irish to become national contenders again.
The nostalgic elements of this game are evident. The way these two teams played during the course of 12 and 13 games, respectively this season is a storyline that has been rehashed for the past month. We all know that Irish head coach Brian Kelly has resurrected Notre Dame and that Tide head coach Nick Saban is the best coach at Alabama since Bear Bryant.
But all this would have never happened had both head coaches and their coaching staffs not put together a winning formula in recruiting and roster-building. The Fighting Irish classes since Kelly’s arrival have ranked No. 17 (2010), No. 9 (2011) and No. 12 (2012) while the Tide had the No. 4 class in 2010 and the nation’s top classes in both 2011 and 2012, according to the 247Sports team rankings, which exclusively uses rankings and ratings from the 247Composite in order to provide a more broad, consensus look at a class rank.
Building the Irish
It’s no secret that Notre Dame has won because of a great defense this season. Most importantly, the Irish have an outstanding defensive front seven. Linebacker Manti Te’o nearly won the Heisman Trophy and has been a catalyst for the unit and quite frankly, credit has to be given to the former Irish staff under Charlie Weis for landing him. In fact, then-Irish assistant Brian Polian, who is expected to be named the next head coach at Nevada, was the lead recruiter for Te’o and beat USC for his services.
We all know that one player does not a defense make, though, and it’s been Kelly’s staff that has been able to land several big upgrades, most of which were recruiting battles won in the Southeast, which produces talent on the defensive line by the truckloads.
Starting defensive tackle Louis Nix III flipped from a longstanding commitment to Miami (Fla.) to Notre Dame toward the end of the process. The 6-foot-3, 315-pounder with NFL potential actually committed to the Irish when they were between coaching staffs thanks to the work of ace recruiter Tony Alford, who continues to be one of the top talent acquirers in the country and leads the Irish efforts in the state of Florida as a member of Kelly’s staff.
Starting outside linebacker Prince Shembo signed with the Irish in that class as well and though he initially committed to the Weis staff, current Notre Dame assistant Bob Diaco helped keep him in the fold.
The Class of 2011 featured perhaps the biggest Irish recruiting win in the Southeast that contributes today (five-star Aaron Lynch was a huge win, but he has since transferred to South Florida) as Notre Dame landed Stephon Tuitt out of Monroe Area High in Georgia over a bevy of offers from Southeastern Conference programs. Tuitt also had been committed to Georgia Tech. The 6-foot-6, 303-pounder, who was the nation’s No. 32 overall prospect in that class according to the 247Composite, is one of the best defensive linemen in college football and is just a sophomore.
The state of Indiana has featured some outstanding prospects at the top in recent years (like five-star linebacker Jaylon Smith, who is committed to Notre Dame for the 2013 class) and defensive lineman Sheldon Day was one of those in the 2012 cycle. He has played significant snaps as a true freshman and has played a big role for the Irish on defense.
Stephon Tuitt was a big recruiting win for Notre Dame and is one of the best defensive linemen in college football. He was part of the Class of 2011, Irish head coach Brian Kelly's first full recruiting cycle in South Bend.
One of the keys to Alabama’s success has been a low “bust factor”, meaning if they sign a highly-regarded prospect, he usually lives up to his potential. You can make an argument that Notre Dame has been equally successful in terms of that and also in terms of coaching players up. True freshman KeiVarae Russell came to Notre Dame as a projection at running back, but has started at cornerback most of the year. Shembo, though a borderline four-star prospect, was not as heavily recruited as others and was considered a “tweener” coming out. Getting Day ready has been impressive as well. That’s a tribute to Diaco and company’s on-field coaching ability.
Also, on offense (which Kelly has been known for throughout his career), they found starting quarterback Everett Golson in Myrtle Beach, S.C., after receiving a tip he was wavering on a long-standing commitment to North Carolina. The slightly-built, strong-armed signal caller is a tough-as-nails winner who won state championships in multiple sports as a high schooler and has carried that winning attitude to South Bend. Great recruiting get there and again, they’ve gotten him ready.
Building the Tide
When Saban left LSU following the 2004 season, he left the roster stacked with excellent players for new coach Les Miles. The low “bust factor” we previously discussed is one overriding reason.
Saban holds all of his coaches accountable in recruiting and he himself is an excellent evaluator of talent. The process at Alabama or wherever Saban coaches is more in-depth than at other schools and probably rivals the scouting departments of many NFL franchises in terms of effectiveness. Coaches are expected to know prospects inside and out and the staff, from support staff to coordinators to assistants to Saban himself, works tirelessly at gathering information and making decisions accordingly.
While there is no perfect formula in recruiting and nobody bats 1.000, chances are high that a prospect will develop as expected or in many cases at a higher level than expected barring injury or off-the-field issues provided the commitment level is there.
One look at the Tide’s starting offensive line, which many say is the best in college football (you can argue Texas A&M here, too) will tell you that. It’s a blend of highly-regarded prospects that have panned out and players that weren’t so highly-regarded that the Alabama staff has developed well.
Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio was the nation’s top prospect not named Jadeveon Clowney in the 2011 class. Within two years, he’s the starting tackle and has more pure talent than perhaps any other starter in the unit. So, it’s safe to say that the five-star rated prospect has turned out as expected.
Left guard Chance Warmack was a three-star prospect according to the 247Composite and had no in-state scholarship offers out of Westlake High in Atlanta. NFL scouts think that right now, he’s Bama’s best offensive lineman and he should be the first interior player taken in this April’s draft.
Alabama starting left guard Chance Warmack was rated as a three-star prospect by the recruiting industry, but could be the first interior offensive lineman taken in April's NFL Draft.
Center Barrett Jones has played all three offensive line positions during his decorated career. He came to Alabama as a four-star, national-level talent and has developed accordingly.
Starting right guard Anthony Steen was a 247Composite three-star and had limited interest from the in-state programs out of Clarksdale, Miss. Alabama took him, developed him and he’s a starter.
Starting right tackle D.J. Fluker was a 247Composite five-star prospect and the 6-foot-6, 335-pounder has had an All-American junior season.This has been a best-case scenario as Fluker had plenty of size coming out of high school and it’s often not the easiest to get a prospect that is 320-plus to reshape, keep bad weight off and reach his potential.
The offensive line is just a microcosm of how Saban and his coaches have assembled the most talented roster in college football. Alabama will suffer personnel losses this year and it will every year, but when you evaluate and develop well, you can account for them, even in the Southeastern Conference.
Also, Alabama has done an excellent job of expanding its recruiting footprint under Saban to a true national approach. The Crimson Tide signed approximately 64 percent of their talent in Saban’s first two classes from the Yellowhammer State. The Classes of 2010-2013 (not yet signed) have featured the following breakdowns.
2010- 10 of 21 from Alabama, 10 different states
2011- 6 of 25 from Alabama, 12 different states
2012- 7 of 26 from Alabama, 10 different states
2013- 6 of 21 from Alabama (commitments) from 13 different states
One of the examples of breaking down geographic boundaries has been the Tide’s ability to recruit Georgia. Prior to Saban’s arrival, Alabama worked much more west (Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas) than east along I-20 as Mark Richt and the Bulldogs were locking down most of the talent in the Peach State in the early part of the 2000s. In the Classes of 2010-12, Alabama has signed 15 prospects from Georgia, thanks in no small part to the work of defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, a native of the state that played for the Bulldogs. It’s never a bad idea to land elite talent from Georgia as it’s a clear top five talent-producing state annually and those numbers continue to grow.
On paper, the Class of 2013 is Notre Dame’s best class under Kelly and it has a chance to contend for the nation’s top class this cycle. The Irish currently are sitting at No. 4 in the 247Sports team rankings with highly-rated prospects like five-star defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes left on the board. This class features the best group of linebackers in the country, including Smith and four-star Alex Anzalone (previously committed to Ohio State and held off a charge from Florida), a good group of offensive linemen featuring four-stars Hunter Bivin, Mike McGlinchey and Steven Elmer and two of the top running backs in the country in Florida stars Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant. There is no question that the talent level on this roster will continue to rise, dismissing the myth that Notre Dame would never been Notre Dame again for a lack of the ability to recruit talented athletes.
Alabama again has the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class for the 2013 cycle, so another load of great prospects across the board are heading to Tuscaloosa. Five-star outside linebacker/defensive end Jonathan Allen (Virginia), five-star receiver Robert Foster (Pennsylvania) and five-star athlete Derrick Henry (Florida) again shows the Crimson Tide’s national recruiting reach and grabbing junior college offensive tackle Leon Brown and prep school tackle Brandon Hill again shows the resourcefulness of the Bama staff in terms of making good evaluations on players with the upside to compete at the highest level of college football and fill needs.
JC Shurburtt is the National Recruiting Director for 247Sports. Follow him on Twitter @jcshurburtt