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Notre Dame Football: Why Do the Irish Struggle To Recruit Georgia & Louisiana?

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Former Irish players and recruiting analysts suggest things Notre Dame can do to improve its standing in the south.

NCAA Football - 2007 AllState Sugar Bowl - Notre Dame vs LSU Photo by A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Wes Pritchett, like so many Georgians before and after him, felt the Peach State pull as he considered where to begin his college football career.

Pritchett, an Atlanta native, returned from a visit to Notre Dame determined to join the Georgia Bulldogs.

Wes Pritchett (34), one of Notre Dame's Three Amigos, came up with a fumble in a 31-30 win over Miami in 1988.
South Bend Tribune

“Georgia pulled my scholarship and I said, ‘To hell with you, I’m going to Notre Dame,’” the 1989 graduate said in a recent phone interview. “It ended up being the greatest decision of my life. But, as a 17 year old kid, for me it was very difficult to think about leaving the south when I had never been north of North Carolina.”

Pritchett’s initial reticence to break free of the comfortable moorings of southern living is a hurdle that still bedevils Notre Dame Fighting Irish recruiters today. Georgia and Louisiana are among the most fertile areas for elite talent. But in the past five years, Brian Kelly and have staff have almost always failed to coax those student-athletes north.

The Irish have extended scholarship offers to 77 Georgians since 2013; only three - punter Tyler Newsome, defensive end Isaac Rochell and quarterback Montgomery VanGorder - have accepted. (Sophomore Spencer Perry is from Newhan, Ga., although he was at Florida’s IMG Academy when offered.) Similarly, the Irish have offered 40 student-athletes from Louisiana. Only defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and wide receiver Michael Young have come.

In interviews with former players and recruiting experts, a prospect’s proximity to home was always mentioned as a contributing factor to Notre Dame’s lack of success in these two states. But there were several other variables also worth considering.

HOME SWEET HOME

In 2008, the Journal of Sports Economics published a study that suggested a recruit’s decision on where to attend college is “governed by a handful of primary factors” including “the opportunity for individual success and exposure, a team’s recent on-field success and the distance to the school from his hometown. The results also indicate that membership in one of the six Bowl Championship Series (BCS) conferences provide a significant recruiting advantage for these schools.”

The economists studied three recruiting classes - 2002 to 2004 - and were struck most by the consistency “in the average distance between a recruit’s hometown and his potential college destination (between 470 and 480 miles).”

It’s 734 miles from Athens, Ga. to South Bend, Ind. It’s another 235 miles to Baton Rouge, La.

“For elite level kids - kids at the level that Notre Dame wants to sign - you really kind of have to give them a reason to leave the south,” said Bud Elliott, the national recruiting analyst for SB Nation. “They really have to say, ‘OK, there’s something up there that I can’t get down here.”

Jeremy Attaway, the managing editor of SB Nation’s Georgia site, DawgSports, pointed out that if elite players are looking to play at powerhouse schools, there’s several nearby.

“Auburn has a strong alumni network in west Georgia (especially in the Columbus/LaGrange area, which has produced a lot of Auburn players,” wrote Attaway in an e-mail interview. “Florida State is 20 minutes from the state line, a 30 minute drive to traditional football stronghold Thomasville (home of QB Charlie Ward), a presence in southwest Georgia. Florida is only a short drive up I-75 from Valdosta. And you can almost hear the crowd at Clemson in northeast Georgia. So Notre Dame isn’t just competing against Georgia and, to a lesser extent, Georgia Tech, but large portions of the SEC and ACC.”

Attaway added: “High school players may not want to go to college down the street from mom and dad, but they want to be close enough for family to come for game day and near enough for a home-cooked meal every now and then.”

A LIFETIME OF WINNING

Elliott laughed when he thought about current recruits from Georgia and Louisiana.

“These kids were born in 2000. You want to feel old?” he asked. “In their lifetime, that they can really remember, has Notre Dame been a premier program?”

The Irish have won 129 games since 2000, which is fewer victories than all of these programs: Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (131), Auburn Tigers (148), Clemson Tigers (154), Georgia (160), Alabama Crimson Tide (164) and LSU Tigers (166).

In their study, the economists weren’t surprised to find that “greater on-field success leads to a greater probability that a recruit will select a school. ... Teams with lower rankings (meaning a ranking closer to first place in the polls) are more likely to attract recruits. An increase of 10 positions in the final AP poll from the prior season reduces the probability of selection by more than 2 percent.”

“The only real programs that are pulling elite kids out of the south right now for the most part are Ohio State and, to a certain extent, Michigan,” said Elliott. “I really don’t think this is a necessarily a Notre Dame problem as much as it is northern schools always kind of struggle to get kids to come north.”

Or as Pritchett, who played four years at inside linebacker, said: “People down here don’t really care about Notre Dame.”

Attaway noted the recruiting success of Ohio State, which has won 181 games since 2000.

The Buckeyes have “killed it in Georgia, recruiting players like Vonn Bell, Raekwon McMillan and Cameron Heyward and getting a verbal commit from 2018 five-star QB Emory Jones. [But] I think you hit the nail on the head regarding Georgia. If the Bulldogs can’t make it to the next level, that’s more likely to benefit [South Carolina’s] Will Muschamp, [Clemson’s] Dabo Swinney and [Alabama’s] Nick Saban more than Brian Kelly.”

THE TIES THAT BIND

Michigan v Notre Dame Photo by Tom Hauck/Getty Images

Benny Guilbeaux, who grew up in Opelousas - 60 miles west of Baton Rouge, has a long lists of reasons why the Irish are struggling to pull recruits from Louisiana.

“When I was there, they had guys on the staff with ties through Louisiana and they had real good relationships with a number of high school coaches,” said Guilbeaux, who played strong safety for the Irish from 1995 to 1998. “You have to be on these kids from almost the time they’re in junior high. If not, you’re going to lose them.”

Attaway noted that the Alabama Crimson Tide “leaned heavily on the Peach State in recent years” because they had Kirby Smart as their defensive coordinator. Smart grew up in Georgia. His dad was a longtime high school coach there. And Smart worked at UGA before he joined Saban in Tuscaloosa. Now he’s back at Georgia as head coach.

“It’s no surprise that in his first full class in Athens, Smart stayed largely in Georgia and cleaned up,” Attaway wrote.

Elliott says most Louisiana recruits “kind of feel like they’re like on a mission from God to go to LSU.”

“Nobody pulls kids out of Louisiana that LSU wants, with the exception of Nick Saban,” he said. “And he coached at LSU for over half a decade and won a national title. So it’s really not like — hey, Notre Dame struggles to pull elite kids out of Louisiana. It’s everybody not named Nick Sabana struggles to pull elite kids out of Louisiana.”

Guilbeaux said his generation viewed LSU more as a basketball school. The Tigers, after all, didn’t win a single SEC football championship between 1988 and 2001. His friends went to schools like Southern University and Florida State.

Devery Henderson, who was also from Opelousas, changed all that when he committed to the Tigers in 2000. A Saban-led LSU was on the rise. Dave Roberts, who coached at Northeast Louisiana before joining Lou Holtz’s Notre Dame staff, had moved on in the transition to Bob Davie. And guys after Guilbeaux and Jamie Spencer (a fullback from Monroe, La.) were no longer looking at Notre Dame because they had a “big time program that was close to home.”

While economists found no correlation between a school’s graduation rate on a recruit’s decision to attend, Attaway said high school students in Georgia understand there are “serious advantages” to enrolling at the state’s flagship university.

“By becoming a star in Athens, players can secure connections which pay dividends over the course of a lifetime,” the managing editor wrote. “I know former UGA football players who have found success in law, medicine, insurance, education and a host of other fields in no small part because of the doors opened by being a star at the state’s premier football program.”

“You get a lot of pressure in Georgia if you’re a big player in Georgia to go to Georgia,” added Pritchett. “You go to any touchdown club. You go to any banquet. You’re going anywhere, you’ve got alumni in your ear because these people are crazy. They live, breathe, eat, sleep Georgia football.”

ENTICEMENT IDEAS

Notre Dame cannot move its campus south. It will, at least not for the foreseeable future, sport warm weather for at least 10 months every year. It used to be the only football program to have all of its games broadcast on television. Now it competes every Saturday with the SEC Network and CBS Sports’ SEC coverage.

So what will help, besides winning on the field?

“Whatever is on the cutting edge as far as facilities, they need to have that,” said Guilbeaux. The Guglielmino Athletics Complex, opened in 2005, is reportedly going to undergo an expansion to keep pace in the arms race among Football Bowl Subdivision Schools.

The safety-turned-school-teacher also believes uniforms have an impact.

“If the players had anything to say about it, Notre Dame would have been wearing the check (Nike) since ‘97,” he said. “Under Armour has made strides. But what Michigan did by being sponsored by [Michael] Jordan — that got them probably an extra five to eight recruits every year easily.”

Elliott believes the Irish will benefit if the NCAA’s Division I council approves, in April, an early signing period in mid-December.

“If you can get kids to take their official visits in the spring or even the summer when the weather is nice up there, I think that could help Notre Dame,” he said.

Elliott noted that the Stanford Cardinal are more aggressively recruiting Georgia. The early signing period, he said, could benefit Notre Dame in that head-to-head battle for elite athletic talent with outstanding classroom grades.

“Stanford oftentimes doesn’t get back to kids on their actual admissions until far later in the process than Notre Dame does,” he said. “If I’m Johnny Prospect and I’m sitting here waiting to sign, and Notre Dame’s given me the green light and Stanford hasn’t, I may not feel like waiting.”

GA & LA athletes offered ND scholarships, 2013-2017

Class of Player Position Home State Committed to 247 Composite
Class of Player Position Home State Committed to 247 Composite
2017 Jaiden Cole ATH LA Louisiana Tech 3
2017 A.J. Terrell CB GA Clemson 4
2017 Jamyest Williams CB GA South Carolina 4
2017 LeAnthony Williams Jr. CB GA Clemson 4
2017 Terrell Bailey CB LA Tennessee 3
2017 Tray Bishop CB GA Georgia 4
2017 Troy Simon CB GA Wake Forest 3
2017 William Poole III CB GA Georgia 4
2017 Yusuf Corker CB GA Kentucky 3
2017 Leonard Warner ILB GA Florida State 4
2017 Malik Robinson ILB GA North Carolina 3
2017 Nate McBride ILB GA Georgia 4
2017 Chandler Wooten OLB GA Auburn 3
2017 Adrian Ealy OT LA Oklahoma 4
2017 Andrew Thomas OT GA Georgia 4
2017 Deon Jackson RB GA Duke 3
2017 Trey Sermon RB GA Oklahoma 4
2017 Deangelo Gibbs S GA Georgia 4
2017 Keldrick Carper S LA Texas A&M 3
2017 Richard LeCounte III S GA Georgia 5
2017 Stuart Head S GA Stanford 3
2017 Todd Harris S LA LSU 4
2017 Xavier McKinney S GA Alabama 4
2017 M.J. Webb SDE GA South Carolina 4
2017 Malik Herring SDE GA Georgia 4
2017 Cortez Alston WDE GA Georgia Tech 3
2017 Michael Allen WDE GA Wake Forest 3
2017 Robert Beal WDE GA Georgia 4
2017 Devonta Smith WR LA Alabama 4
2017 Jeremiah Holloman WR GA Georgia 4
2017 Michael Young WR LA Notre Dame 3
2017 Trey Blount WR GA Georgia 4
2016 Marquez Callaway ATH GA Tennessee 4
2016 Mecole Hardman ATH GA Georgia 5
2016 Kristian Fulton CB LA LSU 5
2016 Antwuan Jackson Jr. DT GA Auburn 4
2016 Elysee Mbem-Bosse ILB GA Michigan 4
2016 Jaleel Laguins ILB GA Georgia 4
2016 Tre Lamar ILB GA Clemson 4
2016 E.J. Price OT GA USC 4
2016 Willie Allen OT LA LSU 4
2016 Jawon Pass QB (DUAL) GA Louisville 4
2016 Devin White RB LA LSU 4
2016 Elijah Holyfield RB GA Georgia 4
2016 Cameron Lewis S LA LSU 4
2016 Chanse Sylvie S LA Oklahoma 3
2016 Nigel Warrior S GA Tennessee 4
2016 Chidi Okonya SDE GA Duke 3
2016 Mykelle McDaniel SDE GA Tennessee 3
2016 Andre Anthony WDE LA LSU 4
2016 Antonneous Clayton WDE GA Florida 4
2016 Charles Wiley WDE GA Ole Miss 4
2016 Jordan Smith WDE GA Florida 4
2016 Tomon Fox WDE GA North Carolina 3
2016 Demetrius Robertson WR GA California 5
2016 Kyle Davis WR GA Auburn 4
2016 Marquez Stevenson WR LA Houston 3
2015 Kirk Merritt APB LA Oregon 4
2015 Taj Griffin APB GA Oregon 4
2015 Donte Jackson ATH LA LSU 4
2015 Terry Godwin ATH GA Georgia 5
2015 Chris Williamson CB GA Florida 3
2015 Micah Abernathy CB GA Tennessee 4
2015 Xavier Lewis CB LA LSU 4
2015 T.D. Moton DT LA Texas A&M 3
2015 Chuma Edoga OG GA USC 5
2015 Adonis Thomas OLB GA Alabama 4
2015 Arthur McGinnis OLB LA Oklahoma 3
2015 Marshall Wallace OLB LA Arizona State 3
2015 Jerry Tillery OT LA Notre Dame 4
2015 Eric Swinney RB GA Ole Miss 4
2015 Kendall Bussey RB LA Texas A&M 3
2015 Nick Brossette RB LA LSU 4
2015 Arrington Farrar S GA Wisconsin 4
2015 Hunter Dale S LA Washington State 3
2015 Justin Reid S LA Stanford 3
2015 Rashad Roundtree S GA Georgia 4
2015 Andrew Butcher SDE GA Tennessee 4
2015 Austin Bryant WDE GA Clemson 4
2015 Chauncey Rivers WDE GA Georgia 4
2015 Mekhi Brown WDE GA Alabama 4
2015 Natrez Patrick WDE GA Georgia 4
2015 Darius Slayton WR GA Auburn 4
2015 Derrick Dillon WR LA LSU 4
2015 Michael Chigbu WR LA Georgia 3
2015 Tyron Johnson WR LA LSU 4
2014 Terrence Alexander CB LA Stanford 3
2014 Courtney Garnett DT LA Oklahoma 3
2014 Kenny Young ILB LA UCLA 4
2014 Kevin Mouhon ILB GA Cincinnati 3
2014 Raekwon McMillian ILB GA Ohio State 5
2014 Orlando Brown OT GA Oklahoma 3
2014 Tyler Newsome P GA Notre Dame 3
2014 Montgomery VanGorder QB (DUAL) GA Notre Dame NA
2014 Leonard Fournette RB LA LSU 5
2014 Nick Chubb RB GA Georgia 5
2014 Mattrell McGraw S LA Oregon 3
2014 Nick Glass S GA Didn't sign 3
2014 Andrew Williams WDE GA Auburn 4
2014 Lorenzo Carter WDE GA Georgia 5
2014 Cam Sims WR LA Alabama 4
2014 Demarre Kitt WR GA Clemson 4
2014 Malachi Dupre WR LA LSU 5
2014 Speedy Noil WR LA Texas A&M 5
2014 Terry Googer WR GA South Carolina 3
2014 Trey Quinn WR LA LSU 4
2013 Trey Johnson ILB GA Ohio State 4
2013 Kendell Beckwith OLB LA LSU 4
2013 Johnny McCrary QB (DUAL) GA Vanderbilt 3
2013 Tyshon Dye RB GA Clemson 4
2013 Tray Matthews S GA Georgia 4
2013 Vonn Bell S GA Ohio State 5
2013 Isaac Rochell SDE GA Notre Dame 4
2013 Tim Williams WDE LA Alabama 4
2013 Demarcus Robinson WR GA Florida 4
2013 Juwaan Williams WR GA Oregon 3
2013 Rickey Jefferson WR LA LSU 4
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