Feb. 4, 2015

Campus roadways are mostly quiet rather early on a February Wednesday morning, but there’s no shortage of activity in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex.

It’s football letter-of-intent signing day at the University of Notre Dame–as the fruits of more than a year’s worth of work–countless visits, calls, texts, contacts and all sorts of other communication–today become official.

Letters of intent can be signed by prospects as of 7 a.m. local time, and the Irish football recruiting, social media and digital media teams already are on hand at the Gug, preparing to spread the word.

Most of the Notre Dame signees have been in the fold for some time. There’s not much high drama expected today. Still, it’s an energized scene as several dozen high school players officially become members of the Irish football program.

There’s an oversized cookie in the football recruiting/social media headquarters that reads #ShamrockSoldiers, the Twitter hashtag attached to members of the 2015 Notre Dame class.

The Fighting Irish Digital Media team camps out in the coaching staff conference room, ready to announce signees one at a time via the official Notre Dame football Twitter account.

The Irish football recruiting team is set up in its office where the Xerox/fax machine lives, awaiting the hum that signifies official documents are on their way. Notre Dame assistant athletics director Jen Vining-Smith, who handles all compliance details for football, sits near the fax machine so she can eyeball and certify the documents. There’s a large board on the west wall–already including early enrollees Tristen Hoge, Micah Dew-Treadway, Jerry Tillery and Te’von Coney–that has plastic name cards added one by one as the letters of intent roll in.

6:50 a.m. – It’s going to be a long day, so there are snacks everywhere–fruit, bagels, breakfast sandwiches, donuts, orange juice and apple juice. The recruiting hub is set up in party mode, with balloons, oversized cookies, Tostitos, Doritos, popcorn and dip.

7 a.m. – The office of Irish player personnel director Dave Peloquin (in three-piece suit and tie) becomes the gathering place as Irish assistant coaches Scott Booker, Tony Alford and Mike Elston camp out, ready for the communication to begin.

Notre Dame personnel cannot initiate phone calls, so Irish prospects have been instructed to call their Notre Dame contacts to alert staffers in South Bend that documents are headed their way.

Meanwhile, coordinator of recruiting operations Megan Whitt and her student staff already are working on finalizing bios of nearly 40 potential prospects for 2016, all of whom are expected to have some communication with Irish coaches before the day is over. The process for 2015 is about to conclude, and the 2016 work has long since been in full swing.

Multiple flat screen televisions in Whitt’s area are tuned to ESPN and ESPNU as Irish staffers follow the day-long coverage of recruiting developments.

7:04 a.m. – Elston is on his cell, and the fax machine whirs–and the Irish assistant grabs the documents for Indianapolis product Asmar Bilal (an honorable mention Parade All-American who helped his team to an 2014 Indiana state title) from the tray and hands them to Vining-Smith to authenticate. She establishes an official time, and then Whitt’s staff adds his name to the board.

It’s a major day for visibility in general for college football programs on this first Wednesday in February, and Irish head coach Brian Kelly has a lengthy laundry list of media appointments.

ESPN has sent a crew to South Bend, with Paul Carcaterra set to do live shots at 9:40 a.m., another at a time to be determined, then one at 3:10 p.m.

7:15 a.m. – The ESPN video crew rolls through the recruiting office, grabbing background shots of the scene.

7:16 a.m. – Alford walks the hallway, speaking to Pennsylvania running back Josh Adams (USA Today’s Pennsylvania offensive player of the year) and his mother on his cell. “We’re going to take great care of him. Welcome to the family. This is a great moment for your family.” To Adams, Alford offers, “Today’s the honeymoon, tomorrow we get to work.” Adams’ documents come via Peloquin’s email.

7:22 a.m. – Booker looks at his texts, Denbrock takes a bite of a breakfast sandwich and Elston wanders the hallway. A minute later, material for Indianapolis defensive back Mykelti Williams (player of the year on the Indianapolis Star Super Team) arrives via email, and those for Cincinnati defensive lineman Elijah Taylor (from a long list of Notre Dame connections at Moeller High School) come through via fax.

7:30 a.m. – Booker and Peloquin speak to Massachusetts kicker Justin Yoon (he kicked three field goals in the Under Armour All-American Bowl) who alerts the Irish he is sending his pages.

7:40 a.m. – The Yoon fax sheets plop out of the machine, as Booker watches and speaks to Yoon: “Everybody’s excited. Everybody just shouted out your last name.”

7:50 a.m. – Denbrock grabs a Diet Coke and Matt LaFleur holds a a cup of coffee. Brian VanGorder and graduate assistant Michael Hiestand monitor the developments in the hallway.

8:18 a.m. – As the central time zone now comes into play, Texas receiver Jalen Guyton (helped his team to 16-0 record and Texas 6A title in 2014) becomes official.

8:23 a.m. – Notre Dame vice president/athletics director Jack Swarbrick, his usual iced tea in hand, arrives at the Gug to keep up with the day’s events.

8:24 p.m. – Illinois product Trevor Ruhland (he helped his team to Illinois 7A state title game) provides his paperwork, followed immediately by Indiana linebacker Josh Barajas (he also helped his team to a state title contest, in Indiana 3A game).

8:30 a.m. – Denbrock and Alford pass a cell back and forth to speak with Illinois receiver Myles Boykin (Chicago Catholic League MVP and part of Illinois 7A title team). Says Denbrock, “Thanks for helping us through the process. Tell the rest of the family how excited we are.” Alford follows with his own set of congratulations. Ten minutes later, Boykin’s papers are certified.

8:49 a.m. – ESPN sets up lights and cameras in the second-floor lobby of the Gug to tape a segment with lineman Jerry Tillery, an early enrollee from Louisiana. Paul Carcatera does a pre-interview with Tillery as they discuss potential topics for their conversation that is slated for air later in the day.

8:59 a.m. – Anchor Rece Davis and ESPN show taped scenes from the Gug, including one of the seven Irish Heisman Trophies as the network’s coverage continues.

9:01 a.m. – Paperwork for Brandon Tiassum (USA Today Indiana all-state pick) comes through the fax, as Vining-Smith eyeballs the documents. Each player needs to send three pages, two of them with signatures, including a two-page scholarship agreement.

9:17 a.m. – Ashton White, defensive back from Maryland (58 tackles as senior in 2014), is next to add his name to the list.

9:19 a.m. – Next is Nick Coleman (an all-state defensive back from Dayton who helped his team to Ohio Division IV title game).

9:20 p.m. – Brian Kelly heads down the hallway in grey slacks and a black zip-up sweater with a subtle argyle pattern. He visits with Alford in the recruiting office as the ESPN camera records them.

9:36 a.m. – Bo Wallace is Irish. Officially, he is Marshall Wallace, because as Kelly notes, national letters of intent do not allow nicknames, so at least for today he remains Marshall Wallace as opposed to Bo Wallace. He was the top defensive player on the Louisiana Sports Writers Association 3A team and another member of a state playoff runner-up squad.

9:38 a.m. — Brandon Wimbush joins the list. He helped his team to a New Jersey state crown and ranks as one of the top consensus dual-threat quarterbacks in the country.

9:39 a.m. – Defensive back Shaun Crawford is the 19th name on the board. He’s a Cleveland product who helped win a 2014 Ohio state prep title and also excels as a track sprinter and long jumper.

Eight student staffers jam the football recruiting space and watch the board fill up.

9:40 a.m. – Kelly is ready for his live hit with ESPN on the second floor of the Gug, but producers push it back five minutes, so the Irish head coach and Carcaterra chat.

The several-minute interview covers lots of ground:

Offers Kelly, “The first thing you want is to make sure the fax machine works. This is a big day – these are big decisions.

“It’s not just the 22 or so players you sign today. We’re looking at depth. This is the deepest team we’ve had, so with the number of returning starters we have (19) we hope a lot of these guys don’t have to play right away. But we want them ready to compete. There are plenty of places to help this football team.

“The last three weeks I’ve seen lots of airports and lots of home visits–18 cities in eight days at one point. This is the lifeblood of our profession. Next week we start working with the guys we have on campus.”

10 a.m. – Wimbush calls into the offices, and the phone goes from Booker to LaFleur to Kelly.

Says Kelly, “Congratulations, we’re excited. It’s gonna be fun. Now we’ll work to see if we can get you out here this spring. Everyone here can’t wait to work with you. This is a special class. Enjoy the day.”

10:23 a.m. – Now that it’s past 7 a.m. on the West Coast, another wave of documents begins to arrive. First come papers from defensive back Nicco Fertitta in Las Vegas, followed quickly by those from receiver C.J. Sanders from California. That brings the class to 21. Sanders brings not only blue-chip receiving skills to the Notre Dame roster, but also nine movie or television acting credits.

10:30 a.m. – Fertitta (all-state pick who helped his team to the mythical national prep crown) is on the phone with Booker and LaFleur and the conversations are coming so fast and furious that it’s hard to tell who is on whose cell as the phones are passed from coach to coach.

Meanwhile, the Doritos and Tostitos are out of the bag in the recruiting office for a little mid-morning nourishment.

10:50 a.m. – Irish video coordinator Tim Collins stops into the recruiting office to flip one of the flat screens to a laptop feed of Florida’s Bright House Network. Alford grabs a seat and Booker isn’t far behind. Two dozen people cram into the office, including the ESPN camera crew, awaiting the planned 11 a.m. announcement of Florida running back Dexter Williams.

11 a.m. — The volume is turned up and the shows goes live to the studio and then to a live shot at West Orange High School. First, West Orange cornerback Jalen Julius announces for Ole Miss, then the topic becomes Williams, who notes that his mother favored Notre Dame. Williams helped West Orange to its best season ever in 2014 at 11-1.

11:08 a.m. – Just as Williams is about to announce, the network loses the live shot and has to go back to the studio. But the shot returns for just a few seconds, showing Williams in a gold Notre Dame hat, and that’s all anyone in South Bend needs to know.

There’s lot of clapping, and Alford says, “We got what we need.” With that the room clears quickly. Williams officially makes the board as the 22nd addition, and the first piece of drama of the morning leaves a smile on Irish faces.

Meanwhile calls begin to come in from potential additions to next year’s Irish class, as the cell phones heat up.

11:21 a.m. – Las Vegas tight end Alizé Jones becomes number 23 on the list, as his papers are certified. A prep teammate of Fertitta and current Irish lineman Ronnie Stanley, he’s rated most everyone’s top tight end nationally

Noon – Notre Dame’s live recruiting show on UND.com begins, with Jack Nolan on set at the Gug.

12:10 p.m. – The Kelly segment begins, with these thoughts from the Notre Dame head coach:

— “Today is pretty much standard for what we expected to happen. We may have a few tweaks after signing day, but this is about accumulating depth with our team. We don’t want to have to play 13 freshmen like we did this past season. So this is about building depth in areas where we needed it–offensive line, defensive line, linebacker. We’ve got even more competition now at wide receiver.”

— “The last five weeks? It’s been a lot of cities. We go coast to coast. There are a lot of things that factor into coming to Notre Dame. For me, it’s getting into the homes, meeting the young men and their families and telling people what it’s like at Notre Dame.”

— Kelly decided to save images from his recruiting journeys and released several dozen today via Twitter.

“It’s about being in Louisiana and eating catfish with Harry Hiestand. It’s being stuck for a couple of hours in traffic in New Jersey and then finding 50 people waiting for you at Brandon Wimbush’s home. It’s Gorman High School in Las Vegas where the principal has a `Play Like A Champion Today’ sign.”

— “It (recruiting) is a lot of hard work. Dave Peloquin, Megan Whitt and Tony Alford do a great job, as do all our assistant coaches. We knew when we started the season that we had maybe 18 or 19 guys nailed down.”

There are chicken sandwiches, salad and other lunch options for anyone in need of more nourishment.

1 p.m. – Kelly does a live phone interview with the CBSSports.com crew, including former Irish quarterback Brady Quinn. Next is a taped piece with Bruce Feldman and Stewart Mandell for FoxSports.com, Sirius-XM with former Washington, UCLA and Colorado coach Rick Neuheisel, a live hit with ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt, a taped segment with Bill Simonson of the Huge Show and finally a taped spot with Eric Hansen and Darin Pritchett for the local WSBT Sports Beat radio show.

It has quieted down in the halls of the Gug, with much of the day’s process concluded. The Irish now are awaiting only the scheduled 3:15 p.m. announcement by California receiver Equanimeous St. Brown.

3 p.m. – He’s already enrolled and in school in South Bend, but Tillery stops by the Gug conference room to do a live Skype session back to his Louisiana high school to replicate his signing day decision. Skype goes live, Tillery immediately hears a huge cheer apparently pointed his direction and he smiles.

3:15 p.m. – St. Brown (he caught 32 passes in 2014) becomes the final addition to the day with his live ESPNU announcement, drawing serious cheers back at the Gug. He begins with remarks in both German and French, as a large group (including Kelly, Swarbrick, Alford and Booker) crams into the recruiting office to watch. St. Brown hardly could have been any more impressive–and now he comes to South Bend to speak Irish.

3:25 p.m. — Kelly wraps up the day with his media availability in the Gug auditorium, as Swarbrick, Alford, Booker and Vining-Smith look on.

The Irish head coach again thanks Peloquin, Whitt, social media expert Luke Pitcher and Alford, among others: “This is a team effort, all coming together on one day.” Kelly also pays tribute to his current roster of players, many of whom played noteworthy roles in the recruiting process. As he goes through the roster additions, Kelly notes that a majority of them either won state titles or played in championship games.

Here are a few of Kelly’s other observations:

— On Wimbush: “He’s a temperature guy. When he walks in the room he’s got a real presence and everything warms up.”

— On Yoon: “He’s the best kicker in the country. He’ll have impact out of this class right away.”

— On Jones: “He’s the best tight end in the country, and I don’t worry about putting pressure on him when I say that.”

— On the class: “This group built strong relationships. They really communicated with each other. These are guys who fit here at Notre Dame and we believe they can help us win a championship.”

It’s 4:30 p.m. by the time Kelly finished his media assignments, and the day now is a wrap.

There’s a sense of both exhilaration and relief that all the time and effort required to bring 24 new student-athletes into the Irish football program has fortified the Notre Dame roster in a significant way.

The Irish staff now turns the page and concentrates its commitment on the process that will bring another group of young men to Notre Dame a year from now.

After a few days off for the coaches, it will be on to the business of the 2015 season.

Spring football practices begin in a month, and the season opener against Texas is almost exactly seven months away.

There’s plenty of time for Irish position battles to be fought. For now, there’s a comfort level that the Notre Dame roster has been well restocked for the Saturdays to come.

— by John Heisler, senior associate athletics director