The story goes like this: Ishaq Williams is set to leave for an official visit to Penn State at 5 a.m. on Jan. 14. Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco calls the Williams home at midnight and is told of the plan. No problem, Diaco says, I can be there at 4:30.
By 9, Williams, a top-100 recruit, is Irish, and Diaco has earned himself a spot in Irish recruiting lore.
Pretty good story, and one that, like most good stories, gets better with time.
“That,” Lemming said, “shows determination.”
Determined would be one word to describe the Notre Dame coaches, in particular their approach during the January stretch run of recruiting that will land Notre Dame a top 10 class when all the letters of intent are received Wednesday. Another word would be aggressive. Relentless also works.
Pick any of them. They apply.
They’re not, however, the words that were expected to be thrown the way of a staff that for the most part had not dealt with the type of recruiting issues that goes on at schools such as Notre Dame.
Wide receivers coach Tony Alford was the lone holdover from the Charlie Weis staff and tight ends coach Mike Denbrock was part of the Tyrone Willingham crew, so both knew the terrain.
Beyond that, there was largely a lack of big-time recruiting experience. Sure, there were schools such as Wisconsin, Kansas and Virginia on some of those résumés, but Cincinnati, Central Michigan and Grand Valley State also stood out.
“I thought it was a staff with no experience, initially,” Lemming said, speaking of the recruiting backgrounds. “It kind of showed early on.”
By early on, Lemming means during the season, which is about the second quarter in the recruiting clock. After shooting out of the block - ND began the season with 16 commitments - a snag was encountered when a few losses occurred during the middle stages of the season.
“They started losing them because of not realizing how aggressive big-time recruiting is,” Lemming said. “But then they learned quick. They’re quick learners.”
A stretch of early January showed just how quick. Alford’s recruitment of Lynch never stopped, and with the start of the spring semester looming - Lynch planned all along to enroll early - Alford was able to land a late visit, which turned into a commitment.
That commitment came a day after Williams jumped aboard.
Another snag arrived a few days later when Stephon Tuitt changed to Georgia Tech, and it looked like ND’s defensive line haul would be downgraded from great to very good. The staff, however, refused to go accept it without a fight.
Kelly, defensive backs coach/recruiting coordinator Chuck Martin, defensive line coach Mike Elston and Diaco flew to the Atlanta area to re-recruit Tuitt. Martin, according to Lemming, dug in.
“It was an aggressive recruitment on both sides, and Martin held his own,” Lemming said of the former Grand Valley State head coach. “I was recently at Georgia Tech and everyone there now knows who Martin is. To me, that’s the sign of a good recruiter. You’re trying to land your team the best players, and Martin got his guy back.”
Helping getting those guys back, and getting them in the first place, has been what ESPN national recruiting director Tom Luginbill calls a movement toward young coaches. When the season began, Diaco was 37, Elston 35, Alford 41 and Martin 42.
“In this day and age with recruiting - and I think you’re seeing a lot of programs, a lot of head coaches going to this - they’re going to the young, outgoing, grinder, where there’s very little age gap between the prospect and the coach,” Luginbill said.
“I think that’s where the scale has slid to now. It’s younger and more outgoing and grinders from a work ethic and having older and more experienced X’s and O’s guys in coordinator roles that have a role in recruiting but nowhere near what the position guys do. And I think that’s the approach (Kelly’s) probably taking.”
Whatever approach Kelly took, it worked, especially late, when the Irish barged their way into the top 10 in recruiting rankings, with the landing of Williams, and the re-additions of Lynch and Tuitt the reason why.
“The turning point was that Notre Dame fought for these guys,” Lemming said. “They no longer said, ‘If they don’t want to play for Notre Dame, we don’t want them.’ That’s what Notre Dame’s excuse has been for the last 20 years.
“Now, they’re going to fight for them because that’s what recruiting’s all about nowadays. It may not have been that way before, but it is now.”