Blue and Gold Illustrated

January 2022*

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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62 JANUARY 2022 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED P ossibly one of the most pioneering moments in the history of college football recruiting occurred at the same time Notre Dame head coach Mar- cus Freeman was asked a question about name, image and likeness (NIL) during his early signing period press confer- ence Dec. 15. The timing was uncanny. As Freeman answered the question in a full suit and tie in front of inquisitive reporters, the No. 1 overall prospect in the class of 2022 per Rivals' rankings flipped his commitment from Florida State to Jackson State and signed with head coach Deion Sanders' Tigers. Hunter could have gone to Alabama, Clemson or Georgia. He had scholarship offers from all three. Instead, he's go- ing to an HBCU whose games are rarely televised on ESPN's main platforms. They stream only, usually. And the flip is believed to be all because of NIL. What NIL deal lured Hunter, a five- star athlete from Suwanee (Ga.) Collins Hill High, away from Power Five power- houses to an FCS-level school that has only recently risen back to prominence since Sanders' arrival in September 2020 is not yet public knowledge. But it must have been one heck of a deal and/or the sweetest recruiting pitch of all time. Those two things go hand-in-hand these days. As the news of Hunter to Jackson State broke, subsequently breaking any decorum and order on social media, Freeman didn't waver in what his approach to recruiting will be during a time in which players can essentially be bought by anybody — from the giants of the sport to HBCUs. "There are certainly rules within the NCAA that you can't break," Freeman said. "We can't say we're providing this name, image and likeness deal for you and things of that nature. We know it's real. And they know we have a plan to try to help promote it. "But we can't break the rules. And we won't break the rules." As NIL rages on, it will become in- creasingly clear that the schools with the most success in recruiting aren't blatantly breaking the rules but perhaps bending them to the point of flipping highly touted players in their favor. Freeman made it clear that he isn't even willing to go that far. "We do things the Notre Dame way," Freeman said. "We're going to do every- thing we do with integrity and the right way. We're going to win by outworking people. It's going to be our mindset in football and in recruiting. "We're going to outwork our oppo- nents. I don't want to do anything that has to do with breaking rules." Freeman was elevated to head coach status at Notre Dame in the last few weeks largely because of his heart. Play- ers — former, current and prospective — pushed for him to get the job. Assis- tants love working with him. Former co- workers have sung his praises. Plenty of outsiders are wishing him well. He's easy to root for. He has a big heart. Horns With Heart, though, has a big pocketbook. A Texas-based nonprofit, Horns With Heart is pledging $50,000 to every Longhorn offensive lineman start- ing next fall with a max of $800,000 for the entire unit each season. Notre Dame pumps out NFL-worthy offensive linemen seemingly every year. The incentive to play for the Fighting Irish if you're a young offensive lineman with dreams of making it big is tangible. Not quite as tangible as an easy five-fig- ure annual paycheck for simply signing on a dotted line, though. Texas landed the No. 1 offensive tackle, Kelvin Banks, and the No. 7 of- fensive guard, Neto Umeozulu, in the class of 2022 in the span of a few days. Both signed with the Longhorns in the early signing period. Notre Dame can do things the right way, but technically Texas is living by the same mantra under the current configuration of the rules. And it's working for Bevo. Texas surged past Notre Dame in the overall team recruiting rankings this week. The Horns are up to No. 4. Texas A&M is No. 1. Those are the two wealthiest programs in the country according to a recent FOX Sports report. The value of those brands and their places in the re- cruiting rankings are not a coincidence but rather a correlation. Notre Dame's No. 7 team ranking is nothing to scoff at. Defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Mike Elston said that number is only going to rise in future classes, too. But again, it's going to rise with hard work. Actual heart. Not via a nonprofit with that word in its name. "We have to show them without breaking the rules," Elston said. "We have to, without seeing them, without breaking the rules, we have to show them how our guys take advantage of that. It's not breaking a rule to show them that Kyle Hamilton is one of the highest-paid defensive players through NIL. "We have to be able to showcase what we're doing, what our guys are doing and capitalize on that so that we're not losing players to money flying in their pocket from somewhere else." Only time will tell if Elston was correct in saying that or if the power brokers in college football moving forward will be the ones with people on their side who are willing to pay for success. ✦ GOLDEN GAMUT TYLER HORKA Notre Dame defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Mike Elston (left) and head coach Marcus Freeman believe they can do things their way and still be successful in recruiting. PHOTO BY CHAD WEAVER Notre Dame Has Tough Task In Outworking Programs Paying For Success Tyler Horka has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since July 2021. He can be reached at

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