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Wednesday April 26 2017
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St. Elsewhere

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A flurry of WPIAL prospects chose to take their talents to South Bend this year, despite rejuvenating seasons by both Penn State and Pitt.

While many Pittsburgh products see Penn State and Pitt as their new homes for their four or five years of college football, this year was different.

Several of the regions's top seniors signed their respective letters of intent on Wednesday to play at Notre Dame.

That is one more from the region than Penn State and just one less than Pitt.

North Allegheny's Josh Lugg and Central Catholic's David Adams and Kurt Hinnish all signed their names on paper Wednesday to become members of the Fighting Irish.

Notre Dame's tradition with Pittsburgh runs deep, from Ringgold's Joe Montana to Butler's Terry Hanratty to Connellsville's Johnny Lujack, plaus more recent standouts like Oliver's Ray Zellars and Woodland Hills' Darrin Walls.

"The tradition, history and consistency of putting players at the next level,” is behind Notre Dame's appeal to prospective high school football players, said Brandon Huffman, a national analyst at Scout.com.

Josh Helmholdt, a Mid-West Regional Analyst for Rivals.com, also argues that the combination of academic and athletic enticement is pivotal to Notre Dame’s successful recruiting in the Pittsburgh area.

“Maybe Stanford can match Notre Dame in offering an athletics-academic combination,” Helmholdt said. “Another thing that I hear is that Notre Dame does an excellent job selling the next 40 years and what a Notre Dame degree can get.”

For Lugg, the highest ranked Western Pennsylvania offensive tackle on 24/7sports.com’s nationwide list, there were plenty of offers for a college football career. Penn State, Pitt, Virginia Tech, UCLA and Wisconsin were just a few of his many possible future homes.

However, it was Lugg’s first impression of Notre Dame early on that was pivotal to his decision.

“Lugg went to a camp at (Notre Dame) as a sophomore and then went on a visit to the university and came away impressed with the coaches, facilities and the tradition of the program and he committed soon thereafter,” North Allegheny head coach Art Walker said.

For Hinnish and Adams, their friendship was pivotal to their decisions to play football in South Bend.

“They are close friends so they made their decision together,” Central Catholic head coach Terry Totten said. “After going to visit the camp and visiting the school they decided that Notre Dame was the best fit academically plus they were impressed with the coaching staff and the school's long winning tradition.”

Even Notre Dame's 4-8 season did not scare off Adams, Hinnish and Lugg.

“One subpar season does not affect recruiting long term,” said Helmholdt.

A bad season may not hurt recruiting significantly, but a head coach on his way out could.

One year after signing a six-year contract extension, head coach Brian Kelly failed to get the Irish to a bowl game for the first time since 2009. A long-term contract wasn't enough to save Charlie Weis from the chopping block in 2010 with five years remaining on his contract.

“When you’re talking about a coach on the hot seat, if you isolate that aspect, that definitely has a big impact on recruiting,” Helmholdt said. “Anytime there’s questions around the program, questions about stability, those are the things that have a bigger impact on recruits minds because they’re trying to make a four or five year decision.”

The Irish nearly had four recruits from western Pennsylvania this season, but defensive end Donovan Jeter of Beaver Falls de-committed from Notre Dame as the Irish began to struggle. After committing in September, Jeter de-committed a month later, citing the fact that Kelly “wasn’t fun.”

Instead, Jeter opted for Michigan and its eccentric head coach, Jim Harbaugh.

Huffman said that one person’s opinion does not speak for the rest of the Notre Dame class.

“You don’t hear guys saying (Alabama coach) Nick Saban’s a lot of fun, but yet he’s still bringing in the best classes,” Huffman said. “So, I think it’s that what may work for some guys, doesn’t work for others. I don’t think it’s going to scare people off from Notre Dame just because Donovan Jeter said that.”

Helmholdt agrees that Jeter's de-commit didn’t affect this current class, but he thinks it could affect future classes.

“In that particular instance, I think recruits paid attention,” Helmholdt said. “It’s that first impression for kids.”

It did not affect Lugg, Hinnish or Adams, but it is something to watch for in the future. At the time that all three committed, the 2016 football season was young. Now that it is finished and Kelly is on thin ice. Will the class of 2018 may respond differently when Notre Dame comes knocking?

One player to keep an eye on is Pine-Richland quarterback Phil Jurkovec, a 2018 graduate and one of the top quarterbacks in his class. Jurkovec committed to Notre Dame last fall but his pledge won't become binding until next spring.Pine-Richland Phil Jurkovec

After failing to land a western Pennsylvania elite recruit since 2009, the Irish struck gold in the Steel City this year. Was it an anomoly, or will Jurkovec lead a Pennsylvania renaissance in South Bend? That story is just starting to be written.

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