10:00 am, April 23, 2012
Tom Lemming was juggling names in his head as he made his way down I-75 between Atlanta and Macon, Ga.
Usually able to come across as a human Rolodex, the CBS College Sports recruiting analyst kept struggling to recall the name of Notre Dame’s new tight ends coach, former Irish football intern Scott Booker.
Once Lemming stopped to chat with four elite junior prospects in Macon, he never had to be reminded again — nor at any other point while canvassing the state.
“I felt like wherever I went, I was one step behind this guy,” Lemming said. “When I talked to players, when I talked to coaches and asked who was the most influential recruiter and who impressed them the most, Booker’s name came up as much as anybody from Auburn, Florida State, Alabama, Florida or Georgia.
“Those are the schools that normally dominate this state. Yet there was Booker right in the middle of every conversation. That was my first impression. The more I found out about him, the more he fits the profile of a guy who has a chance to be a star in the future in recruiting.”
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly apparently saw the same thing, assigning Booker talent hubs northern Florida and Maryland-D.C.-Virginia in addition to Georgia — instead of, say, Vermont.
“It was (about) how he communicated,” Kelly said, “obviously understanding what we’re looking for — the profile. He understands Notre Dame, and he’s a hard-working kid. And I knew he had all of those credentials or I wouldn’t have hired him.”
What Booker didn’t have was a name or vast experience, which doesn’t necessarily seem to matter in the recruiting game.
Tosh Lupoi, the closest thing to a rock star in the most recent recruiting cycle, left his alma mater, Cal, for Washington just before national signing day (Feb. 1) and in doing so rerouted the trajectories of a handful of the nation’s top prospects. He was the youngest full-time coach in Cal history when he joined the Bears’ staff at age 26 in 2008.
Additionally, he had no pro career after six injury-diluted seasons as a Cal player. But Lupoi did have charisma, the ability to charm teenagers and parents alike, and a work ethic and attention to detail that wasn’t often matched.
The 31-year-old Booker likewise didn’t sniff a pro career. Instead the four-year regular at safety for Kent State rose through the coaching ranks at his alma mater, Kent State, before a short stint at Western Kentucky preceded his two-year internship at ND.
“I see the same kind of work ethic in Scott Booker that I see in Tosh Lupoi,” Lemming said. “In recruiting, the No. 1 thing is work ethic. You have to go that extra mile. I’ve said this for years, ‘If your hobby is golf, you’re not going to be a good recruiter.’ Recruiting has to be 24/7, 365 days a year.”
How has that manifested for Booker? He has coaxed top prospects from distant areas to make the trip to South Bend — at their expense — for unofficial recruiting visits. The paid/official visit season doesn’t begin until September.
Already, he took the lead in landing cornerback Devin Butler from Washington, D.C., considered a Penn State lean until Booker convinced the Gonzaga High product to visit the ND campus recently. And the Irish are considered leaders for two other Booker recruits — defensive end Isaac Rochell of McDonough, Ga., and wide receiver Demarcus Robinson of Fort Valley, Ga.
Both players are listed among Rivals.com’s top 100 prospects nationally and both are considered among the top 10 players at their respective positions.
“Scott Booker is a bulldog,” said Steve Wiltfong, 247sports.com national recruiting writer. “He gets a lead and he won’t let go. He’s willing to send that extra e-mail, that extra Facebook message, follow up on that extra lead instead of calling it a day.”
Booker said there are elements of recruiting at ND that are nothing like his experiences at Kent State and Western Kentucky.
“At the same time, it’s all about relationships,” he said. “Relationships you have with the individual recruiter, relationships you have with the individual recruit’s parents or their support system and maybe the relationship you have with high school coaches.
“It’s important that you find out who the decision-makers are in the process. Sometimes that’s easy to figure out. Sometimes you have to do your homework.”
Kelly did his homework before promoting Booker from the ND intern program. There was a pull to get a bigger name, or at least someone with more experience. And yet, Kelly couldn’t get away from the strong impressions Booker cast on a daily basis for two years.
“I’m not surprised he can do a good job,” Kelly said with a grin.
There is a team dynamic to recruiting as well, and Wiltfong said there’s a noticeable improvement in chemistry and cooperation among the staff.
“You see it when a kid steps on campus,” Wiltfong said, “All of the coaches are making this kid feel welcome.”
But schools don’t get kids to campus without dynamic personalities on the front lines. And that’s where Booker has excelled early on.
“The great coaches know you can’t win big without impact players,” Lemming said. “And if you’re going to get impact players, at least six of your nine assistants have to be dynamite recruiters. I feel like ND had fallen short of that, but Booker is helping to change that.”
“He’s young, he’s hungry and he’s doing everything that’s been asked of him,” Wiltfong said. “That’s a great place to start.”
The following players have verbally committed to play football at Notre Dame beginning in 2013. National signing day is Feb. 6.
Steve Elmer; 6-6, 305, OT, Midland, Mich. (Midland)
Jacob Matuska; 6-5, 240, DE, Columbus, Ohio (Bishop Hartley)
James Onwualu; 6-1, 210, WR, St. Paul, Minn. (Cretin-Derham Hall)
Colin McGovern; 6-7, 280, OT, New Lenox, Ill. (Lincoln-Way West)
Hunter Bivin; 6-7, 288, OT, Owensboro, Ky. (Apollo)
Mike McGlinchey; 6-9, 280, OT, Philadelphia (William Penn Charter School)
Malik Zaire; 6-1, 190, QB, Kettering, Ohio (Archbishop Alter)
Rashad Kinlaw; 6-2, 185, CB, Galloway, N.J. (Absegami)
Corey Robinson; 6-4, 195, WR, San Antonio (San Antonio Christian)
Devin Butler; 6-1, 180, CB, Washington, D.C. (Gonzaga Prep)
John Montelus; 6-5, 295, TO, Everett, Mass. (Everett)