SOUTH BEND, Ind. | When Tony Alford walks into a high school wearing Notre Dame gear, the Fighting Irish recruiting coordinator always receives plenty of attention.
Now with the Fighting Irish ranked No. 1 and headed to the BCS National Championship Game, the interlocked Notre Dame on Alford's shirts registers a different response.
"You can walk in with that ND on your shirt and people are going to listen to you anyway. They're going to at least listen to you," Alford said. "But now you walk in and it's a whole different vibe."
Mostly, Notre Dame has removed some ammunition from its recruiting foes.
Recruiters from other programs, for a long time, had been able to tell high school players that Notre Dame's best days were in the past, and its academic stature couldn't help players get to the NFL.
Now opponents are running low on negatives.
"Yeah, we do have great traditions here. We're not going to apologize for that," Alford said. "We have outstanding academics and a support staff here and we're not going to apologize for that either. Those are great things to have in our hip pocket. But now we also have an opportunity to be one of the top teams in the country on the football field. Therein lies the deal. You have an opportunity to be at the highest peak in all of those things right here at Notre Dame."
Sounds like a pitch he's made a few times before.
Alford is in his first season as the program's recruiting coordinator and has steered one of the best efforts across the country in the 2013 cycle. Currently the Fighting Irish sit in the top five of most team recruiting rankings (as high as No. 2 on Rivals.com) and a few more high-profile players remain within reach.
Certainly winning helps, but the Fighting Irish staff has improved its ability to identify high school players as potential fits and introduce the players to the different members of the coaching staff earlier in the process. It's what some call cross-recruiting. Seventeen of the 21 current Notre Dame verbal commitments pledged to the program before the memorable 2012 season started.
Alford and the staff span the country looking for what Brian Kelly terms as RKGs: right kinda guys.
"Most guys when you start talking to them about Notre Dame and you bring young men on this campus, they know. They're going to know based on the things and information that we give them about our school," Alford said. "If they start researching what Notre Dame is all about, they're going to know if this the right fit for me. Again, it's not for everybody. Make no bones about it. It's not. But for the guys that it is for, they get it."
Alford spends most of his time recruiting the talent-heavy state of Florida where competition from SEC teams and the likes of Florida State and Miami is severe.
Part of Alford's challenge is recognizing whether a high school student is willing to leave his region and attend a college far from home.
"You start talking to the people around him. And I don't mean on the periphery. But I'm talking about people that are in his close inner circle. You can find out real quick what a kid's thinking based on his reactions to it," Alford said.
"I don't think recruiting the southeastern region is any different than recruiting Texas for Kerry Cooks, is any different than recruiting California for Mike Denbrock. There are good football teams all over this country. There are talented players all over this country. It's really when you start building relationships with people, you can find out. Is there something to it? Can I grab on to this? Can I sink my teeth into this one? If you can, you do. If you can't, you move on to the next one."
The Irish have found success this cycle in recruiting players from winning programs like linebacker Jaylon Smith at Bishop Luers in Fort Wayne, Ind., and cornerback Cole Luke at Hamilton High in Chandler, Ariz. This year's class of verbal commitments features five players who won state championships as seniors
"You always want to be around winners," Alford said. "High school students want to be around winners in college and we as coaches want to get guys that understand how to win, have won, and understand the work that's necessary to win."
A 2013 class strong in quality and quantity became vital after the 2012 class dwindled down to 16 members by the beginning of the season.
Alford remains confident that classes that meet needs and bring in top talent will continue to be routine at Notre Dame.
"We're getting our guys. We're going to get our share. We're going to go recruit the players that we think fit here," Alford said.
"Sometimes that may be a five star, sometimes that may be a three star, whoever judges that. We're going to recruit the skill players and offensive and defensive linemen in the trenches, the ones that we feel help us be successful in our endeavors and what we want to go do. Wherever those guys are, we're going to go try to get them."