Notre Dame recruiting took a step in a new direction this past week when for the first time in at least the last 50 years, a football recruit enrolled in the University a semester early. Actually, three of them did. Indiana running back James Aldridge, Texas offensive lineman Chris Stewart, and Oklahoma wide receiver George West all officially moved into their new dorm rooms and signed their scholarship papers, making them Notre Dame's first early enrollees.
"I guess that makes us pioneers in a way," Aldridge said. "But you know people have been doing this at other schools for 10 years now. I just think of it as I'm bringing something new to Notre Dame. Hopefully, George, Chris and I can be a successful story with early enrollment, and we can keep it going for others."The football benefits of early enrollment are obvious. The three will get to start winter workouts with the team and fully participate in spring practice. The jumpstart will give all three a tremenous head start heading into fall practice. It will give Aldridge a chance to find some carries in the backfield, West an opportunity to show his stuff as a return man, and Stewart a shot to work his way into the offensive line 2-deep. The benefits also extend to the academic side as the three will get a chance to take a few introductory level courses without the time crunch of in-season football that normally greets freshman in the fall.
Of course, just to be considered for early enrollment, a proven strong academic track record was a necessity. Notre Dame never officially had a rule forbidding early enrollment, a trend that started around 10 years ago, but it was never sought out by previous coaches. Some of the credit for this shift in thinking should go to James Aldridge as well as Coach Weis. In the past Notre Dame has recruited kids who sought out early enrollment (Dan Connor, Myron Rolle, etc...) but all changed their mind about Notre Dame, among other reasons, after hearing that the Irish did not accept early enrollment for football players. When Aldridge committed to Weis and the Irish it was still not a given that he would be allowed to enroll early, but he stuck with the Irish and his willingness to work with the admissions department no doubt made the decision to enroll him easier. The same can be said for both West and Stewart. West's coursework at Northeast Academy in Oklahoma yielded him college credit and Stewart took courses at a local college to earn college credits and supplement his high school curriculum, so both demonstrated a commitment to academics as well as athletics.
Personally, I think that in very limited numbers early enrollment can work for Notre Dame. But care must be taken by both the football coach and the admissions department to make it successful. (To be clear, I'm sure both parties did as much this year.) Let's be honest, the spring semester at Notre Dame should more accurately be named "the winter semester with two great weeks of spring weather when you really should be studying for finals". Obviously Indiana native James Aldridge is used to the weather he'll see in South Bend but Texas native Chris Stewart might not be a big fan of those 6 am walks to the Gug in the middle of February. The fact that three recruits were brought in gives them all a built-in support network. I really wouldn't want to see more than, say, four early entry recruits in a year, but I think that two or three is better than just bringing in a lone recruit.
To clear up some speculation, the three do not have to sign the Letter of Intent that the rest of the recruits will sign on February 6th. However, signing their scholarship papers will have the exact same effect. They now are subject to the same transfer rules as everyone else.