While researching a recent article about Notre Dame’s internet roster I noticed something that was impossible to ignore. Comparing the 2010 Fighting Irish roster versus the 2018 roster there appeared to be far fewer white players recently on campus. So, this sent me down a rabbit hole to bring you this content today.

First, a quick aside about how we consume college football content. I came across a study from 2008 that discovered college football message boards are nearly 88% male and nearly 90% white. Another study discovered that in college football there’s a shocking lack of overt racism on message boards, especially at a time when being able to hide behind a computer screen so often brings out the worst in people.

This conforms to my experience. In general, college football fans really don’t like to talk about race, often steer clear of the subject altogether, but do allow common tropes about race to exist in very small pockets–almost exclusively in the form of banter about white players and their toughness/grittiness/effort and usually in a self-aware mocking fashion.

Now, let’s look at some raw numbers.

On Notre Dame’s 2010 roster there were 70 white players from a total of 108 team members, or 64.8% overall. Of that mix, there were 40 white players on scholarship or 50.6% overall from the remaining pool of players who weren’t white walk-ons.

Eight years later, there were 50 white players from a total of 117 team members, or 42.7% overall. Of that mix, there were 26 white players on scholarship or 28.2% overall.

That’s a 22.4% drop in white players from Brian Kelly’s first to his most recent football team.

I was a bit more interested in which positions those losses came from, as well. The 2010 team had 24 whites on offense, 12 on defense, and 4 from special teams. In contrast, 2018 had 18 whites on offense, 6 on defense, and 2 from special teams.

Quarterback fell from 4 to 2 whites, receiver from 3 to 1, tight end from 5 to 4, offensive line from 12 to 11, defensive line from 2 to 1, linebacker from 6 to 4, and safety from 4 to 1. There were no white players at running back or corner on either roster.

What’s going on here?

Is it possible there’s a bias in the college recruiting rankings and that has led coaches to shy away from white players over the last decade? Looking at the 2019 top 200 college recruiting player rankings it was composed of only 15.0% white players. Yet, in the 2018 NFL Network Top 100 rankings the pro list had 26.0% white players. Is the college game doing a poor job of finding or highlighting the best white players?

It seems unlikely. The difference seems to be made up almost exclusively from the NFL’s emphasis on the quarterback position which took up 13 spots (50%) for white players as compared to college where there were only 5 white quarterbacks among the Top 200 rankings for 2019 and 8 the previous year. It may also be worth pointing out that for 2019 all of the Top 25 recruits were non-white players.

One thing is for certain, participation of white players has been falling in college football and by a lot more than I realized.

In 2008, the participation in FBS college football was 47.0% white players. By 2012, that stat had fallen to 39.9% and by 2018 a further drop to 35.6%.* The NFL is now down to 30% white players, too.

*It’s important to point out that the NCAA stats include walk-ons. Using only scholarship players the game is even far less white and more diverse. In 2010, Notre Dame had 22 walk-ons all of whom were white. Last year, 27 of 32 (84.3%) walk-ons were white. In the future, you would imagine walk-ons will become far less white, particularly as more generations of African-American athletes amass significant wealth. 

Additionally, white players on defense are becoming nearly extinct. From the NFL’s most recent Top 100 player rankings only 4 white defenders made the list: Luke Kuechly, Joey Bosa, Harrison Smith, and J.J. Watt. That 4% mark is pretty similar in the world of college recruiting where in 2019 there were only 6 white defenders among the Top 200, the highest being Purdue defensive end commit George Karlaftis at #69 overall. The prior year, there were only a pair of white defenders in the Top 100 one of which (Jack Lamb) Notre Dame signed.

Notably, there were no white defenders on the 2018 consensus All-American team. There were 2 for 2017, zero for 2016, 3 for 2015, 1 for 2014, 1 for 2013, 1 for 2012, 1 for 2011, and 2 for 2010. Within those 9 years there were no white consensus All-American defensive backs or defensive tackles. Of the 11 placements, 6 came from linebacker and 5 from defensive end.

I was curious to take a look at Alabama’s roster and found only 6 white defenders recruited over Nick Saban’s 13 cycles with the Tide. As far as I’m aware, safety Vinnie Sunseri is the only white defender to start for Alabama under Nick Saban. The 2018 Crimson Tide roster was complete with 19.7% white scholarship players, only two on defense with a couple of in-state 3-stars.

In some ways, the future for Notre Dame means succeeding as white players become less important at a school that is 66.2% white and during its last National Championship in 1988 featured 6 white starters on defense and several more Caucasians among the two-deep on that side of the ball.

Source: NCAA.org

We should point out that Notre Dame’s campus is 3.5% African-American (roughly 425 students) compared to Michigan (5.0%), USC (5.6%), Ohio State (6.4%), Florida (6.5%), Georgia (7.0%), Clemson (7.2%), and Alabama (10.4%). Clemson is the smallest enrollment of these bunch and has more than three times the African-American students than Notre Dame. Ohio State has nearly seven times as many African-American students.

If you look at the table above every racial group increased from 2012 to 2017 except whites and Asians. The “Two or More Races” particularly stood out to me for a group that more than doubled in pure numbers and rose from 3.0% to 5.6% of all college football players in just 5 years.

Notre Dame has been hitting the mixed raced demographic very hard in recent years. Over the last 10 recruiting cycles there are 30 (I may be under-reporting this number due to lack of verification on a few players) student-athletes signed by the Irish for 13.0% of all players. Over the last 3 cycles it’s 15.7% from mixed race players.

Of course, the changing demographics of the United States is no secret but as America becomes less white overall it’s hitting a small, Catholic school in the Midwest particularly hard. Ohio lost 106,000 whites from 2000 to 2010 and Michigan has lost nearly 200,000 over the same time frame. Indiana is projected to gain 15% in population in the coming years but almost all of it in urban Indianapolis and its diverse surrounding suburbs while the white population has fallen by over 3% since 2000.

Illinois lost a quarter million white people from 2000 to 2010 and had just 3 blue-chip recruits for the 2019 cycle. Pennsylvania is even more impacted with nearly 450,000 white people lost over the same time frame. During the 2012 cycle there were 12 white recruits out of the Pennsylvania top 25 (12 blue chips overall) while last cycle that tumbled to just 6 white players and only 4 blue chips in total. Notre Dame signed Andrew Kristofic, the top Pennsylvania and white player in the state.

Fifty years ago how many of the Top 400 high school football players in that given cycle would’ve been white and from Illinois or Pennsylvania?

Further, 37 of the 79 (46.8%) white players recruited under Brian Kelly’s leadership have come from just Midwest 5 states: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Sixteen were non-blue chips from these states and 21 were blue-chip recruits. These are traditional strongholds for Notre Dame but as we’ve just seen above this pipeline is slowly declining.

This pipeline won’t exactly dry up tomorrow–there are still 176,000+ high school football participants on a yearly basis from these 5 states according to the latest research or roughly 7% more than the state of Texas–but it’s a downward trend unlikely to be reversed any time soon. Demographics are not kept for high school sports which could provide a lot more insight into each state.

Florida could be a key to the future. Since 2010 there have been 9 white players recruited to Notre Dame from the Sunshine State which is 2nd most overall. However, only 3 were blue-chips and Robert Hainsey kind of doesn’t count being an IMG Academy player who grew up in Pittsburgh. The other two players were tight ends Mike Heuerman and George Takacs both from Naples. It’s not much of a surprise that the two true white Floridians came at a position of traditional strength for Notre Dame and from one of the wealthiest cities in the country.

To me, all signs point to Texas being the long-term answer for Notre Dame not just for white players but overall in recruiting.

As it were, there have been 4 white blue-chip recruits from the Lone Star State and 8 players overall, tied with Illinois and Pennsylvania. The culture and importance of high school football in addition to the vast amount of Catholic schools has to be super appealing to Notre Dame whereas these factors are often missing in the Florida schools.

You could throw the state of Georgia in the mix with its handful of Catholic schools primarily in the Atlanta area (Notre Dame’s top recruit for 2019 is a mixed race Catholic school kid, for what its worth) although the Peach State has more African-Americans than any other in the union and featured just 1 white player (same as Florida^) in its 2019 Top 25 rankings. Texas at least had 4 white players among its Top 25 and the Irish signed one of them, Hunter Spears from a north Dallas public school.

There’s a reason why 3 of the 9 Shamrock Series games have taken place in Texas.

^The state of Florida has produced 340 blue-chip recruits over the 2013-19 cycles. Over that 7-year period there have been 23 white Floridians who were at least a 4-star, or 6.7% overall.

In the end, the long-term impact of white players in college football is going to diminish as it has been for years. It’s a problem for Notre Dame insofar as it’s an erosion of the Irish recruiting base decades in the making for a small Catholic school that is still dominated by a white culture. This shouldn’t shock anyone involved with Notre Dame as the national recruiting has been ingrained in recruiting for almost a century but it does stress the need to appeal more to non-white athletes while also trying to maintain a stranglehold on the white players that continue to pop up in the upper-tier of the recruiting world.