Just ask someone who was there.
"The atmosphere was better than anything I'd ever seen in person or even on TV," Apopka DB Lo Wood said. "It was amazing."
Wood, who checks in at No. 5 on the Sentinel's area list, gave an oral commitment to the Fighting Irish over the summer. The USC game coincided with his official visit, a sojourn that put Wood in the stands with some of the most sought-after recruits in the country.
So were guys like Seantrel Henderson.
Henderson is the behemoth offensive tackle Rivals rates as the No. 1 overall prospect in the nation. Upon returning to St. Paul, Minn., the 6-foot-8, 305-pounder raved about his visit, as well as the impressive group of players who joined him.
"Most of 'em were from Florida," he said.
Most of 'em were the state's best, too.
Before the game, Notre Dame already had commitments from a duo of Floridians in Wood and Cape Coral DB Spencer Boyd. This week, RB Giovanni Bernard, whom Sentinel rates as the top running back and No. 7 prospect in Florida, pledged for the Irish, allowing Coach Charlie Weis and friends to dig further into that lucrative pool of talent at Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas, USA Today's reigning (mythical) champion and the current top-ranked team in the country.
"Academics were important to him," St. Thomas Coach George Smith about Bernard's decision. "He liked the atmosphere there and I think he wanted to get out of the area."
The Irish have four St. Thomas players on their current roster (senior offensive linemen Sam Young and Dan Wenger, plus long-snapper Jordan Cowert and punter Ben Turk, both freshmen). In a perfect blue-and-gold world, the commitment by Bernard, who rushed for 1,528 yards and 18 touchdowns last season, would carry some weight with some of his current teammates, three more of whom are listed in the top 10 of the Sentinel's Florida Top 100.
Yes, all three were there for the USC game.
•No. 1: Brandon Linder (OL, 6-6, 280) — One of the top three tackle prospects in America, Linder also has taken an official visit to Ohio State and lists Florida, Miami and Stanford atop his list.
•No. 4: Lamarcus Joyner (CB, 5-8, 165) — Rivals says he's the best corner in the country and that it'll come down to Florida State and Ohio State.
•No. 10: Cody Riggs (5-9, 108) — The son of former NFL RB Gerald Riggs reportedly favors Florida over ND, Georgia, Tennessee and FSU.
Also taking recruiting trips to South Bend this past weekend for the Irish victory over Boston College was the Sentinel's No. 1-ranked player in Central Florida senior LB Christian Jones of Winter Park Lake Howell, and junior rising star ATH Kevin Sousa at first-year high school Lake Nona.
Irish eyes may be smiling on us.
But are they smiling back?
"We didn't talk too much about all being there [next year] or anything like that," Wood said. "It was more about getting to know each other ... and talking about how cold it was."
That's a drastic improvement from where the program was just four years ago when the mere mention of the program brought a cold recruiting shiver.
In 2005, mere weeks after Weis returned to his alma mater, Notre Dame signed a class Rivals ranked 40th in the nation; and that was a year after striking it rich with a class ranked 34th.
No excuse. Not at Notre Dame.
Since Weis has gotten some recruiting boots on the ground, he can claim three top-10 classes (including a No. 2 finish in '08, headlined by No. 1 overall prospect Jimmy Clausen) and with five-star Colorado DE Chris Martin in the fold are in line for another top-10 finish in 2010.
Wood is so ready to be a part of the Irish's return to the elite that he'll graduate Dec. 19, start classes Jan. 10 and be on the field when the team opens spring practice.
"The main reason I'm going there is for the education. That comes first," Wood said. "The football is great, too. I know people say it's not what it used to be, but I want to do my part in changing that."
Any sort of pipeline to Florida can only help.
Familiar faceFrom the "Where Are they Now?" file, Rivals reports that former UF QB Cameron Newton, who played understudy to Tim Tebow during his 2007 Heisman Trophy season and transferred after a tumultuous '08 season, could very well be the No. 1 junior-college prospect in the country.
Newton, the chiseled 6-6, 240-pounder from Atlanta, is at Blinn (Texas) College, where he has completed nearly 68 percent of his passes for 2,066 yards and 20 touchdowns while rushing for another 476 yards and 12 TDs.
To make matters more interesting, Newton named Tennessee, along with Mississippi State and Kansas State, as his top choices right now.
Newton told Rivals his top priority is winning a juco national title for unbeaten Blinn, the nation's top-ranked program for seven straight weeks. "I'm focused on our season right now," he said. "That is my main concern. After we are done, I will take my visits and make a decision."
Newton's sophomore season at UF was marred, first, by being beaten out by John Brantley, then when he was suspended in November after being arrested and charged with stealing a laptop computer.