Notre Dame losing its top two wide receivers, standout tight end and all four captains on defense will call for a leadership overhaul this spring.
Former Ohio State safety Isaiah Pryor hopes to help fill that void. With two years of eligibility remaining, Pryor is looking to eventually become the first graduate transfer captain ever for the Irish.
“I want to be a leader on this team. I know they are losing a lot of experience,” Pryor said. “I want to make sure that my addition can help the team get to the goals they need to reach. I want to play. I want to start. I want to help the team by being a leader.”
Pryor said he won’t need to introduce himself when the spring semester begins next Tuesday, at least not to more than a handful of players and eight incoming freshman. The recruiting process and attending three Notre Dame games last season helped Pryor already forge relationships with Irish players.
Before committing to the grad transfer, Pryor visited for Notre Dame’s home games against USC (Oct. 12) and Virginia Tech (Nov. 2). Previous grad transfers to Notre Dame include wide receivers Cam Smith (Arizona State), Freddy Canteen (Michigan) and now Ben Skowronek (Northwestern), cornerback Cody Riggs (Florida) and safety Avery Sebastian (California).
Irish safety Houston Griffith rekindled his relationship with Pryor, his former roommate at Bradenton (Fla.) IMG Academy. Freshman safety Kyle Hamilton, limited to six tickets for friends and family members at last month’s Camping World Bowl, took care of Pryor and his father, Richard.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about relationships and building trust within that. Which in turn builds respect,” said Pryor, who started seven games for the Buckeyes as a sophomore and totaled 31 tackles, one tackle for a loss and an interception. “When I get out there, I’ll just make sure that I’m starting to build these relationships with these guys. Then I feel like the rest will just fall into place.’’
Since entering his name into the transfer portal last September, Pryor has trained at D1 Training Columbus in Ohio.
“I’m the hardest worker I know,” Pryor said. “No one works as hard as me. When I was at Ohio State or wherever, you can ask anybody. I just feel like bringing that level of commitment and pushing each other to be the best secondary that we can be. There’s not going to be anything that’s going to stop us really.”
Below are the storylines and short-term outlooks involving the other nine players — eight freshman midyears and another grad transfer — who will come to Notre Dame next week.
• WR Ben Skowronek, 6-4, 215; grad transfer: As a former Northwestern captain, Skowronek should help, like Pryor, in regards to leadership. He also provides insurance behind Kevin Austin as a projected boundary receiver. But can Skowronek return to the productive player he once was? He caught 90 passes for 1,206 yards and eight touchdowns combined in his sophomore and junior seasons before an ankle injury in game three derailed his 2019 season. Skowronek and Pryor are Notre Dame’s first grad transfers to enroll in the spring.
• WR Xavier Watts, 5-11, 190; Omaha (Neb.) Burke: Watts will begin his collegiate career capable of playing multiple receiver positions. But will offense prove to be the right side of the football for him? The Irish pursued Watts with the idea that he could potentially flip to defense. He impressed as a defensive back last season, recording 68 tackles, seven pass breakups, three interceptions and three tackles for a loss in 11 games. With Notre Dame’s need at boundary cornerback, Watts will be worth monitoring.
• WR Jay Brunelle, 6-2, 200; Shrewsbury (Mass.) St. John’s High: The biggest challenge for Brunelle will be adjusting to the speed of college football after facing weak competition in Massachusetts. Which receiver position suits him best also remains unclear. These next few months will be more about Brunelle recovering and regaining strength, however. He separated his right shoulder nearly six weeks ago but did not require surgery. He’s expected to return to full activity soon, though Notre Dame’s medical staff will ultimately decide his fate next week.
• QB Drew Pyne, 6-1, 195; New Canaan (Conn.) High: Phil Jurkovec entering his name into the transfer portal opens Notre Dame’s backup quarterback job behind Ian Book. Pyne will compete against Brendon Clark, ND’s Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year in 2019. He compares to Book and has defied odds before, but Pyne will need to overcome his perceived physical limitations. Whether he’s capable of leapfrogging Clark from the get-go remains to be seen.
• DE Alexander Ehrensberger, 6-7, 240; Düsseldorf (Germany) Theodor-Fliedner-Gymnasium: Defensive ends rarely see the field early under defensive line coach Mike Elston. Ehrensberger also lacks the technique and polish to make an immediate impact. But the elite physical traits, motor and explosiveness are apparent. Ehrensberger being coachable and a quick learner technique-wise could result in success. This spring may offer a snapshot of whether he flashes that capability or is more of a raw, long-term project.
• DE Jordan Botelho, 6-2, 230; Honolulu Saint Louis School: After missing two high school all-star games within the last month due to an altercation in October, Botelho comes to Notre Dame with a clean slate. To develop into his projected drop defensive end position, Botelho will require a sizable increase in weight. The next several months for Botelho will likely be about bulking up while looking to maintain his quick feet and speed. Once he’s physically ready, Botelho has the tools to become the best defensive player in this class.
• DL Rylie Mills, 6-5, 275; Lake Forest (Ill.) High: The size and versatility Mills brings draws comparisons to former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jerry Tillery. The Irish even plan to have Mills learn both defensive tackle and big defensive end this spring. Their position of most need may determine Mills’ ultimate spot. Mills has an opportunity to make a lasting first impression like nose guard Jacob Lacey did last spring and would ideally ascend to third-team status behind defensive tackles Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Jayson Ademilola.
• CB Ramon Henderson, 6-2, 180; Bakersfield (Calif.) Liberty: One of the more unique athletes in this class, Henderson could play on either side of the ball and brings elite speed (10.6 100-meter dash) and length. Henderson’s newness to defense — he started playing both ways as a junior after beginning high school as a receiver — makes him raw from a technique standpoint. His movements consist of unusually long strides that appear to limit his lateral quickness. Henderson projects as a boundary cornerback to start his career, but he has work to do before ascending the depth chart.
• CB Caleb Offord, 6-1, 175; Southaven (Miss.) High: TaRiq Bracy (5-10, 170), KJ Wallace (5-11, 171) and Shaun Crawford (5-9, 180) will be among Notre Dame’s best cornerbacks next season. Since all three are smaller corners, the Irish will have questions at the boundary position. The lengthy Offord projects as a field corner, though being ready for either position would be a plus. Offord appears to lack the physicality and tackling ability required at boundary corner at this point, so he could benefit from dedicating himself to the weight room this spring.