Notre Dame defensive tackle commit Gabriel Rubio caught a whiff of Mike Elston’s coaching style last June.
The Lineman’s Challenge recruiting camp on Notre Dame's campus offered Rubio the opportunity to spend a day working under the Irish defensive line coach. The Saint Peters (Mo.) Lutheran product eventually claimed defensive line MVP honors — but not before Elston helped him learn how to use proper footwork.
What had been a struggle for Rubio became mastered by the end of that camp.
“He’s the type of coach who will walk you through things if you don’t understand,” Rubio said. “He will force you to do it right over and over again until you get it perfect only to make you become a better you and to become a better player on the field. He will make sure that it transitions from practices to games.”
Rubio remains Notre Dame’s lone defensive line commit in the 2021 class. The possibilities surrounding who could join him have expanded dramatically since last month. No position has received more recruiting attention than defensive end, at least from a scholarship offer perspective.
Of the 22 offers extended from Notre Dame to 2021 recruits since Dec. 9, 13 of them are defensive ends. Five defensive backs, two wide receivers, one offensive lineman and one linebacker comprise the others.
Part of Rubio’s confidence in Elston’s efforts stems from that camp experience and their ensuing conversations.
“I believe coach Elston sees a lot of potential in the guys he’s recruiting,” Rubio said. “So I trust him on his decisions. Overall, I can’t wait to be involved with these new guys. I’m looking forward to reaching out to them and let them know that it’s a special place to be.”
Beginning in mid-January, the new contact period permitted Division I football coaches to visit high schools for recruiting. Elston trekked to Florida, Texas, New Jersey, Connecticut and Georgia and other areas to pursue defensive ends.
An eight-day stretch saw Elston extend offers to 10 defensive ends out of the 2021 class: Mansfield (Texas) Legacy’s David Abiara, Bradenton (Fla.) IMG Academy’s Tunmise Adeleye, Loganville (Ga.) Grayson’s Victoine Brown and Noah Collins, Douglasville (Ga.) Douglas County’s Jonathan Jefferson and Joshua Robinson, Miami Columbus’ Jabari Ishmael, Winston-Salem (N.C.) Prep’s Zaire Patterson, Rocky Mount (N.C.) High’s Keeshawn Silver and Seffner (Fla.) Christian Academy’s Michael Trigg.
Blairstown (N.J.) Blair Academy’s Aaron Armitage, Suffield (Conn.) Academy’s Kechaun Bennett and Warwick (R.I.) Bishop Hendricken’s Jason Onye are the other defensive ends that landed Irish offers in December. Elston visited almost all of their high schools before offering them.
Tom Lemming, a recruiting analyst for CBS Sports Network, pegs Elston as Notre Dame’s top recruiter and applauded his latest strategy. He met a majority of those defensive ends within the last month and believes Armitage, Brown and Collins favor Notre Dame the most among that group.
“He’s got enough guys (offered) now to get two, three or four of them,” said Lemming of Elston. “That’s what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to go after all the great players. Your odds are better; when you offer more, you’re going to get more.”
The Irish adopted a similar strategy last cycle, offering 11 defensive backs during a 36-day span. But that offer spree came last May, one month after a handful of defensive backs committed elsewhere.
Elston’s recent surge in recruiting efforts brings him to 25 defensive ends offered this class, Notre Dame’s most at any position. Only four of those targets — Cade Denhoff (Clemson), Korey Foreman (Clemson), Jack Sawyer (Ohio State) and Ja’Tavion Sanders (Texas) — are verbally pledged elsewhere.
“When they got in trouble last year with defensive backs, they lost the good ones (early),” Lemming said. “So they had to come after good but not great players. The good ones committed early before Notre Dame even jumped on them.
“Elston is one of their better recruiters. He goes after the right guys. He’s done it always right. He offers a lot of guys, because you have to since you are going to lose most of them.”
Muskegon (Mich.) High’s Cameron Martinez reaffirmed his commitment to Ohio State via Twitter on Tuesday, ending speculation that he may land in Notre Dame’s 2020 class.
The Irish offered Martinez a scholarship last May but ceased their pursuit once he verbally pledged to the Buckeyes in July. Notre Dame circled back on the four-star athlete after he delayed making his commitment official during last month’s early signing period. Martinez told the Tribune that Notre Dame gave him the choice to play either wide receiver or safety.
Notre Dame hoped to host Martinez for its junior day recruiting event on Feb. 1. Special teams coordinator Brian Polian attended Martinez’s basketball game on Jan. 17 in hopes to persuade him to visit. Day also came to the game.
“Yeah, it’s something to think about,” Martinez told the Tribune earlier this month about potentially visiting South Bend. “It could be a possibility, but I’m not for sure yet. They reached out to me, and I wanted to hear what they had to say. Now I just have to think about some things and figure out what the next step will be.”
Martinez remained verbally committed to Ohio State but became open-minded to a change once co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Jeff Hafley left for Boston College’s head coaching job. The Buckeyes announced Hafley’s replacement last week in Kerry Coombs. He met with Martinez last Wednesday.
The next National Signing Day for the 2020 class is next week on Feb. 5. The Irish have already signed their 17 previous commitments in the 2020 class.
Junior day visitors
Offensive tackle Blake Fisher and defensive tackle Gabriel Rubio, two of Notre Dame’s commits out of the 2021 class, confirmed with the Tribune that they will visit South Bend this weekend as part of Notre Dame’s junior day recruiting event for the 2021 and 2022 classes.
The following recruits that hold Notre Dame scholarship offers have also confirmed that they will attend junior day: Bolingbrook (Ill.) High safety Justin Walters (2021) and Fond Du Lac (Wis.) High safety Braelon Allen (2022).
The following recruits without Irish offers will also be in attendance: Mission Hills (Calif.) Bishop Alemany defensive back Jaylin Smith (2021), Myrtle Beach (S.C.) High wide receiver JJ Jones (2021), La Grange Park (Ill.) Nazareth Academy defensive end Daine Hanson (2021), Cleveland St. Ignatius linebacker Aidan Hubbard (2021) and Westerville (Ohio) South athlete Kaden Saunders (2022).
The Tribune confirmed the Notre Dame coaching staff recruited in the following states last week: New Jersey, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Arizona, Georgia, Virginia, California, Texas, Florida, North Carolina and Delaware.
Head coach Brian Kelly, offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander, run game coordinator Lance Taylor, defensive coordinator Clark Lea, defensive line coach Mike Elston, defensive pass game coordinator Terry Joseph, special teams coordinator Brian Polian, defensive analyst Chris O’Leary and director of player personnel Dave Peloquin were among the coaches on the trail.
Their visits are noted below. Visits marked with an asterisk at the end resulted in scholarship offers being extended.
• 2021 DE target Aaron Armitage, Blairstown (N.J.) Blair Academy — Lea, Elston
• 2021 DE target Jason Onye, Warwick (R.I.) Bishop Hendricken — Lea, Elston
• 2021 DE target Kechaun Bennett, Suffield (Conn.) Academy — Lea, Elston
• 2021 DE target Victoine Brown, Loganville (Ga.) Grayson — Elston*
• 2021 DE target Noah Collins, Loganville (Ga.) Grayson — Elston*
• 2021 DE target Jonathan Jefferson, Douglasville (Ga.) Douglas County — Elston*
• 2021 DE target Joshua Robinson, Douglasville (Ga.) Douglas County — Elston*
• 2021 S target Bryce Steele, Alexandria (Va.) Episcopal — Lea
• 2021 CB target Ceyair Wright, Los Angeles Loyola — Kelly, Lea, Alexander, Peloquin
• 2021 QB commit Tyler Buchner, La Jolla (Calif.) The Bishop’s School — Kelly, Peloquin
• 2021 LB target Barrett Carter, Suwanee (Ga.) North Gwinnett — Kelly
• 2021 CB target Jordan Hancock, Suwanee (Ga.) North Gwinnett — Kelly
• 2021 CB target Dyson McCutcheon, La Puente (Calif.) Bishop Amat — Alexander
• 2021 TE commit Cane Berrong, Hartwell (Ga.) Hart County — Polian
• 2021 CB prospect Jaylin Smith, Mission Hills (Calif.) Bishop Alemany — Alexander
• 2021 LB target Smael Mondon Jr., Dallas (Ga.) Paulding County — Lea*
• 2021 CB target Corey Coley Jr., Jacksonville (Fla.) Trinity Christian Academy — O’Leary*
• 2021 DE target David Abiara, Mansfield (Texas) Legacy — Elston*
• 2021 CB target Deuce Harmon, Denton (Texas) Guyer — Joseph*
• 2021 RB target Camar Wheaton, Garland (Texas) Lakeview Centennial — Taylor
• 2022 RB target Emeka Megwa, Fort Worth (Texas) Nolan Catholic — Taylor*
• 2021 WR commit Deion Colzie, Athens (Ga.) Academy — Kelly
• 2021 RB target Will Shipley, Matthews (N.C.) Weddington — Rees, Taylor
Below are some of the other coaching visits.
Thank you to Notre Dame Fighting Irish football Coach Brian Polian for visiting Olathe North today. We appreciate you talking with our student/athletes. Know you are welcome to return anytime! #ONE @BrianPolian— Coach McCartney (@CoachMacONFB) January 24, 2020
So proud to welcome @CoachBrianKelly to @paceacademy today! Thanks for touring our campus! @NDFootball @WOPUnation @NotreDame @PaceKnights #graduatingchampions #proudNDparents ☘️⚔️☘️ pic.twitter.com/R3jjBJlf0g— Fred Assaf (@5BoyDad) January 24, 2020