Official visit season has arrived at Notre Dame.
For the first time, the Irish football program will host juniors on official visits this weekend.
A new NCAA rule passed last year allows schools to host football recruits on official visits before their senior years. Now universities can pay for a junior to make an official visit between April 1 and June 24 of this year. Early official visits were introduced to better accommodate recruits looking to end their recruiting process during the the early signing period in December. Recruits can still wait to take their official visits as seniors and hold off on a decision until (or after) National Signing Day in February.
Notre Dame's coaching staff and recruiting office have spent the offseason planning how to handle the early visits.
"You’ve got to be selective with your spring visits," associate head coach Mike Elston said in February. "It’s crucial that you’re picking the right guys to come, because if a guy’s going to wait until January or February to make his decision, a visit in April is not going to do well for you.
"Now if he’s an early enrollee or if he says, ‘Hey, coach, I’m going to make my decision in the summer,' and you feel good that he’ll potentially stick with the decision, then maybe you bring him in in the spring.”
Elston, previously a recruiting coordinator for the Irish, head coach Brian Kelly and current recruiting coordinator Brian Polian came together to set some criteria for recruits wanting to make spring official visits. Because schools are limited on the number of official visits per school year, Polian said the Irish can host somewhere between 16 and 19 official visitors this spring.
"If a guy comes here on an official visit in the spring, early summer, it's because there are four or five things that we're looking at and they met that bar," Polian said. "I like the way that we're approaching it. I think it's smart. But ultimately, the ebbs and flows of this, we won't know until we've been through it because it's uncharted territory."
The first five official visitors will arrive Friday for trips that can last up to 48 hours. Those visitors include three targets and two commits in the 2019 class. The Irish will also host a pair of 2019 recruits and a 2020 prospect on unofficial visits this weekend.
• DE Nana Osafo-Mensah, 6-4, 215; Fort Worth (Texas) Nolan Catholic: The four-star recruit appears to be the most-talented defensive end with a realistic chance of committing to Notre Dame in the 2019 class. Osafo-Mensah, who visited the Irish in January, has already narrowed his recruitment to a two-school race between Notre Dame and Texas.
The Irish and Longhorns are quickly becoming recruiting rivals in the 2019 class with Osafo-Mensah and defensive back Kenyatta Watson each focusing on both programs. Osafo-Mensah said he plans to commit on May 19 following his official visits to Notre Dame (starting Friday) and Texas (May 4).
"Notre Dame's really putting a lot of pressure to get him," said CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming. "He can play defensive end and linebacker. He's one of the better defensive players in the state of Texas."
247Sports slates Osafo-Mensah as the No. 6 weakside defensive end in the 2019 class. Rivals ranks him as the No. 6 outside linebacker.
• LB Osita Ekwonu, 6-2, 220; Charlotte (N.C.) Providence Day: The previous two times Ekwonu visited Notre Dame, the four-star recruit didn't have an Irish offer. When he returns for an official visit on Friday, he'll come with the offer he received in January. Ekwonu visited last year for the Irish Invasion and USC game.
Ekwonu finished his junior season with 101 tackles, three sacks and three pass breakups on defense and 67 rushes for 500 yards and 13 touchdowns on offense. Those numbers have allowed Ekwonu to accumulate offers from the likes Alabama, Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Duke.
"He's one of the best defensive players in the state of North Carolina," Lemming said. "He's an outstanding two-way athlete."
Rivals ranks Ekwonu as the No. 5 outside linebacker in the 2019 class. 247Sports slates him as the No. 13 inside linebacker.
• LB Nick Henrich, 6-4, 210; Omaha (Neb.) Burke: Henrich's first trip to Notre Dame will be Saturday's unofficial visit. The junior received an offer from the Irish in February and quickly returned the interest level.
"He's athletic as can be. He can run. He can hit," Lemming said. "He's a big-time linebacker — one of the best in the country. Maybe one of the two best players in Nebraska."
Henrich, whose offer list includes Nebraska, Penn State, Iowa, Florida and Texas A&M, recorded 120 tackles, 32 tackles for a loss and 11 sacks as a junior.
247Sports slates Henrich as a four-star recruit and the No. 5 inside linebacker in the 2019 class. Rivals pegs Henrich as a three-star outside linebacker but did not include him on the list of the top 35 players at the position.
• DE Colt Ellison, 6-3, 231; Aledo (Texas) High: The three-star recruit established himself as a disruptive defensive player last season. He ended the year with 96 tackles, 18 tackles for a loss, 13.5 sacks, seven passes defended, two recovered fumbles, two forced fumbles and one interception returned for a touchdown.
Notre Dame recognized Ellison's talent with an offer in February. He attended the Irish victory over USC in October and will return for his official visit Friday.
"He's a very good ball player," Lemming said. "He has good size and strength."
247Sports slates Ellison as the No. 34 weakside defensive in the 2019 class. Rivals ranks him as the No. 39 strongside defensive end.
• DT Jacob Lacey, 6-2, 300; Bowling Green (Ky.) South Warren: No one has been committed to Notre Dame's 2019 class longer than Lacey. The four-star recruit received that title when quarterback Cade McNamara ditched the Irish for Michigan earlier this year.
Lacey, who has been committed since last July, said he plans to put his recruiting hat on during his official visit to help convince others to join him in the class. The last time Lacey visited — for the junior day in January — the Irish eventually added two commitments from visitors that weekend.
247Sports slates Lacey as the No. 7 defensive tackle in the 2019 class. Rivals ranks him No. 18 at the position.
• DT Hunter Spears, 6-4, 267; Sachse (Texas) High: The four-star recruit will make his first trip back to Notre Dame since committing to the Irish in February. He will see familiar faces on his official visit with Lacey and Osafo-Mensah. All three were on campus for the junior day in January.
247Sports slates Spears as the No. 17 defensive tackle in the 2019 class. Rivals ranks him as the No. 20 weakside defensive end.
• OL Christian Mahogany, 6-4, 330; Paramus (N.J.) Catholic: Mahogany will get a better gauge on Notre Dame's interest in him with a two-day, unofficial visit starting Friday. His offer list includes the likes of Virginia, Central Michigan, Buffalo, Ohio, and Kent State. The Irish have yet to offer.
247Sports pegs Mahogany as a three-star recruit and the No. 50 offensive guard in the 2019 class. Rivals rates him as a two-star prospect.
• WR Daniel Jackson, 5-11, 178; Mission (Kan.) Bishop Miege: The sophomore has already received offers from Missouri, Iowa State and Kansas. Jackson caught 54 passes for 1,270 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. Irish running back/wide receiver Jafar Armstrong is Jackson's cousin.
247Sports slates Jackson as a four-star recruit and the No. 51 wide receiver in the class.
The following recruits are expected to visit Notre Dame this weekend.
DE Colt Ellison
LB Osita Ekwonu
LB Nick Henrich*
DE Nana Osafo-Mensah
DT Jacob Lacey
DT Hunter Spears
OL Christian Mahogany*
WR Daniel Jackson
*Denotes unofficial visit