The 2021 recruiting class should have quite a few misevaluations from college football coaches and analysts.
Even in a normal world, projecting the college careers of Notre Dame recruits involves some guessing. Coaching changes, off-the-field issues and injuries are unpredictable. The COVID-19 pandemic made this process even more difficult by limiting the amount of evaluation opportunities.
Not to mention that 10 Irish signees have yet to play a football season as a senior in high school: quarterback Tyler Buchner, offensive lineman Pat Coogan, defensive ends Devin Aupiu, Will Schweitzer and Jason Onye, linebacker Kahanu Kia, cornerbacks Chance Tucker and Ryan Barnes, safety Justin Walters and kicker Josh Bryan.
Four questions were considered when the Tribune ranked the members of Notre Dame’s 2020 class last year:
• How well does this player’s game translate to college and Notre Dame’s system?
• What are the pros and cons of this player?
• How does this player compare to teammates — current and in the future — at his position?
• How much of an impact will this player have relative to his position in his college career?
For the sake of consistency, the same method was applied when ranking this 2021 class. Film reviews and in-person evaluations were used to determine the rankings below. So were conversations with these recruits, those who know them and recruiting analysts.
The Tribune’s Eric Hansen and Tyler James pitched in with their own top 10 lists. Where each recruit ranked relative to each other on 247Sports is also listed. This 27-player Irish class finished No. 10 nationally on 247Sports and Rivals.
1. QB Tyler Buchner, 6-2, 205; La Mesa (Calif.) Helix
With his unusual skill set, Buchner will be unlike any Notre Dame quarterback to play under head coach Brian Kelly. He can throw on the run. He can throw across his body. He can throw to the wide side of the field. He can throw off his back foot. Buchner completes passes that others don’t dare to attempt. His off-kilter wizardry especially comes alive when plays break down. Buchner’s athleticism and running ability may also surprise people. Consistency on shorter throws, mechanics and experience are concerns. If Buchner develops properly, he should become one of the nation’s best quarterbacks.
2. LB Prince Kollie, 6-2, 210; Jonesborough (Tenn.) David Crockett
By far the best defensive player in this class, Kollie looks almost identical to reigning Butkus Award winner Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. He’s twitchy, physical and fearless. He can tackle, blitz and cover. He can play multiple positions. How Kollie adjusts after playing weak competition will be worth monitoring. Still, he’s ideal for defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s versatile scheme.
3. OL Rocco Spindler, 6-4, 295; Clarkston (Mich.) High
No one in this class has a higher floor than Spindler. It’s difficult to imagine that he won’t at least become a multi-year starter, team captain and NFL Draft pick. He could even start as a true freshman. Spindler is already a technician. His wrestling background taught him plenty about hand placement and leverage. Spindler also looks ready physically. He brings toughness and a stocky build that should translate to guard well.
4. WR Lorenzo Styles Jr., 6-0, 180; Pickerington (Ohio) Central
Notre Dame has long needed a wide receiver with game-breaking speed and shiftiness. Styles seems to have those attributes and can keep defenses honest. His suddenness in the open field makes him a leading candidate to return punts, too. Though he has a wiry frame, Styles brings an edge to his game. He's stronger than he looks. Styles might be poised to become the best slot receiver in the Kelly Era. He could also play cornerback at a high level.
5. OL Blake Fisher, 6-6, 330; Avon (Ind.) High
Before playing a down at Notre Dame, Fisher needs to reshape his body and improve laterally. And he faced below-average competition in high school. That being said, Fisher embarrassed that competition. His massive size can be overpowering and will take him a long way. Fisher has first-round ceiling. He could develop into a right tackle but might be best as a guard. Having that versatility is a plus.
6. CB Philip Riley, 6-1, 190; Valrico (Fla.) Bloomingdale
No, Riley should not play safety. His physicality, technique, length and ball skills make him a perfect fit at boundary cornerback. Wide receivers have to account for Riley’s strength and aggressive nature. He is a nuisance at the line of scrimmage when operating in press coverage. Riley held his own when facing a few of the top receivers in the country the past couple seasons. If Riley improves his speed and tackling ability, he will be Notre Dame’s best cornerback since Julian Love.
7. DT Gabriel Rubio, 6-5, 285; Saint Peters (Mo.) Lutheran
Maybe Rubio will play nose guard. Maybe Rubio will play defensive tackle. Either way, Rubio should contribute at Notre Dame by no later than 2022. Learning from his father, former NFL defensive lineman Angel Rubio, Gabriel flashes refined technique at his age. He has a high motor and sheds blocks well. The Irish could mold Rubio into quite the physical specimen.
8. WR Deion Colzie, 6-3, 200; Athens (Ga.) Academy
Colzie has the makings of Notre Dame’s next successful outside receiver, following Miles Boykin, Chase Claypool and Javon McKinley, and potentially Kevin Austin Jr. and Jordan Johnson. Colzie is a big-bodied receiver who has a wide catch radius. He has great hands and leaping ability. He played weak competition but performed well in camp settings. Colzie’s lack of game-breaking speed and suddenness keeps him from being ranked higher.
9. S Khari Gee, 6-3, 185; College Park (Ga.) Woodward Academy
Gee is the most underrated member of this Notre Dame class, and by a wide margin. There’s a lot to like in Gee’s style. The punishment he delivers is his top quality. Then there’s his versatility. Gee could develop into a rover, though starting Kollie at that position and keeping Gee at strong safety seems like the better play. Gee should be a starter at safety by 2022.
10. CB Ryan Barnes, 6-2, 180; Gaithersburg (Md.) Quince Orchard
Of Notre Dame’s four cornerback signees, Barnes makes the most sense to move to safety. Barnes being projected as a cornerback is why he’s one of the more underrated Irish signees this cycle. At cornerback, Barnes does not have the speed to keep up with top receivers. His ranginess and tackling ability will serve him better at safety. The Irish have a bigger need at safety than cornerback anyway, especially after Kyle Hamilton leaves.
11. RB Audric Estime, 6-1, 215; Montvale (N.J.) St. Joseph Regional
What Estime did against high-end competition in New Jersey spoke volumes. Poaching Estime from Michigan State will turn out to be Notre Dame’s best flip besides Gee (LSU) this cycle. The Irish lacked a bigger running back. Now they don’t. Estime embraces contact and is a load to bring down. Sophomore Chris Tyree and Estime could be a dynamic duo once starter Kyren Williams leaves for the NFL. Estime’s bruising style will compliment Tyree’s speed well.
12. CB Chance Tucker, 6-0, 165; Encino (Calif.) Crespi Carmelite
Tucker has some interesting upside. Even with his slender frame, Tucker is already a physical cornerback who excels in press coverage. Once he gains muscle, Tucker could be a force as a cover corner. Tucker reacts well to sudden movements from receivers and when the ball is in the air. He can be a pass breakup machine. Struggling to keep up with the bigger cornerbacks on Notre Dame’s roster could prevent Tucker from ever becoming a starter.
13. DE Devin Aupiu, 6-5, 220; Oxnard (Calif.) Pacifica
Following Adetokunbo Ogundeji’s career arc at Notre Dame should be the hope for Aupiu. He likely won’t see the field in his first two or three seasons. He will first have to gain a considerable amount of weight and has much to learn about pass rushing. Aupiu’s abnormally long arms make him an interesting prospect. The Irish keep proving — most recently with Ogundeji — that they can develop raw players with intriguing qualities into something special.
14. TE Cane Berrong, 6-3, 215; Hartwell (Ga.) Hart County
When Berrong competed at a Notre Dame recruiting camp in June 2019, 247Sports ranked him as its No. 1 tight end in the class. Now he’s considered an afterthought. After what he showed last season, Berrong could potentially flip the script again to an extent. As a solid blocker with versatility, Berrong could be a diet version of former Irish tight end Tommy Tremble. He simply needs to wait his turn while starter Michael Mayer runs the show.
15. RB Logan Diggs, 6-1, 191; Metairie (La.) Archbishop Rummel
Diggs has traits similar to former Notre Dame running back Tony Jones Jr. But Diggs has a little more juice. Like Jones, Diggs makes up for his mediocre speed by being at least above-average in most categories. He’s more athletic than Jones and makes defenders miss with his sudden cuts and quick feet. Diggs’ pass protection skills could help him see the field earlier than expected.
16. S Justin Walters, 6-1, 175; Bolingbrook (Ill.) High
Known for his punishing hits, Walters lined up as a box-type safety at Bolingbrook. Walters offers adequate run support as a violent tackler but struggles in coverage. If he improves his lateral ability, Walters could crack the starting lineup by the end of his Notre Dame career. Walters will be a quality special teams player regardless.
17. OL Joe Alt, 6-7, 280; Fridley (Minn.) Totino-Grace
If he develops from tight end to offensive tackle like his father and former Kansas City Chief John Alt did, Joe could be a top-five player in this Notre Dame class. Or Alt could struggle with the transition and never start a game for the Irish. He has a high boom-or-bust factor. Alt being lost in the mix seems more likely. Notre Dame is recruiting the offensive line better than any other position.
18. DE Will Schweitzer, 6-5, 205; Los Gatos (Calif.) High
Moving from middle linebacker to vyper defensive end will require quite an adjustment for Schweitzer. He’s an intelligent, versatile player and could conceivably find a rotational role down the road. But Schweitzer eventually becoming a starter does not seem likely. He’s a bit of a tweener positionally.
19. OL Pat Coogan, 6-4, 290; Chicago Marist
No recruiting analyst seems to believe Coogan will make much of an impact at Notre Dame. They might be wrong. If senior Jarrett Patterson moves to left tackle, Coogan could immediately become the backup center behind junior Zeke Correll next season. The Irish are in need of interior offensive lineman. So opportunities will be there for Coogan.
20. OL Caleb Johnson, 6-7, 275; Ocala (Fla.) Trinity Catholic
Johnson being ranked this low might be surprising. It has less to do with his talent and more to do with his competition. Notre Dame offensive line coach Jeff Quinn continues to load this roster with future NFL Draft picks. It’s hard to compete with that.
21. WR Jayden Thomas, 6-1, 185; Atlanta Pace Academy
Playing bigger than his frame, Thomas has a knack for hauling in 50-50 balls. His wide catch radius and great hands are useful when he’s targeted in traffic. He brings an edge and physicality as an outside receiver. Becoming more sudden will be required for Thomas to emerge as a top option. He otherwise could struggle to separate from cornerbacks and generate yards after the catch.
22. CB JoJo Johnson, 5-10, 175; Merrillville (Ind.) High
Projecting Johnson as a cornerback seems wrong. He projects better as a nickelback or slot receiver. Johnson could translate his speed and short-area quickness at those two positions. He’s a fluid athlete. At cornerback, tackling and physicality might be an issue for him. Johnson is certainly not a finished product on defense, though. Most of his experience is on offense.
23. TE Mitchell Evans, 6-7, 240; Wadsworth (Ohio) High
A quarterback, tight end, left tackle and punter who can throw, catch, run, block and kick? What a prospect. Notre Dame will only move Evans to left tackle if his body continues to grow. At tight end, Evans could benefit from having quick feet at his size. Still, he has a long way to go at that position. Blocking will be his biggest challenge.
24. DE Jason Onye, 6-5, 245; Warwick (R.I.) Bishop Hendricken
Elston said on Wednesday that Onye is now between 275-280 pounds. So Onye could realistically play strongside defensive end or defensive tackle. Onye’s size, length and versatility gives him upside. So does the fact that he’s only played football for two years. Onye could be another one of Elston’s success stories like Ogundeji. Or he might not ever see the field much.
25. LB Kahanu Kia, 6-1, 210; Honolulu Punahou School
Following his freshman season, Kia plans to serve a two-year mission as part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. By the time Kia returns to Notre Dame, he could find difficulty carving a featured role. The expectation is that Freeman will recruit his position extremely well.
26. K Josh Bryan, 6-0, 185; Chatworth (Calif.) Sierra Canyon
There’s nothing wrong with kickers. They just never rank highly. Bryan will be a four-year starter unless walk-on Harrison Leonard wins the job.
27. QB Ron Powlus III, 6-3, 230; Mishawaka (Ind.) Penn
Holding just one other Power Five scholarship offer (Kentucky), Powlus won’t be able to beat out the other quarterbacks on this roster.