The recruiting impact that comes with Clark Lea being named as Vanderbilt’s next head coach could be immediate for Notre Dame.
The news regarding the Irish defensive coordinator surfaced on Monday, two days before the three-day early signing period begins for the 2021 recruiting class. Notre Dame will look to sign all 24 verbal commits and is pursuing a few other recruits this cycle.
Four-star linebacker Prince Kollie is among those 24 pledges but chose the Irish partly because of Lea. Kollie and three-star running back Logan Diggs are the two Notre Dame commits that will be worth monitoring this week. The Irish also will look to sign four-star running backs Donovan Edwards and Audric Estime.
Four-star cornerback Ceyair Wright and running back Byron Cardwell also are being pursued but do not plan to sign this week.
A native of Nashville, Tenn., Lea has deep recruiting ties around the area. Lea’s roots in the Volunteer State helped him connect with Kollie and his coaches at David Crockett High in Jonesborough, Tenn. Kollie committed to Notre Dame in August despite having never stepped foot on campus.
“Clark Lea is an understated recruiter and always has been. The kids love him,” said Tom Lemming, a recruiting analyst for CBS Sports Network. “He’s not a boisterous guy who promotes himself. He’s not a guy who will call recruiting analysts and tell them this and that to get his name out there. He just goes about his business and has been very successful at it.
“He’s one of their mainstays in recruiting. He’s going to be a tough guy to lose.”
The 6-foot-2, 208-pound Kollie also would be a tough guy to lose. He’s one of five finalists for the Dick Butkus Award, which goes to the nation’s top linebacker. Across 11 games as a senior this season, Kollie recorded 109 tackles, 11 tackles for a loss, four pass breakups, two sacks and an interception while rushing for 1,562 yards and 26 touchdowns on 181 carries. He also caught 13 passes for 290 yards and three scores.
247Sports ranks Kollie as its No. 5 outside linebacker and No. 91 overall player in the 2021 class, while Rivals pegs him No. 16 at the position and No. 239 overall.
Lemming compared Kollie to versatile Irish rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.
“He’s athletic,” said Lemming of Kollie. “He’s a quick-twitch athlete who has a nose for the ball any position you put him in. Running back. Wide receiver. Outside linebacker. Inside linebacker. Safety.”
Notre Dame’s coaching staff has communicated with Kollie the last couple days to make sure he will make his commitment official on Wednesday. As of Tuesday afternoon, there seems to be optimism but not certainty that Kollie will follow through on his pledge. He did not respond to the Tribune’s interview request on Monday.
Linebacker is a position need for the Irish this cycle. Notre Dame passed on adding a linebacker in the 2020 class after signing JD Bertrand, Marist Liufau, Osita Ekwonu and Jack Kiser in 2019. Kollie and three-star linebacker Kahanu Kia committed to the Irish this cycle.
But Kia essentially counts as a 2023 recruit. He plans to serve a two-year mission following his freshman year as part of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
All 10 Irish linebackers are eligible to return next season, though Owusu-Koramoah may feel tempted to declare early for the 2021 NFL Draft. Losing Owusu-Koramoah would create a void at rover, Kollie’s projected position.
“Losing Kollie could be devastating for this class as far as linebacker is concerned,” Lemming said.
Running back will be the other position to watch for Notre Dame this week and until National Signing Day in February. The Irish appear to be comfortable with signing two running backs this cycle.
Diggs has been committed to Notre Dame since July and took his first trip to campus earlier this month. Then the Metairie (La.) Archbishop Rummel product received a scholarship offer from in-state LSU last Wednesday.
The Tigers are thought to be a major offer for Diggs, but they may have entered the mix too late. Whether he will sign with the Irish on Wednesday remains unclear. He did not respond to the Tribune’s interview request over the weekend.
After Will Shipley pledged to Clemson in May, Edwards emerged as Notre Dame’s top running back target. His signing announcement is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. EST on Wednesday and can be seen on ESPN2. Recruiting analysts expect the West Bloomfield (Mich.) High product to sign with in-state Michigan, though he largely has kept his recruitment close to the vest.
Then there’s Estime, who landed an Irish offer on Monday. Though Estime has been verbally pledged to Michigan State since September, there’s optimism among recruiting analysts that he will flip to Notre Dame. That Estime has yet to visit South Bend may keep him from signing with the Irish this week. He might delay his decision and sign in February.
At Montvale (N.J.) St. Joseph Regional, Estime produced prolific numbers against impressive competition. The 6-1, 215-pound Estime led New Jersey in rushing this season, recording 1,857 yards and 22 touchdowns on 190 carries across just eight games.
“Really good vision, balance and production in good games,” Lemming said. “When he plays against the top teams, he’s the guy you count on as the offensive weapon.”
With or without Kollie and Diggs, the Irish will have a program-record 13 early enrollees among their commits: quarterback Tyler Buchner, tight ends Mitchell Evans and Cane Berrong, cornerbacks Ryan Barnes and Philip Riley, safety Justin Walters, offensive linemen Caleb Johnson, Blake Fisher and Rocco Spindler, defensive linemen Devin Aupiu, Gabriel Rubio and Will Schweitzer, and wide receiver Lorenzo Styles Jr.
By keeping Kollie and Diggs and adding Estime, Edwards, Cardwell and/or Wright, Notre Dame can secure a top 10 class.
“They don’t have the super impact players like Michael Mayer, Chris Tyree and even Jordan Johnson last year. But I think overall, it’s a better class,” Lemming said. “They got a lot of depth. Everybody they brought in has a chance. There are some guys they may project, which is smart.
“But I think this is going to be a class that people are going to remember. There are a lot of guys who could develop. And a key to this is, not only does Notre Dame have better recruiters now, but also better coaches and guys who can coach these kids. A lot of them haven’t been developed in the past.
“But to me, they are top 10. They still aren’t in the top five, which is where they want to get. But they are getting much closer.”