Parsing how much of a recruiting edge college football programs playing this fall will have over those that aren’t seems like a guessing game.
There is no finite data. There is no unanimous opinion among recruiting analysts. At the moment, reasoning pertaining to the topic comes more from common sense than evidence.
Steve Wiltfong, 247Sports’ director of recruiting, sees the advantage Notre Dame could have over the Big Ten and Pac-12 schools not playing. By recruiting nationally, the Irish naturally compete with top programs from those conferences.
While Ohio State, Michigan and USC will be at home, Notre Dame will be competing for a spot in the College Football Playoff. To Wiltfong, that figures to bring the Irish some sort of advantage, even if it's not quantifiable.
“They are going to be getting the press and the paper. They are going to be on TV,” Wiltfong said. “Some of their players are going to be high profile. And with that, you never know what the pitch that’s going to win you a recruiting battle is going to be. Being nationally relevant has certainly been proven to help teams on the recruiting trail before.”
The Irish are in prime position to capitalize on that opportunity and remain nationally relevant. Notre Dame should be favored in all but one of its 10 games: Clemson on Nov. 7. The season opens with Associated Press No. 10 Notre Dame hosting Duke this Saturday (2:30 p.m. EDT on NBC).
A late summer push brought the Irish momentum on the recruiting trail, too.
In June, Notre Dame’s 2021 recruiting class looked to be on the verge of collapse. The coronavirus pandemic had canceled on- and off-campus recruiting trips via the NCAA’s dead period mandate since March. The effects were starting to show.
The Irish had landed just one 2021 verbal commitment for its offense in eight months. Four-star wide receiver Deion Colzie decommitted in March. Top overall target in running back Will Shipley chose Clemson in May. Top offensive line targets Caleb Johnson (Auburn), Landon Tengwall (Penn State), Wyatt Milum (West Virginia) and Tristan Bounds (Michigan) pledged elsewhere.
Then the Irish added seven pledges in six weeks, including prized offensive lineman Rocco Spindler and burgeoning linebacker Prince Kollie. Their damage control did enough to keep them on par with previous recruiting classes, at least for now. Rivals and 247Sports rank the 18-member class No. 11 and No. 12 nationally, respectively.
“What I appreciate more is an all-in mentality that our recruiting office has had,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “It’s shifting gears and finding ways to reach the student athletes that couldn’t make it to campus and continue the recruiting.
“We’re still not done. We feel like there’s some exciting things in front of us here in the next couple of weeks.”
The Irish will look to land a couple important remaining targets this cycle and gain more traction in the 2022 class. Below are some recruiting storylines to watch this fall, along with analysis from Wiltfong.
2021 recruiting class
Ewa Beach (Hawaii) James Campbell safety Titus Mokiao-Atimalala and Atlanta Pace Academy wide receiver Jayden Thomas may be the likeliest to land in Notre Dame’s class among its remaining uncommitted targets.
Safety and wide receiver are incidentally the biggest position needs left. They have just one pledged at each position in Justin Walters and Lorenzo Styles Jr., respectively.
Notre Dame will look at a handful of other targets, but most of them should be considered long shots. Like running back Donovan Edwards and wide receivers Dont’e Thornton Jr. and Deion Colzie. Cornerback Ceyair Wright has shown interest but has yet to announce a top school list.
Kahanu Kia, a middle linebacker target from Punahou School in Honolulu, will be another promising option. He will likely reclassify as a 2023 recruit, however. Kia will serve a two-year mission as part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints following his high school graduation.
“I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if new names popped up on the board now that high school kids are playing their senior years,” Wiltfong said. “You know Notre Dame is mining for talent there.”
Cornerbacks Philip Riley and Ryan Barnes, defensive ends Jason Onye and Will Schweitzer, offensive lineman Joe Alt, cornerback Chance Tucker, running back Logan Diggs and tight end Mitchell Evans.
Those eight recruits are among the 12 in the 2021 class who have committed to Notre Dame since the recruiting shutdown in March. Those eight never have taken an official or unofficial visit to campus. Seven of those eight, with the exception being Onye, pledged less than three months after accruing a scholarship offer from the Irish.
Wiltfong dismissed the popular notion that the unexpected should continue to be expected this fall. The dead period will probably be extended through the season, removing the temptation for committed recruits to visit other schools.
“I think recruiting has found a way to basically push through this,” Wiltfong said. “Although a lot of people accelerated their decision plans, I don’t know if there will be any more surprises.”
Still, the Irish could extend more offers and target recruits committed elsewhere. And defensive end commit David Abiara remains a mystery. The Mansfield (Texas) Legacy product still could conceivably rescind his pledge and commit to another program.
2022 recruiting class
Barring a major change, Notre Dame’s 2021 class will not improve or regress in the recruiting rankings by a substantial amount.
The next few months could determine the trajectory of ND’s 2022 class, though.
Seven weeks ago, Notre Dame’s 2022 class looked behind schedule. The Irish had zero commitments and had yet to offer a quarterback. Then Notre Dame garnered verbal pledges from offensive lineman Joey Tanona, tight end Jack Nickel and safety Nolan Ziegler. Then quarterbacks Gavin Wimsatt and Steve Angeli reported Irish offers. Angeli seems likely to join the class.
That momentum could help Notre Dame on the recruiting trail. And Sept. 1 marked the first day Division I football coaches were permitted to initiate contact with members of the 2022 class.
“If they have a great season,” Wiltfong said, “that could catapult them in 2022. If they could win the ACC, if they could beat Clemson, it’s almost like, ‘See, we are an independent, but look what we did the one time we were in a conference. We came in there, we won the title and we beat big, bad Clemson.’”
Prospect rankings can heavily determine the perception of recruiting classes.
But with few recruiting camps and in-person evaluations available since March, recruits have not had many opportunities to improve from their spot in the rankings. Lack of exposure will continue for seven of Notre Dame’s 18 commits in the 2021 class.
Quarterback Tyler Buchner, offensive linemen Pat Coogan and Joe Alt, cornerbacks Chance Tucker and Ryan Barnes, defensive end Will Schweitzer and Walters will not play football this fall because of the pandemic. Buchner is the only one among that group who is not a three-star recruit.
Tight ends Mitchell Evans and Cane Berrong, defensive ends Jason Onye and David Abiara and running back Logan Diggs are Notre Dame’s three-star commits who will play this fall.
“I look at this Notre Dame class, and I think a lot of the guys are ranked pretty accurately,” Wiltfong said. “Sure, if anyone has a great year. But there’s not anyone I’m looking at thinking that we maybe underranked and can’t wait to see what he does as a senior.”
Not only will Buchner and Walters not play football this fall, they also will miss their senior seasons altogether.
Both commits are expected to enroll a semester early at Notre Dame in January. Schweitzer may join them. The other four pledges who aren’t competing this fall are expected to play spring seasons before arriving at Notre Dame in June.
Buchner’s progress this fall will be worth monitoring. He once held realistic expectations of beating out sophomore Brendon Clark and freshman Drew Pyne for Notre Dame’s starting quarterback job in 2021. He plans to work with a quarterback coach in the coming months.
How much would missing an entire season hinder Buchner’s development? Wiltfong said most recruits would be better off playing their senior seasons in the spring than enrolling early, though he acknowledged there’s no data to back that belief.
“The senior year is such an important part of their development,” Wiltfong said. “Just getting all those reps whether it’s nine or 15 games, depending on how good your team is and where you are from. Those game reps are kind of irreplaceable. Obviously, if you enroll early in college, you get spring football and that’s 15 practices.
“But where are you at on the depth chart? How many reps are you getting? How many pivotal snaps are you playing?
“I just think that you are enrolling early to build off what you did as a senior. Not to replace your senior year."