Devin Aupiu familiarized himself with Notre Dame from a distance.
The three-star defensive end from Oxnard (Calif.) Pacifica High never has been to South Bend. The COVID-19 pandemic kept him from making his first trip. So Aupiu took a crash course on the Irish virtually after receiving a scholarship offer a couple weeks ago.
They left such a lasting impression on Aupiu that he flipped his verbal commitment from UCLA to Notre Dame on Wednesday, announcing the news via Twitter. He had been pledged to the Bruins since April.
“The football culture at Notre Dame is second to none,” Aupiu told the Tribune last Friday before making his decision public. “You can’t compare it to anywhere else. The whole school and the whole community is all in when it comes to football games.”
The Irish coaching staff first contacted Aupiu last month. They project him at vyper, the defensive end position currently manned by graduate senior starter Daelin Hayes. Aupiu brings a versatile skill set, though, and could play multiple positions.
247Sports ranks the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Aupiu as its No. 30 outside linebacker and No. 410 overall player in the 2021 recruiting class, while Rivals pegs him as its No. 40 weakside defensive end.
Watching YouTube videos and several Notre Dame games from this season helped Aupiu quickly learn about the Irish. He also connected with multiple people from California who graduated from Notre Dame to hear about their experiences. Defensive end Jason Onye and offensive tackle Blake Fisher were among the Irish commits who also reached out to Aupiu.
These resources increased Aupiu's interest even more.
“We started to build a connection,” said Aupiu about his bond with Notre Dame’s pledges. “It’s very important to build a relationship with the people you are going to be playing with for the next four years. So building that relationship with those guys was a nice step to getting a feel for who I would be around.”
In June 2019, Aupiu landed his first Division I offer from USC. He said he nearly committed to the Trojans that week but decided to take his time. Ironically, their biggest rivals finished as his top two schools.
Until he heard from Notre Dame, Aupiu picked UCLA and hardly considered leaving the West Coast.
“We are a very culture-strong people. We are very close to our family,” said Aupiu about his Samoan background. “That’s why the distance is so much of a downside. But then again, I have to do what is best for me obviously. You’ve seen so many Polynesian kids start to branch out more, like (quarterback) D.J. (Uiagalelei) went to Clemson.”
In 16 games as a junior, Aupiu recorded 62 tackles, 21 tackles for a loss, 22 quarterback hurries, 11 sacks, 12 pass breakups, two forced fumbles and a blocked punt. Pacifica’s upcoming football season does not start until the spring because of COVID-19.
Aupiu will miss out on his senior football season, planning instead to enroll a semester early. He spent plenty of time preparing under the tutelage of Eddy McGilvra, who trains high school, college and NFL defensive linemen as a co-owner at Future Elite Academy. Green Bay Packers nose tackle Kenny Clark and Indianapolis Colts defensive end Cassius Marsh are among McGilvra’s most notable clients.
“They are getting a steal,” said McGilvra about Aupiu. “He is just scratching the surface of where he’s going to be.”
McGilvra said he started training Aupiu approximately a year ago. At that point, Aupiu had not played much on the defensive line and weighed 205 pounds. He has since added 20 pounds.
Turning 17 in July, Aupiu should be Notre Dame's youngest player when he arrives.
“The biggest thing is that he’s not stuck in a box with his position,” McGilvra said. “Devin can really go anywhere on the field and have success. He could damn near play tight end. He’s a freak athlete. Great hands, he understands both sides of the ball and he is definitely not scared of a challenge. They are going to find a hard time getting him off the field. He can play all the special teams, he can play outside linebacker in a 3-4 and he can play defensive end in a 4-3. He’s very versatile.”
Three other defensive linemen in the 2021 cycle are committed to Notre Dame: defensive tackle Gabriel Rubio and defensive ends Will Schweitzer and Onye. The Irish landed a pledge from 2021 defensive end David Abiara in March before he decommitted last month.
Notre Dame is still looking to add recruits in this class. Running backs Donovan Edwards, Audric Estime and Byron Cardwell, wide receiver Keagan Johnson and cornerback Ceyair Wright are among 2021 recruits hearing from the Irish coaching staff. Wright visited South Bend over the weekend.
By adding Aupiu, Notre Dame inches one step closer to securing a top 10 class in 2021. 247Sports and Rivals rank the 24-player class nationally at No. 7 and No. 10, respectively. The three-day early signing period begins Dec. 16.
“You can definitely tell that they are all about winning,” Aupiu said. “Not just winning in football, but also winning in life, winning in academics. So the thing they talk about is excellence every day. The thing is, you can’t be excellent in one thing but be subpar in another.
“Like you can’t be an A-plus football student but a C-minus academics student. You can’t have an imbalance with things. You have to strive to be perfect in every aspect of your life.”