More than 40 percent of Notre Dame’s 2020 recruiting class was rated differently by Rivals and 247Sports.
With National Signing Day concluding the cycle on Wednesday, both recruiting sites recently released their final player rankings of the class. Seven of Notre Dame’s 17 signees garnered mixed reviews from a star rating perspective. The rankings differences for a few of the signees could be considered polarizing.
ND Insider spoke to Mike Farrell, Rivals’ national recruiting director, and Steve Wiltfong, director of recruiting for 247Sports, to explain their perspectives on this Irish class. Both analysts played key roles in influencing their site’s player rankings, but their opinions are not fully representative of Rivals and 247Sports.
• QB Drew Pyne, 6-1, 195; New Canaan (Conn.) High
247Sports ranking: Three stars, No. 19 pro-style quarterback, No. 768 overall.
Rivals ranking: Four stars, No. 7 pro-style quarterback, No. 117 overall.
247Sports once considered Pyne as a four-star recruit, pegging him as its No. 8 pro-style quarterback and No. 229 overall player in August of 2018.
Pyne plunged more than 500 overall spots as concerns surfaced about his arm strength and smaller frame. To 247Sports, Pyne never drastically improved his physical attributes or in the major statistical categories since winning the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference Class L championship as a freshman.
“We don’t know if he’s a guy who can make all the throws necessary of a future NFL guy,” said Wiltfong, who evaluated Pyne at the Elite 11 Finals in July. “That doesn’t mean he won’t be a good college player.”
Farrell said if Rivals re-ranked the 2016 recruiting class, Irish quarterback Ian Book would ascend to around Pyne’s spot near the top 100. Pyne’s frame, accuracy and quick decision-making have drawn comparisons to Book.
Pyne will not be as skilled as Book, Farrell said. He would still peg him as a top 200 overall player, though, making Pyne the most polarizing member of Notre Dame's class. Farrell watched Pyne at the Under Armour All-America Game last month.
“The kid has got a high football I.Q., he’s getting stronger and filling out,” Farrell said. “He’s not tall, but tall doesn’t matter anymore as we’ve seen by a lot of successful quarterbacks recently. As long as you can throw in windows and you can throw on the run, and he can do both of those things.
“Not a dual-threat guy. He’s not going to kill you with his feet, but he has good arm strength and accuracy."
• TE Michael Mayer, 6-4, 232; Park Hills (Ky.) Covington Catholic
247Sports ranking: Five stars, No. 2 tight end, No. 23 overall.
Rivals ranking: Four stars, No. 3 tight end, No. 36 overall.
Disagreeing by 13 overall spots may not seem like much, but there’s a significant difference between a four-star and five-star tight end for both recruiting sites.
Farrell mentioned former standout tight ends O.J. Howard (Alabama), Kyle Rudolph (Notre Dame) and Greg Olsen (Miami) as the template for determining whether a recruit is worthy of five-star recognition.
Mayer fell two spots short of such acclaim on Rivals. Farrell personally ranked him as his No. 2 tight end in the class — above Darnell Washington (Georgia) but below Arik Gilbert (LSU). Washington earned five-star status, though, seizing the final spot at No. 32 overall.
“It comes down to I’m looking for freaky athletes,” Farrell said. “Mayer is very, very good, but athletically, he’s not at that elite level where he’s just a freak of nature.”
247Sports bumped Mayer 46 overall spots in its final rankings. He had impressed at two major recruiting camps — The Opening Finals in July and the All-American Bowl in January — and claimed Kentucky’s Gatorade Player of the Year honors as a two-way player his senior season.
Wiltfong also favors Mayer over Washington but agrees with his site’s decision to cement Gilbert as its highest-ranked tight end ever at No. 10 overall.
“We’ll see how it shakes out in college,” Wiltfong said. “Mayer will have a chance to be the number one tight end off the board in the NFL Draft from this recruiting class. We think he’s going to be a first-rounder regardless when it’s all said and done.”
“I just think we loved the way he continued to develop from junior year to senior year on through. He was just one of the more dominant players regardless of position this cycle.”
• TE Kevin Bauman, 6-4, 238; Red Bank (N.J.) Catholic
247Sports ranking: Three stars, No. 22 tight end, No. 580 overall.
Rivals ranking: Four stars, No. 5 tight end, No. 129 overall.
That 247Sports pegged Mayer as a five-star tight end did not influence its decision to substantially drop Bauman.
Had the best two tight ends in the class signed with Notre Dame, Wiltflong explained, 247Sports would grade them individually and not based on how they project the other. Bauman still once ranked as its No. 3 tight end and No. 152 overall player before plunging and losing his four-star rating.
“I just don’t think (Bauman) popped in the same regard,” said Wiltfong when comparing Bauman to the tight ends they consider elite. “He could make us look bad. I certainly recognize that, and he had a good senior year. I thought he looked pretty good at the Polynesian Bowl, too. That’s one where Kevin Bauman has a chance to make us look bad.”
Notre Dame’s offense involved multiple tight ends under former offensive coordinator Chip Long. With Tommy Rees now heading the offense and rumored to emphasize the running game more, Farrell said Bauman could find a niche role.
Ranking both tight ends as top 130 overall players may seem bullish, Farrell said. But he believes Bauman could contribute alongside Mayer because of their differing skill sets.
“Michael Mayer is clearly the more athletic guy,” Farrell said. “He’s more of the downfield threat. Bauman is a little more physical and a little bit better of a blocker.”
• WR Xavier Watts, 5-11, 190; Omaha (Neb.) Burke
247Sports ranking: Four stars, No. 45 wide receiver, No. 272 overall.
Rivals ranking: Three stars, No. 89 wide receiver.
Watts’ play as a receiver and defensive back impressed 247Sports enough for him to receive a late bump to four-star status during his senior season.
Notre Dame recruited Watts as a receiver with the caveat that he may move to defense. He caught 61 passes for 1,072 yards and 13 touchdowns and added 68 tackles, three tackles for a loss, seven pass breakups, three interceptions and two pick-sixes in 11 games.
“Maybe the best two-way player in Notre Dame’s class outside of Michael Mayer,” Wiltfong said. “He’s smooth and has a high football I.Q. He’s a guy who makes a lot of plays.”
Farrell compares Watts to Will Fuller — Notre Dame's former star receiver now with the Houston Texans — but feels there are notable differences that distinguish the two.
“This kid is not as good and does not have as high of a ceiling,” said Farrell of Watts, agreeing with Wiltfong that receiver would be his best position. “But he could be a guy that fits in the offense perfectly for all we know.
“It’s tough to gauge those kids that don’t play any competition whatsoever. He’s a slot (receiver). He’s thick. He’s not a weakling or anything like that. His speed is good, not great.”
• WR Jordan Johnson, 6-0, 182; St. Louis DeSmet Jesuit
247Sports ranking: Four stars, No. 11 wide receiver, No. 61 overall.
Rivals ranking: Five stars, No. 5 wide receiver, No. 28 overall.
When Farrell thinks about Johnson’s collegiate future, he envisions a steady receiver who won’t stuff the stats but will establish himself as Notre Dame's No. 1 option.
“I think he’s going to be a kid that really stretches the field for them and will be a good red zone threat,” Farrell said. “He will be reliable. He’s going to bail the quarterback out a lot on bad throws. When it comes time to test in a few years, he’s going to get faster.”
What prevented 247Sports from providing Johnson five-star distinction compares to what kept Rivals from doing the same with Mayer. To 247Sports, Johnson is not quite the athletic freak compared to the upper echelon of receivers in the class like Julian Fleming (Ohio State) and Demond Demas (Texas A&M).
Fleming (Under Armour All-America Game) and Demas (Polynesian Bowl) impressed at their high school all-star games and were pegged as five-star receivers on both sites.
“He’s a guy I envision leading Notre Dame in receiving two, three years before his time is done,” Wiltfong said. “It was more about who would he be alongside in our rankings in comparing him to some of those other receivers.
“He’s incredibly smooth and a really good route runner who knows how to separate. He can make the big play.”
• CB Ramon Henderson, 6-2, 180; Bakersfield (Calif.) Liberty
247Sports ranking: Four stars, No. 13 athlete, No. 280 overall.
Rivals ranking: Three stars.
Henderson came to campus last month as an early enrollee set to compete at cornerback, a venture that raises doubts in Farrell. Rivals considers Henderson to be 6-foot-3 with abnormal overall length for the position.
“That’s a lot of length to move,” Farrell said. “It’s hard to clip your hips and it’s hard to turn and run with those guys if you’re bigger. So we don’t like him as much as some others do.
“If there’s one guy in this class who could outplay his ranking, it’s definitely Ramon. His ceiling is very high. But if they put him at corner, I’m worried he’s going to be victimized. If they put Ramon on an island, it’s going to be a problem.”
From wide receiver to cornerback and safety, Henderson has garnered varying position projections. He played on both sides of the ball after picking up cornerback as a junior. Henderson clocked a 100-meter dash time of 10.59 seconds — topping speedster receiver Braden Lenzy’s best high school time of 10.62.
Because of Henderson’s unusually longer strides and range, Farrell passes at the idea of corner and projects him as a free safety. Not Wiltfong.
“We think he can evolve into one of the best corners in college football,” Wiltfong said. “He’s got the ball skills, and he’s a playmaker in the secondary. The ability to run and length, we think he can play corner.
“How can he not be a four-star? We love him, man.”
• DT Aidan Keanaaina, 6-3, 303; Denver Mullen
247Sports ranking: Three stars, No. 56 defensive tackle, No. 559 overall.
Rivals ranking: Four stars, No. 29 defensive tackle.
Wiltfong named Keanaaina and Bauman as the two Notre Dame signees who could easily outperform their rankings.
247Sports analysts critique Keanaaina’s length and athleticism as what could prevent him from thriving at defensive tackle. But he may instead develop into a competent nose guard.
“I think he could plug the middle and be a solid pickup for Notre Dame,” Wiltfong said. “I see why people had him as a four-star. He has a chance to be a guy on the interior who is very disruptive for (assistant coach) Mike Elston and his defensive line.”
Where Farrell differs is he projects Keanaaina as an interior defensive lineman who could succeed at either position. Keanaaina played all across Mullen High’s defensive line and recorded 77 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss, four sacks, seven quarterback hurries, eight forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and a blocked field goal in 10 games as a senior.
“Just a huge kid who can move,” Farrell said. “Not an elite athlete, but a guy who is going to stuff the run and a guy who is going to push the pocket. He’s not a guy who is going to get out in space and chase.
“He’s not (former Auburn defensive tackle) Derrick Brown or (former Clemson defensive linemen) Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence, where he’s going to be able to pursue from the inside. But he’s going to make it difficult to run.
“And he’s also going to make that quarterback feel a little uneasy stepping up in the pocket, because he’s going to be pushing guys back.”