Losing a football season brought Justin Walters a new perspective.
The incoming freshman safety enrolled a semester early at Notre Dame, so he will miss his senior season at Bolingbrook (Ill.) High this spring. Illinois is scheduled to begin its high school football season in March. Gov. JB Pritzer postponed contact sports last fall because of the coronavirus pandemic.
While Pritzer remained firm on his decision, Walters watched as every other Midwest state played high school football last fall or winter.
“It hasn’t been too enjoyable, so I can’t wait to get something new started,” Walters said. “We had all the hope with our senior season. I was still practicing with the team. Then we found out we wouldn’t have a season, so I wasn’t practicing with the team. Everything was up in the air.
“I don’t expect to have a prom. I don’t expect to have a graduation. So I’ve gotten used to Covid messing everything up for me.”
Notre Dame begins classes on Wednesday, a few weeks later than usual. There will be no spring break. The Irish typically start spring football practice the first week of March. Not this time. They expect to complete their first of 15 practices near the end of March or later. They also plan to return to operating under COVID-19 protocols.
This semester should be different from the norm. Still, there are obvious benefits for early enrollees. They practice with the team. They are immersed in the strength and conditioning program. They start a nutrition program specifically tailored to them. They receive a head start to acclimating to college life by living on campus. It paces them to graduate earlier.
Notre Dame has its most football midyears in school history with 14. Five early-enrolled freshmen missed their senior football seasons: quarterback Tyler Buchner, defensive ends Devin Aupiu and Will Schweitzer, cornerback Ryan Barnes and Walters.
None of those five said they are feeling buyer’s remorse about their decision to enroll early.
“I won’t have to waste a redshirt year to get to know the system, put on weight and get stronger and faster,” Aupiu said. “Colleges do that at a way better pace than you can do on your own. They break everything down to a science. So getting out there as early as I can and having those type of resources will be the best for me.”
How did Buchner, Aupiu, Schweitzer, Walters and Barnes prepare without a season? Below is a closer look at how they trained during their protracted off time.
• QB Tyler Buchner, 6-2, 205; La Mesa (Calif.) Helix: With only one full season of starting varsity experience, Buchner still has plenty to prove. So a lot went into Buchner’s offseason training regimen to prepare him for Notre Dame.
Buchner plugged himself into Helix’s football program after transferring to the charter school last summer. Derek Samuel, a health practitioner with a decorated client list that includes NFL and college football players, trained Buchner five times per week. Taylor Kelly, Buchner’s throwing coach at 3DQB, worked with him twice per week.
Samuel put Buchner on the same strength training program he gives his NFL quarterbacks.
“I feel stronger,” Buchner said. “I feel healthier. My health is really good. I’m not hurt or anything. This is the healthiest and strongest I’ve been. I feel good.”
Kelly looked to improve Buchner’s consistency as a passer. Buchner shows the ability to complete difficult throws off platform. He struggled with his accuracy on easier passes.
“It’s about finding the same platform and base I do on the deep balls and harder throws,” Buchner said, “but keep that same base, platform and mechanics through every single throw. If you keep those same mechanics on every throw, every ball is going to be good. It’s just about keeping that same platform and getting to that platform all the time. That is something I’ve been working on and getting better at every day.”
Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan, junior Brendon Clark, sophomore Drew Pyne and fellow incoming freshman Ron Powlus III will compete with Buchner for the starting job.
• DE Devin Aupiu, 6-5, 220; Oxnard (Calif.) Pacifica: Defensive end is still new to Aupiu. He spent most of his childhood playing linebacker before switching positions in high school.
Notre Dame projects Aupiu at vyper defensive end. Junior Isaiah Foskey and sophomore Jordan Botelho are expected to secure feature roles at that position. Aupiu will look to gain a considerable amount of weight.
Aupiu also looked to polish his pass rushing moves while training under Eddy McGilvra, who works with NFL, college and high school defensive linemen as a co-owner at Future Elite Academy. In the last couple months, Aupiu managed to play organized tackle football with a local club team.
“I was working on my technique a lot,” Aupiu said. “You can be as big, fast and strong as you want. But as you work through those levels, it’s the technique that’s going to separate you from everyone. So that is what I made my focus.”
• DE Will Schweitzer, 6-5, 205; Los Gatos (Calif.) High: Like Aupiu, Schweitzer will have to adjust to playing vyper. He played middle linebacker through his junior season.
“I really tried to drill in my pass rush moves and work on those as much as I could,” Schweitzer said.
Gaining weight also figured to be necessary for Schweitzer. Notre Dame listed him at 205 pounds when he signed with the Irish last month. Schweitzer said he comes in closer to 230 now.
“I just talked to people who knew stuff about nutrition,” Schweitzer said. “They put me on a diet so that I could put on some good weight. I really put my focus into that. I learned how to lift weights, learned the light programs and hitting legs more. I really took pride in following all that. Different workout programs, different nutrition. Slowly but surely.
“At times, you feel like you are not putting on anything. But then you look at the scale a month later, and you’ve put on five pounds and you feel the fastest you’ve ever been.”
• S Justin Walters, 6-1, 175; Bolingbrook (Ill.) High: Under new Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, Walters could play strong safety or outside linebacker.
Walters has the look of an old-school safety. He’s a bruising tackler. He can line up in the box. He can offer adequate run support. But before becoming a key contributor, Walters likely needs to improve his lateral quickness. He had a clear focus while training four times per week last fall.
“This whole offseason, I’ve just been working on my footwork and my coverage ability,” Walters said. “In Illinois football, they run a lot. So you don’t get to experience much of the passing game.”
Senior Houston Griffith and juniors K.J. Wallace and Litchfield Ajavon will compete for the vacant starting job at strong safety left by Shaun Crawford.
• CB Ryan Barnes, 6-2, 180; Gaithersburg (Md.) Quince Orchard: Length and position flexibility are among Barnes’ best attributes. Becoming a well-rounded defensive back could result in early playing time for Barnes.
With the help of Kabote Sikyala, one of the most renowned defensive back trainers in the DMV area, Barnes worked to sharpen his technique over the last several months.
Former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea recruited Barnes as a cornerback but believed he could play any position in the secondary. If there was a need at safety, Lea would have moved Barnes to that position.
Freeman will likely have the same mindset.
“I think it was a great hire,” Barnes said. “The success that he’s had, especially this past year at Cincinnati, it gets me really excited to have somebody like him on the staff. It excites me a lot.”