All signs pointed toward Jack Nickel verbally committing to Notre Dame.
After the three-star tight end from Alpharetta (Ga.) Milton toured the university on June 30, he touted Notre Dame as the best campus he’s ever seen. Nickel said being Catholic and having a grandmother grow up two miles from Vatican City also played into the allure.
Father Paul Nickel even wanted to come to Notre Dame before eventually playing tight end for Stanford in the early '90s. He jokingly reminded the Irish coaching staff that they passed on him in the recruiting process for Irv Smith, an eventual first-round selection of the Minnesota Vikings in 1993. Paul’s experience made academics a high priority for his son.
So Nickel publicizing his pledge to Notre Dame’s 2022 recruiting class on Monday via Twitter came as no surprise. He joins Zionsville (Ind.) High offensive lineman Joey Tanona, who committed on Saturday. The two-man class ranks No. 5 and No. 6 on Rivals and 247Sports, respectively.
Days before his announcement Nickel even made what is known as a silent commitment, a non-public pledge offered to the coaching staff. The Irish emerged as Nickel's favorite shortly after offering him a scholarship on May 6. Nickel visited for Notre Dame’s Oct. 12 home game against USC.
In an otherwise straightforward recruitment, Nickel’s perspective of new tight ends coach John McNulty stands out as significant.
“I think he’s my favorite coach that I’ve talked to,” Nickel said. “A lot of people are wondering because he’s new: how is he going to be as a replacement? (Former ND offensive coordinator) Chip Long was a really good recruiter. But I think you have nothing to worry about with (McNulty).
“He recruited me very well. He’s one of the reasons I even made the decision too, at least this early.”
Whether McNulty will prove himself as a consistently competent recruiter remains to be seen and calls for a much larger sample size. The highlights of McNulty’s 29-year coaching career have also mostly come from his 15 seasons in the NFL.
Most of McNulty’s college experience came at struggling Connecticut and Rutgers. This year marks his first time coaching tight ends in college. He coached the position in his two seasons with the San Diego (now Los Angeles) Chargers (2016-17). Following one-season stints at Rutgers (offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach) and Penn State (offensive analyst), McNulty was officially hired by Notre Dame in March.
That Nickel praised McNulty and said Notre Dame courted him harder than any other school speaks volumes. Oregon, LSU, Penn State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Florida State were among schools that offered him.
Tom Lemming, a recruiting analyst for CBS Sports Network, pegs the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Nickel with a four-star rating. 247Sports ranks Nickel as its No. 24 tight end and No. 441 overall player. He caught 27 passes for 337 yards and three touchdowns as a sophomore at Milton High.
“What I liked about him is that he can grow. His dad is big. He’s big,” Lemming said. “If they want to bring in two (tight ends), it’s a good catch for them. He’s got good hands. I think it’s his potential that’s striking, too. I think they figure he’s got some good football ahead of him. He plays against the best competition in Georgia, in the Atlanta area.”
Notre Dame holding true to its Tight End U reputation going forward could depend upon how McNulty develops talent and recruits beyond Nickel. Such a responsibility likely won’t require McNulty to take on a heavy workload on the recruiting trail. He inherited a position group loaded with options and long-term promise — despite Cole Kmet departing early for the 2020 NFL Draft.
Versatile Tommy Tremble brings three years of eligibility. Beyond senior Brock Wright and Tremble, Michael Mayer could push for a starting role as a true freshman. Junior George Takacs provides quality depth, and in time freshman Kevin Bauman should as well.
No tight end to sign with the Irish under head coach Brian Kelly has finished with a higher overall ranking in his class on 247Sports (No. 23) and Rivals (No. 36) than Mayer. The Park Hills (Ky.) Covington Catholic product finished with a five-star rating per 247Sports.
Bauman, a four-star tight end (per Rivals) from Red Bank (N.J.) Catholic, joined Mayer in Notre Dame’s 2020 recruiting class. The Irish also landed a verbal commitment under Long from Cane Berrong, a tight end from Hartwell (Ga.) Hart County in the 2021 class. They may pair him with another tight end this cycle — the current favorite to end up at ND being Wadsworth (Ohio) High’s Mitchell Evans.
McNulty’s first full recruiting cycle at Notre Dame will be the 2022 class. With Nickel committed, McNulty has more than 16 months before the three-day early signing period for 2022 to pair Nickel with another tight end.
“He could take his time,” Lemming said. “He’s already got a really good one coming in from Georgia (Berrong). I think now what he’s got to do is go after a five-star 2022 tight end, like a (Michael) Mayer type. He’s got the time, and that’s his position. Not a good one, but a great one, because he’s got the time now and the backlog of tight ends already at Notre Dame. He doesn’t have to rush things.”
Dickinson (Texas) High’s Donovan Green and Pilot Mountain (N.C.) East Surry’s Benji Gosnell, a pair of four-star tight ends, are the other two at the position in the 2022 class who hold Notre Dame offers. Both appear to be in the early stages of their respective recruiting processes. The Irish may also extend more tight end offers.
In landing Nickel before his junior season, McNulty may now comfortably expand his options and develop other necessary relationships. Ask Nickel, and he will offer his confidence in McNulty’s future recruiting endeavors.
“His experience in the NFL,” Nickel said. “He definitely knows what he’s talking about. But he’s humble about it. He doesn’t bring it up every five minutes. I just think he’s a really straightforward guy who just tells you the truth.
“That’s really the main thing I’m looking at when I’m looking at coaches. And I think he’s been the most straightforward coach I’ve talked to.”