Notre Dame likely just completed its haul of wide receivers in the 2021 recruiting class.
Jayden Thomas, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound receiver from Pace Academy in Atlanta, verbally committed to the Irish. He chose to announce the news via Twitter on Friday, his grandmother Gracie’s birthday, to honor her.
Four-star receivers Deion Colzie and Lorenzo Styles Jr. also are in the 19-pledge Irish class. Colzie committed to Notre Dame again on Monday after rescinding his verbal pledge in March.
Thomas had long felt like Notre Dame most resembled Pace Academy, a private school that boasts quality academics. He visited campus for the Nov. 2 home game against Virginia Tech last season.
The family of former Irish running back Mick Assaf joined Thomas for that visit. Fred Assaf, Mick's father, is the headmaster at Pace Academy. Thomas considers Tommy Assaf, Mick's younger brother, to be his best friend. The Assaf family continued to influence Thomas toward Notre Dame throughout his recruitment.
Georgia, Penn State, Michigan and Arkansas were the other schools he considered.
“Academically-wise, they are just prestigious,” Thomas told the Tribune in August. “That’s the reason why I’m at Pace: academics. It’s like none other. It’s better than a public school education. Also just the vibe I get there, the culture. It’s pretty much like the culture at Pace Academy.”
Barring a surprising development, Thomas will be the last receiver Notre Dame adds this cycle. Oregon is the overwhelming favorite for Baltimore Mount Saint Joseph’s Dont’e Thornton Jr. He's the only remaining receiver target unless more offers are extended.
The Irish are believed to have only a few spots remaining this class. Running back Donovan Edwards, Thornton, cornerbacks Ceyair Wright and Theran Johnson, linebacker Kahanu Kia and safety Titus Mokiao-Atimalala are their remaining uncommitted targets.
Rivals and 247Sports now rank the class No. 10 and No. 12 nationally, respectively.
Chris Slade, Pace Academy’s head football coach, mostly uses Thomas as an outside receiver and safety.
“He’s a big kid, long, rangy,” Slade told the Tribune in August. “He can do so many different things on the field. He’s very versatile. He can play safety if you want him to. He can play corner. I even use him on third-down packages to rush the passer, because he can come off the edge. He can just do so many different things. We use him to punt.
“He hangs his hat on being a receiver, but the guy’s versatility makes him unique and special from a lot of other guys.”
Styles and Colzie flash versatility, too. That component is what makes this receiver group interesting. All three bring the skills and two-way experience to play defense.
Comparing Thomas with Colzie and Styles appears to be challenging, though. No Irish commit seems as polarizing as Thomas when it comes to talent evaluation.
When Notre Dame offered Thomas a scholarship after his November visit, 247Sports (No. 20 wide receiver, No. 128 overall) and Rivals (No. 20 wide receiver, No. 108 overall) ranked him similarly as a four-star recruit in the class.
247Sports has since plunged Thomas to three-star status, ranking him No. 99 at the position and No. 646 overall. Rivals still pegs Thomas as a four-star receiver but dropped him to No. 36 at the position and No. 195 overall.
Reduced visibility may have played a role in Thomas’ decline in the rankings.
As a two-sport athlete, Thomas has spent plenty of his football offseasons playing baseball and away from camp circuits and evaluation opportunities. Thomas has accrued baseball offers from Michigan, Arkansas and Georgia Tech. Whether Thomas plays baseball at Notre Dame remains to be seen.
A season-ending toe injury ended Thomas’s junior football campaign at five games and wiped out this past offseason. The COVID-19 pandemic kept him from taking official or unofficial visits to campuses.
That Thomas lacked exposure may explain why Barton Simmons needed a refresher. Simmons, the director of scouting for 247Sports, acknowledged he had hardly evaluated Thomas. But Simmons liked how Thomas brings experience as a two-way player.
“It’s less the skills you hone playing defense that help you on offense. It’s more just the nature of being someone that can do a lot of things,” Simmons said. “Being someone that is called upon to be on the field all the time, play a lot of snaps, compete and someone who embraces the grind of playing both ways.
“The more athletic experience, the more complete of an athlete you are. I relate that to multiple sports, to multiple positions.”
When Tom Lemming scouted Thomas as a high school freshman, he marked him down as a defensive back. The recruiting analyst from CBS Sport Network said Thomas still might be a better fit on defense.
If Thomas remains on offense, Lemming projects him to develop into the typical, big-bodied outside receiver Notre Dame often features. Thomas living up to Rivals’ expectations means he should have a career like Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool. 247Sports' ranking means someone like Javon McKinley, who was actually pegged as the No. 12 wide receiver in the 2016 class.
“He’s a physical kid,” Lemming said. “He’s not a speed burner, but he catches everything within his frame. And he can run after the catch, because he’s physical.”
Styles (247Sports: No. 18 receiver, No. 125 overall; Rivals: No. 6 receiver, No. 45 overall) and Colzie (247Sports: No. 13 receiver, No. 110 overall; Rivals: No. 17 receiver, No. 107 overall) come with loftier projections than Thomas.
Simmons compared the 6-4, 205-pound Colzie to Claypool and Boykin. At 6-1, 185 pounds and with a 4.47 40-yard dash time, Styles projects as a slot receiver who brings the best straight-line speed among the group. Simmons said Styles would be a better defensive player than Thomas and Colzie.
In Thomas, Notre Dame found yet another receiver with two-way experience and versatility.
“A wide receiver who has played defense,” Simmons said, “it’s ingrained in them to play harder. It’s ingrained in them to be more physical, to be tougher and probably to have a better innate understanding of playing the position, body movements and all that.
“Creating a great football player on the high school level, you build that through a diversity of skill set. Any time you build that, it’s a plus.”