Recruiting presentations were made from the homes of Notre Dame’s coaching staff. Attempts to verify heights included photos with tape measures that belong in toolboxes.
College football recruiting in a pandemic presented plenty of challenges, but the early signing period began as scheduled Wednesday and went off without much of a hiccup for the Irish.
Notre Dame announced the signing of 24 recruits Wednesday afternoon with the hope of adding more before the end of the signing period late Friday or come National Signing Day in February.
Twenty-three of those signings came from publicly committed recruits to the Irish. That included four-star linebacker prospect Prince Kollie, who was recruited to Notre Dame by defensive coordinator Clark Lea and reconsidering his decision after Lea was named head coach at Vanderbilt on Monday.
The Irish didn’t lose any of their 11 defensive commitments in the aftermath of Lea’s announced departure. Lea has stayed on Notre Dame’s staff for Saturday’s ACC Championship game and told players, per safety Kyle Hamilton, that he will stick with the Irish through the end of the year.
“When it became official and we had announced it to our own team, we got on the phone with every commit on defense,” said Notre Dame recruiting coordinator Brian Polian. “‘Are you OK? What are you concerned about?’
“And then the guys who expressed to us a little bit of hesitation, we got them on the phone immediately with coach Kelly. Collectively, as a staff, we handled it well. We’re thrilled for coach Lea, but from coach Kelly on down through the rest of the staff, we managed it fine. And we ended up with all of the guys we were counting on and we’re blessed to have them.”
Kollie, one of five finalists for the high school Butkus Award for the nation’s top linebacker, was worth the fight.
“He’s a playmaker on defense,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. “He wrecks your day on offense. We just saw so many similarities with Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Prince in terms of the way they play. His suddenness is a natural fit at the rover position for us, which we’ll continue to employ in our defensive structure. To add a playmaker of his capabilities was so attractive to us.”
Three-star running back Logan Diggs was the only Notre Dame commit to not sign with the Irish on Wednesday. A recent offer from LSU created some hesitation from Diggs in Metairie, La. Diggs tweeted Wednesday night that he won’t sign with anyone this week.
“For everyone wondering and asking, I will be waiting until February.. #RespectMyDecision,” Diggs said.
Earlier Wednesday, Kelly said the Irish are still hoping to sign a pair of running backs, though he couldn’t name any due to NCAA rules. In addition to Diggs, the Irish have recently pushed to add Michigan State running back commit Audric Estime, a four-star recruit from New Jersey, to their class. Estime did not sign Wednesday and could still make a decision by the end of the week.
Four-star running back target Donovan Edwards from West Bloomfield, Mich., signed with Michigan on Wednesday.
“Within this class, we expect to sign a couple more running backs and we expect to sign somebody that is going to help us in the back end of the defense as well,” said Kelly, noting that it wouldn’t necessarily end this week.
Notre Dame’s top defensive back target remains Los Angeles cornerback Ceyair Wright, a four-star recruit.
The lone surprise from the Irish came with the signing of local Penn quarterback Ron Powlus III, the son of former Notre Dame quarterback and current associate athletic director for football Ron Powlus. The younger Powlus was lightly recruited, at least in terms of publicly reported offers from Kentucky, Bowling Green, Central Michigan, Indiana State and Yale.
The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Powlus was ranked as a three-star recruit by Rivals and two-star recruit by 247Sports. He finished his senior season 104-of-184 passing (56.5%) for 1,435 yards and 12 touchdowns with five interceptions.
With Notre Dame expected to return only two scholarship quarterbacks from this year’s roster — sophomore Brendon Clark and freshman Drew Pyne — Kelly said the Irish wanted to add two quarterbacks. Powlus joined four-star quarterback Tyler Buchner in the class.
“We think he’ll be well-suited in the offense that we are going to be running,” Kelly said of Powlus. “It’s projecting him a little bit for us. We think he’s a great fit for our offense.”
But Buchner’s the name to know at quarterback for the Irish. His senior season at La Mesa (Calif.) Helix was put on hold to the spring, but Buchner will skip that to enroll at Notre Dame when the spring semester begins, which is tentatively scheduled for February.
Buchner lit it up as a junior at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, Calif. He finished 267-of-402 passing for 4,474 yards and 53 touchdowns with six interceptions and rushed for 1,610 yards and 28 touchdowns in 13 games.
Buchner is one of a program-record 13 signees planning to enroll early.
“This was an unusual year in a sense that we had so many of these mid-years, but it puts them in a great position in particular, Tyler at the quarterback position,” Kelly said. “Because he’s coming in with an opportunity to compete, right? He wants to get in here and learn the offense and have a spring ball under his belt and get ready to compete right away.”
A year ago, Kelly said he wanted to push Notre Dame’s recruiting efforts to not be satisfied with classes that consistently fell just outside the top 10 nationally. As of Wednesday night, Notre Dame’s class was ranked No. 8 and No. 9 in the country by 247Sports and Rivals, respectively.
“We should push to find the best players in the country, just as if we’re pushing to be the best football team in the country,” Kelly said Wednesday. “From a recruiting standpoint, we know who we want to be and we know who fits here. If that puts us at an artificial ceiling, then so be it. But we shouldn’t create one on our own, and maybe I slipped in creating an artificial ceiling that there shouldn’t have been one.
“So we’ve taken that away and said, ‘Look, let’s try to have the No. 1 recruiting class in the country,’ but still going with fit and still going with those that we believe will succeed here at Notre Dame. And let it take us where it takes us.”
• Polian made a point to publicly thank his wife during Wednesday’s press conference. He estimated she probably heard his excellence presentation, the pitch Notre Dame crafted for online presentations to recruits, roughly 80 times from March through the summer.
“Everybody’s families had to adjust. We’d be giving virtual visits and a dog would run through in the background or a child would come running up,” Polian said. “Coach Lea did a lot of these meetings with baby Jack sleeping on his chest.”
• Polian gave credit to Avon, Ind., offensive lineman Blake Fisher, rated as a five-star recruit by Rivals, for keeping Notre Dame’s class connected throughout the process with group messages.
“For example, the job that they did when Prince Kollie was a little bit thrown for a loop there by coach Lea’s departure to Vanderbilt,” Polian said. “The way they kind of revolved around him for a couple days and helped calm him down and be there for him and provide support as he was working through a change there.”
• Polian pointed to linebacker Kahanu Kia, cornerback JoJo Johnson, offensive lineman Joe Alt and defensive end Devin Aupiu as players he thought were under-recruited by other schools. Kia, from Kaneohe, Hawaii, was one of the recruits that required extra legwork to verify his physical traits.
“The evaluation off of the junior film was good and we liked him,” Polian said. “but Kahanu put a video out on his own outlets of him doing a workout in his yard by streetlight. We’re watching this guy move, and then we’re talking to our friends back in Punahou (School) and saying, ‘Measure him for me. Can you tell me? I want to know exactly how tall he is. Exactly what’s he weigh right now?’”