Mike Farrell echoed the prevailing sentiment among analysts regarding Notre Dame's wide receiver recruiting.
“They have had a real lack of explosiveness on the inside in the slot position,” said Farrell, national recruiting director for Rivals. “I think that’s kind of hurt the balance of the offense.”
The Irish have signed and developed plenty of talented outside wide receivers under head coach Brian Kelly. Six of those players have been selected in the NFL Draft: Michael Floyd, T.J. Jones, Equanimeous St. Brown, Will Fuller, Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool.
From top option Kevin Austin Jr. to five-star freshman Jordan Johnson, Notre Dame continues to add talent and depth on the perimeter. But in the slot? Not so much.
No slot receiver under Kelly has recorded at least 50 catches or 575 receiving yards in a season. Walk-on Chris Finke came the closest to those marks in 2018, recording 49 receptions for 571 yards and two touchdowns.
In the 2021 recruiting class, Notre Dame is expected to sign just one receiver who projects at the slot position: Lorenzo Styles Jr. The four-star product of Pickerington (Ohio) Central might just be what the Irish need.
Styles will bring rare recruiting pedigree to Notre Dame. If his spot holds, Styles will be the fourth-highest ranked receiver the Irish have signed since Rivals started rating recruits in 2002. Duval Kamara (No. 34 in 2007), Michael Floyd (No. 27 in 2008) and Jordan Johnson (No. 28 in 2020) finished their recruiting cycles ranked higher overall.
Rivals pegs Styles as its No. 6 receiver and No. 41 overall player in the class. 247Sports slates Styles as its No. 18 receiver and No. 125 overall player. Kamara and Floyd were mostly outside receivers at Notre Dame. Johnson also has been playing on the outside.
So Styles is in line to be the highest-ranked slot receiver the Irish have signed, per Rivals.
Tom Lemming, a recruiting analyst for CBS Sports Network, said Notre Dame needs speedy playmakers like Rocket Ismail and Will Fuller to help close the gap with elite programs like Clemson and Alabama.
“One that can create in the open space, catch the ball, run with it and cause a lot of havoc with the defense,” Lemming said. “A kid like that can stretch the defense, open things up for the tight ends and the running backs who are coming out of the backfield to catch passes. They’ve had these big, strong guys like Chase Claypool.
“Those guys are good, but none of them are really going to run away from the defense. You can keep these big, strong guys and add a Will Fuller (type).”
Maybe Styles could fit that mold. Styles verbally committing to Notre Dame in October 2019 carried significance for other reasons, too. The Irish pulled off a rare recruiting feat, poaching the Ohio State legacy from the Columbus area. He’s the son of Lorenzo Styles Sr., who played linebacker for Ohio State before being selected in the third round of the 1995 NFL Draft.
With cornerback and receiver being two of Notre Dame’s biggest position needs, Styles offers flexibility. He's a two-way player who shows athleticism and toughness at cornerback. He will start his career at slot receiver but appears to be talented enough to contribute on defense.
Allen Trieu, Midwest recruiting analyst for 247Sports, said he prefers Styles on offense. To Trieu, impressive straight-line speed is not the only trait that makes Styles different. Styles clocked a 4.47 40-yard dash early in his high school career and a 10.83 100-meter dash time.
What Styles could be for the Irish is something they have lacked at slot receiver.
“He shows the ability to make people miss,” Trieu said. “He shows the ability to stay balanced and break tackles. Even on the defensive side of the ball, some of the stuff that he does as a defensive back, I think it’s pretty clear that he has agility and lateral ability. He is not just a track guy who is playing football. He’s a football player who happens to be fast on the track.”
Size and physicality are the biggest obstacles that would keep Styles from seeing the field early and developing into a five-star player, Farrell said.
What Farrell didn’t know was how Styles has grown physically since Rivals last evaluated him in person. Styles said he comes in at 6-foot-1, 188 pounds. Rivals lists him at 6-1, 170.
“A lot of these guys Kelly has gotten in the past have been physically ready but not polished,” Farrell said. “He’s kind of the opposite. He’s polished but not physically ready. And if he’s at 188, that’s a different story than when we saw him last.”
Evaluation opportunities have been few and far between for recruiting analysts. The coronavirus pandemic wiped out plenty of notable camps like The Opening Finals and Rivals’ Five-Star Challenge. Styles would have likely competed at both camps in hopes to improve his recruiting rankings.
Tight end Michael Mayer (247Sports) and Johnson (Rivals) were elevated to five-star status late in the last recruiting cycle before coming to Notre Dame after impressing at recruiting camps. Styles won’t have that opportunity.
Trieu also remembers Boykin and Claypool receiving plenty of exposure as former four-star recruits. Not Styles. He has not been overly active on the camp circuit since his freshman year. This offseason was his chance to prove himself in that setting. And to show his physical development that Farrell and others have not seen in person.
“In a different year, maybe he goes to The Opening and goes against some of these top guys in the country,” Trieu said. “I think that’s probably the missing piece is seeing how he performs against that level of competition.”
Watch Styles recently, and his play seems to contradict the perception about his physical limitations.
With just seven catches for 133 yards and a touchdown, Styles’ numbers through seven games this season are not exceptional. Pickerington Central’s run-heavy offense does not provide Styles many looks in the passing game, though. And the Lions (7-0) have won each game by at least 25 points.
Jay Sharrett, Pickerington Central’s head football coach, said Styles is his best blocking receiver and he translates that physicality to defense.
“He plays corner,” Sharrett said, “but he plays corner like he’s a safety. He is a very, very good tackler. He does not miss tackles. He’s a good tackler because he uses his shoulder pads and drives them into the ball carrier.
“He doesn’t tolerate the contact part of it. He enjoys that part of it.”
Barton Simmons, director of scouting for 247Sports, said he evaluates Styles as more of an athlete with a realistic chance of playing defense.
“A lot of those traits, his ball skills,” Simmons said, “that would all really serve him well on the defensive side of the ball. I think he’s a really good prospect as an offensive player. But I definitely see a guy like that as just a really high-ceiling guy if you wanted to take a swing on him on the defensive side.”
Expect Styles to play and develop as a receiver. But if cornerback becomes a pressing position need, Notre Dame and Styles appear to be open to the idea of him flipping to defense.
Should Styles stay at receiver, his defensive background could help him remove doubts about his build and strength.
“I like it because they do learn a lot as a wide receiver playing cornerback,” Farrell said. “They learn to recognize routes. They learn to see people who sell their routes and don’t sell their routes. They do have to tackle and fight. There is a lot of hand fighting at the point of attack when the ball is in the air.
“That is the type of stuff that defensive backs who also play wide receiver have the advantage over someone who just specializes at wide receiver.”
Production has been lacking at wide receiver for Notre Dame this season, especially in the slot.
Through three games, slot receivers Avery Davis and Lawrence Keys III have combined for just four catches for 43 yards and a touchdown. They will look to improve those numbers when the No. 4 Irish (3-0) host Louisville (1-3) on Saturday (2:30 p.m. EDT on NBC).
“If I put in the work,” Styles said, “I definitely think it’s possible for me to play in year one.”
In January, Styles plans to enroll a semester early at Notre Dame and will presumably compete with Davis, Keys and current true freshman Xavier Watts. He focused on bulking up in the offseason and said he gained eight pounds.
Styles said he feels a difference this season and will hope to carry that with him to Notre Dame.
“I can get to my points a lot easier,” Styles said. “Just being stronger, I don’t have to just speed by someone or be quicker. I can get to the spot based on strength and the speed I put together. I don’t have to be a one-trick pony.”
Styles has compiled a 46-5 record and two state championships as a four-year starter. Sharrett said Styles is on the field for more than 100 plays every game because he starts on offense, defense and special teams.
“He is the only junior in my coaching career who I have ever named captain,” said Sharrett, who is coaching season No. 18 for the Tigers. “Our captains are always seniors. But when you have a junior coming in who had already played almost 30 games before the first snap of his junior year — he blended very well with our captains last year.
“No animosity. They saw him at that level also. His captainship with the other senior captains led us to the state championship game last year.”
Three wins separate Styles from a third state title. Then he will aim to provide the Irish what they have been missing.
“He does bring that speed to the table, which I think can help him get on the field immediately,” Trieu said. “And I think he’s also going to step on the campus pretty physically ready. You are not looking at a 160-pound kid here. You are looking at a kid who is going to be physically ready to compete at that level.
“And he has also played Ohio high school football, which is good football. So he’s not going to be too shell-shocked by anything.
“So I wouldn’t be surprised if he was a guy who could at least push for some time early in his career.”