Notre Dame casting wide net for defensive tackle recruits

TYLER JAMES
South Bend Tribune

Notre Dame’s need for defensive tackles in the 2014 recruiting class became more important last week when Matt Dickerson made a family decision to flip his commitment from the Irish to UCLA.

Now with only three weeks left until National Signing Day, the Notre Dame coaching staff has had to regroup and cast a wider net for prospects. New offers started being reported in the days following Dickerson’s switch. Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday on Bill King’s On Campus radio show on Sirius XM that he would like to add four players to the current 22-man staff.

So far, three defensive tackles have reported offers from the Irish: Vanderbilt commit Michael Sawyers, former Texas commit Trey Lealaimatafao and uncommitted Daniel Cage.

The Notre Dame staff will turn up the heat on those three recruits, and likely more, once the NCAA dead period ends and the contact period begins on Thursday. With such little time left before signing day, the biggest task will be bringing the newly-targeted prospects on campus for visits.

For Sawyers, the competition for his commitment continues to expand following the departure of head coach James Franklin to Penn State. The 6-foot-2, 305-pound prospect from Nashville, Tenn., received a number of new offers in the past week including UCLA, South Carolina, Syracuse and Oregon.

With all five of his official visits still available, January appears to be filling up for Sawyers. He has expressed plans to visit Georgia Tech on the 17th, Ole Miss on the 24th and Tennessee on the 31st. Sawyers has yet to withdraw his commitment from Vanderbilt.

CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming described Sawyers as a strong kid with long arms.

“I saw him play three years in a row now,” Lemming said. “He's a talented kid. He can play end and tackle. I like the fact that he has a relentless style. Not a great athlete, but a good, solid ballplayer.”

Rivals ranks Sawyers as the No. 17 defensive tackle in the country. 247Sports slates him at No. 24 for the position. Both rate him as a four-star recruit.

The visit list might be considerably shorter for Lealaimatafao. The 6-0, 301-pound prospect from San Antonio used official visits to four schools in 2013 — UCLA, Arizona State, Ole Miss and Texas — which leaves him with only one official visit remaining. Notre Dame, Oregon and LSU appear to be the three schools fighting for his last official visit. Any other trips would have to be unofficial visits and funded by Lealaimatafao.

"He's a physical kid — an athletic 300-pounder,” Lemming said. “He's a good Buddha-like defensive tackle. Not a real pass rusher, but a good all-around defensive tackle."

Rivals ranks Lealaimatafao as the No. 25 defensive tackle. 247Sports slates him at No. 33 for the position. Both rate him as a three-star recruit.

Cage, from Cincinnati, has a busy January ahead of himself as well. The 6-3, 290-pound Cage told Rivals.com he plans to visit Louisville, Michigan State and Missouri the last three weekends before signing day.

Lemming said Cage might end up being the best of the three defensive tackles the Irish recently offered.

“Daniel Cage is a guy that can really impress you,” Lemming said. “He has as much or more potential as any of the other guys they're going after. He's a solidly built guy with good size. He's a competitive player with a relentless style of play.”

Rivals ranks Cage as the No. 27 defensive tackle. 247Sports slates him as at No. 44 for the position. Both rate him as a three-star recruit.

Defensive tackle Thomas Holley remains a target for the Irish staff, who will need to impress him with new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. Holley, who remains committed to Penn State, previously told the Tribune that defensive line coach Larry Johnson’s status in State College would play a big role in his final decision.

Hours after the first report of Johnson’s departure from Penn State was confirmed by PennLive.com on Tuesday, Sports Illustrated reported Johnson would join Urban Meyer’s staff at Ohio State.

Florida, which was considered to have finished second for Holley, will likely be a contender once again if Holley opens up his recruitment. The 6-4, 303-pound prospect from Brooklyn, N.Y. is a top-three defensive tackle according to both Rivals and 247Sports.

Lemming listed two other defensive tackles — Marcus Griffin and Poona Ford — that he thought the Irish should pursue with offers.

Griffin, a 6-2, 296-pound prospect from Bellevue, Wash., was once committed to Washington State. Earlier this week, Griffin told the Tribune that Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston had recently reached out to him.

Rivals ranks Griffin as the No. 22 defensive tackle. 247Sports slates him at No. 53 for the position. California and Mississippi State have emerged as top contenders for Griffin.

Lemming said Ford, who was committed to Louisville before head coach Charlie Strong’s departure for Texas, is probably the best of the group. Some of the same schools pursuing Sawyers and Lealaimatafao — Oregon, Texas and Missouri — are working to earn Ford’s commitment. 247Sports slates Ford as the No. 19 defensive tackle. Rivals ranks him at No. 33 for the position.

Irish out for Schultz

Tight end Dalton Schultz, who visited Notre Dame in December, said on Tuesday night that he’s no longer considering the Irish.

The 6-6, 235-pound prospect from South Jordan, Utah, ranked as one of the top four tight ends according to the four major recruiting networks. The Irish already have two tight ends committed to the 2014 class — Nic Weishar and Tyler Luatua — but Schultz’s talent would have been welcomed with the loss of Alex Welch and Troy Niklas this offseason. Schultz is expected to end up at Stanford or Utah.

Final rankings

ESPN and 247Sports issued their final rankings of the 2014 class on Tuesday. ESPN ranked the top 300 recruits while 247Sports fittingly named its top 247 prospects.

Ten Notre Dame commits made ESPN’s list, including four in the top 100: linebacker Nyles Morgan (72), offensive lineman Alex Bars (76), wide receiver Corey Holmes (94), defensive end Andrew Trumbetti (97), tight end Tyler Luatua (107), cornerback Nick Watkins (123), offensive lineman Quenton Nelson (175), linebacker Greer Martini (255), tight end Nic Weishar (274), and wide receiver Justin Brent (280).

Eight Irish pledges made the 247Sports list, also with four in the top 100: Brent (67), Nelson (74), Trumbetti (85), Morgan (97), Bars (154), quarterback DeShone Kizer (161), defensive end Jay Hayes (192), and Weishar (212).

Nelson was the only Notre Dame commit on the list to see his 247Sports ranking rise.

TJames1@SBTinfo.com 574-235-6214 Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Tight end recruit Dalton Schultz, who is visiting Notre Dame this weekend. Courtesy of Deseret News