Army game features top Notre Dame commits, targets

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Five U.S. Army All-Americans have made verbal commitments to Notre Dame. By signing day, that number could easily grow to six.

The next opportunity to reach that number will come during Saturday’s Army Bowl when defensive back Ykili Ross announces his college choice between four finalists: Notre Dame, USC, Oregon and Arizona State. His commitment will come during NBC’s live telecast from San Antonio’s Alamodome. Kickoff for the annual all-star game featuring the nation’s top high school seniors is set for 1 p.m. ET.

However, the decision for Ross doesn’t appear to be headed in the favor of the Irish. Ross, who will wear No. 87 while playing wide receiver on the West team, is projected to pick USC.

"It would be shocking if he didn't choose the Trojans,” said 247Sports director of recruiting Steve Wiltfong.

More likely to end up wearing Notre Dame’s blue and gold is a top prospect committed elsewhere. UCLA tight end commit Alize Jones visited South Bend in December and is giving the Irish serious consideration. Notre Dame’s coaching staff has successfully pitched having a better path to the NFL for tight ends.

“I really think that Alize wants to go to a place that's proven in developing tight ends and getting him to the next level,” Wiltfong said. “Nobody has proved that more than Notre Dame over the last decade or so. At the same time, he really likes UCLA and he's giving them a shot. He's committed to UCLA, but he needs UCLA to prove to him that they're going to develop him as a tight end in all facets of the game."

Jones, a four-star recruit and the nation’s top tight end according to 247Sports, said he plans to visit UCLA later in January and make a final decision before signing day. Jones finished his senior season at Las Vegas Bishop Gorman, where he teamed with Irish safety commit Nicco Fertitta, with 41 catches for 930 yards and 13 touchdowns.

“I'm still in the middle of what I want to do,” Jones said via phone this week. “Notre Dame has shown me everything I needed to see from the education standpoint to the offense to where I'll be living and the guys I'll be around. They showed me everything. I'm pretty comfortable with them.”

“Right now, I want to be able to see what UCLA has to bring to the table. I haven't really sat down with them in the film room before. They haven't shown me the route trees I'll be running and some of the plays. Every time I've gone out there, it's just been bonding with the coaches. I haven't really sat down and seen what I'll be doing."

Jones, wearing No. 8 on the West squad, and Ross are joined by five Notre Dame commits and another top target in San Antonio.

• LB commit Josh Barajas (No. 44, West): The in-state linebacker has lived up to the billing as one of Notre Dame’s top commits. He could challenge for playing time next season with a replenished linebacker corps.

“He's certainly come down here and proved that,” Wiltfong said. “He's playing with a great group of linebackers on the west team. He is a striker of a tackler. When he's near the ball carrier, he explodes to the ball carrier. He is one of the more physically impressive kids here in San Antonio. He's a guy that I think has a really good shot to make some kind of impact for Notre Dame next year.”

• LB commit Asmar Bilal (No. 22, West): A versatile athlete, Bilal played linebacker and safety as a senior at Indianapolis Ben Davis. It’s his ability to run that allowed him to make plays at the second level and in the secondary.

“He has the ability to quickly get out in the flats and take plays away from the opposition,” Wiltfong said. “Asmar is going to have to develop physically, but he has the frame to do so. Anyone that can run has a chance to play. But I think Asmar is one of those guys that will really benefit from Notre Dame's strength and conditioning program, adding meat to his bones. He's just a shade over 200 pounds right now, but he has the frame to be 225-230.”

• S commit Nicco Fertitta (No. 4, West): A recently broken hand hasn’t prevented Fertitta from competing as an Army All-American. He had surgery following his season and is playing this week with a cast on his left hand.

“He was a playmaker for Las Vegas Bishop Gorman and that's carried over to the Army Bowl,” Wiltfong said. “He's a guy that's gotten his hands on the football several times down here. Everyone knows that he's undersized (5-10). That's just a given at this point. Nicco has a knack to make plays and he's done that a couple times down here. He's certainly not out of place in this environment."

• OL commit Tristen Hoge (No. 66, West): After a rough start on Monday, Hoge held up against some of the best, and biggest, defensive linemen in the country throughout the week.

“He hasn't done one-on-ones in a couple months and he walks out onto the practice field and he has Khalil McKenzie and Jacob Daniel lined up across from him,” Wiltfong said. “It takes a day to get your feet under you when you're playing against guys like that. McKenzie weighed in at 350 and Daniel is a healthy 300-plus himself. Tristen is nowhere near a finished product physically but he's still the nation's No. 1 center. From a straight technique and athleticism standpoint, he's special. He gave McKenzie and Daniel the same hell they gave him the day before."

• OL commit Jerry Tillery (No. 76, West): Tillery fully enjoyed a Notre Dame victory over his home-state LSU program in the Music City Bowl. The possibility of playing defensive line at Notre Dame has developed in the last few months, but Tillery is playing offensive line in San Antonio.

"I thought he was one of the best offensive tackles on the West team,” Wiltfong said. “He's a guy that's 6-foot-6 and over 300 pounds and looks skinny right now. There's a lot of potential there for Jerry. He did a good job against some of those dominant defensive ends on the West team.”

• RB target Jordan Cronkrite (No. 12, East): The Irish uncovered a legitimate option at running back in Cronkrite as it searched for another talented backfield weapon. But with Cronkrite not planning to decide soon, the Irish might be stuck in a waiting game with him.

“I think Notre Dame's the team to beat, but it's close,” Wiltfong said. “There's no question West Virginia is absolutely right there for Jordan. West Virginia has done a great job recruiting Jordan, and they were one of the first schools to really come in on him. Notre Dame is definitely a personality fit for Jordan. Talking to his coach and people close to him, Notre Dame's right there at the top of his list right now.”

Another Irish target at running back, Ronald Jones, picked USC over ND on Friday.

tjames@ndinsider.com

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Incoming Notre Dame tight end Alize Jones is looking to make an immediate impact. (Photo courtesy of Las Vegas Sun)