Analysis: Examining Notre Dame's decision to pass on DE recruit Malik Vann

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

The defensive end target most likely to commit to Notre Dame’s 2018 recruiting class no longer has the Irish as an option.

Last week, four-star recruit Malik Vann talked to Notre Dame defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Mike Elston. In that conversation, Vann learned that he was no longer a priority for the Irish.

“He basically told me they were going to start focusing more on DBs,” Vann said on Tuesday. “The spot they were recruiting me for was filled. At least he told me up front and directly before I committed.”

Last Thursday night, the night Vann said he spoke with Elston, Vann tweeted “Back to square one” with a shrugging emoji.

Committing to Notre Dame had seemed a possible, if not probable, outcome for Vann in recent months. At Under Armour’s Future 50 event in late December, Vann named Notre Dame as the leader in his recruitment. He even sported a Notre Dame hoodie before the competition.

Right after wide receiver Braden Lenzy committed to Notre Dame last week, he started the Twitter hashtag #VannToSouthBend in order to show the defensive end target some love.

But as Notre Dame looks to transform its personnel to fit into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme, Vann has become the latest, and most prominent, example of a player left without a spot.

Similar decisions were made at the end of the 2017 recruiting cycle. Linebackers Antjuan Simmons and Ellis Brooks had shown a high interest in visiting Notre Dame in January, but the Irish decided a linebacker in their mold wasn’t needed to finish the class.

Both Simmons and Brooks, four-star recruits according to Rivals, are talented players and will have the chance to succeed at Michigan State and Penn State, respectively. Yet the decision made sense on paper with the Irish now featuring a 4-2-5 defense and linebackers David Adams and Drew White already in the class.

Notre Dame’s decision on Vann will likely draw even more questions. Not only is he a highly ranked player with an interest in Notre Dame, but he plays defensive end, a perceived position of weakness for the Irish with no defensive linemen on the returning roster recording a sack in 2016.

There has been little to doubt about Notre Dame’s recruiting efforts in the 2018 class as it set an unprecedented pace to 11 commitments before the end of February. The latest development on the defensive line qualifies as a gamble, but justifiable with a closer examination.

Numbers game

Notre Dame won’t have a ton of wiggle room in the 2018 recruiting class. By the time the Irish take the field in the fall, only eight players on the roster will be in their final year of eligibility.

Some natural attrition will occur, but it’s still hard to imagine Notre Dame being able to find room for more than 20 players in the 2018 class.

The decisions required to divide up those scholarships lead to situations like Vann’s. Heading into the 2018 season, Notre Dame should have 16 returning players on the defensive line and 16 returning players at defensive back.

But with Elko’s 4-2-5 defense, more defensive backs (5) are required on the field than defensive linemen (4). That will likely be reflected in Notre Dame’s 2018 class, which is why Vann mentioned the Irish focusing on defensive backs. When asked on signing day about areas of need in the 2018 class, head coach Brian Kelly, Elko and Elston all mentioned defensive back.

The comments came in the wake of the Irish signing five defensive linemen (three defensive ends and two defensive tackles) and three defensive backs (all safeties) in the 2017 class. The late additions of defensive end Kofi Wardlow and versatile lineman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa had to change the calculations. As Elko has had more time to evaluate the current roster in the last month, the priority on defensive back has become even more evident.

With two commitments on the defensive line and two commitments in the secondary, the simple math dictates more scholarships left available for defensive backs than defensive ends.

Find the elite

Notre Dame’s decision to pass on Vann doesn’t mean the Irish are finished at defensive end. The recent action on the recruiting trail shows otherwise. Seven potential pass rushers reported new offers from the Irish in February.

So what does that say about Vann? Clearly the Irish feel like they can find defensive linemen in the 2018 class that can do things he can’t. Notre Dame wants to find players who can make a difference in creating pressure.

Vann’s recruiting profile is fascinating. At 249 pounds and a shade under 6-foot-2, Vann lacks the ideal size for a defensive end and isn’t quite thick enough to play defensive tackle. He’s a classic ‘‘tweener’’ on the defensive line.

The same could be said about Irish defensive end commit Justin Ademilola. Yet the 6-2, 243-pound recruit was an early priority for Notre Dame despite being tagged as a three-star prospect by most recruiting services.

Both Rivals and 247Sports peg Vann as a strongside defensive end, an indicator that he may lack the athleticism and explosiveness required to play weakside defensive end. But both still rate him as a four-star recruit. Rivals ranks him No. 11 at the position. 247Sports slates him 13th.

Vann’s offer list includes the likes of Florida State, Michigan State and Oklahoma. Vann visited Alabama last weekend.

However, Alabama is notoriously aggressive with scholarship offers. BamaOnLine, the 247Sports network site covering Alabama, lists 174 scholarship offers already in the 2018 class from the Crimson Tide. Notre Dame only recently hit the 100 mark.

There is one notable school not on Vann’s offer list: Ohio State. To date, the in-state powerhouse has passed on the Fairfield (Ohio) High product.

Now that Notre Dame has expressed a desire to be even pickier in defensive end recruiting, who have the Irish been targeting? The list of recent offers include tall players with explosive traits, some of whom have played other positions in high school including linebacker and tight end.

Four-star recruit Tyreke Smith added a Notre Dame offer back in November, but the Irish have continued to push for the 6-4, 260-pound product of Cleveland Heights High.

Notre Dame offered five-star Penn State commit Micah Parsons not long after signing day. Thomas Booker, Cameron Latu, and Andrew Chatfield, all four-star recruits ranked in the top 200 overall by Rivals, reported Irish offers in the last month.

Fairly or unfairly, whoever lands in Notre Dame’s 2018 class at defensive end will be compared with Vann. The college careers of each player will be a reflection on Notre Dame’s current coaching staff’s ability to identify needs and evaluate talent.

Have the Irish passed on a seemingly sure thing for a better unknown thing? Decisions like these could dictate the legacies of the current Notre Dame coaching staff.

tjames@ndinsider.com | 574-235-6214 | Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Notre Dame has decided to other defensive ends than previous four-star target Malik Vann. (Photo courtesy of Rivals)

The following seven defensive end recruits in the 2018 class reported Notre Dame offers in February.

• Micah Parsons, 6-3, 225; Harrisburg (Pa.) Central Dauphin.

Rivals: Five stars, No. 1 WDE. | 247Sports: Five stars, No. 1 WDE.

• Thomas Booker, 6-4, 250; Baltimore Gilman.

Rivals: Four stars, No. 8 SDE. | 247Sports: Four stars, No. 17 WDE.

• Andrew Chatfield, 6-3, 220; Plantation (Fla.) American Heritage.

247Sports: Four stars, No. 14 WDE. | Rivals: Four stars, No. 9 OLB.

• Cameron Latu, 6-5, 235; Salt Lake City (Utah) Olympus.

Rivals: Four stars, No. 4 WDE. | 247Sports: Three stars, No. 15 WDE.

• Joseph Ossai, 6-4, 217; Conroe (Texas) Oak Ridge.

247Sports: Four stars, No. 7 WDE. | Rivals: Three stars, No. 14 WDE.

• Abdul-Malik McClain, 6-4, 230; San Juan Capistrano (Calif.) JSerra Catholic.

247Sports: Three stars, No. 36 WDE. | Rivals: Three stars.

• Daniel Carson, 6-5, 260; Independence (Mo.) William Chrisman.

Rivals: Three stars, No. 17 strongside defensive. | 247Sports: N/A.