Irish commit Alexander Ehrensberger looking to change European perception

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

For a moment, Alexander Ehrensberger was an airplane. In a 2015 game for Fryeburg (Maine) Academy, Ehrensberger caught a touchdown before extending his arms and soaring around the end zone in celebration.

He didn’t know any better.

“That’s illegal in high school football,” said David Turner, his former head coach. “But he didn’t know. They didn’t throw a flag. We were all like, ‘Oh no, we are going to get a flag.’”

Now committed to Notre Dame’s 2020 class, Ehrensberger’s innocent former self is long gone.

The Düsseldorf, Germany native is 6-foot-7, 238 pounds. Ehrensberger tacked on 26 pounds of muscle across six months last year and projects as a strong-side defensive end.

When he came to the states for a six-month sabbatical, Ehrensberger listed himself as a receiver and defensive back, and Turner estimates he was then 6-5, 190.

“When he came here, right away, he was interested in football,” Turner said. “We would come out to practice, and he would have pass plays written down on a piece of paper. As we were running through them, he would look and make sure he was getting things right.”

Ehrensberger had an uphill climb. Eight years ago, he had no knowledge of the sport. His football debut came via a local youth league in 2013. Ehrensberger has developed into Germany’s No. 1 prospect on 247Sports, which rates him a three-star and slates him as the No. 55 strong-side defensive end and No. 990 overall. Ehrensberger recorded 33 tackles, 11 sacks, five forced fumbles and four blocked kicks for Theodor-Fliedner-Gymnasium last season.

PPI Recruits, a company that trains and advertises international prospects, helped mold Ehrensberger. He began working with the company’s founder, Brandon Collier, a former NFL player. Since starting PPI two years ago, Collier has churned out 37 Division I players, 10 to Power Five conference teams.

“He’s the hardest working kid that I’ve come into contact with since I’ve been here,” Collier said. “In my eyes, he went from an FCS kid, to a MAC level kid, to a Group of Five kid and then all the way to Notre Dame right now. He just kept getting better.”

Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston visited Germany this week and met with Ehrensberger and Collier. He watched the former work out at his high school on Wednesday. Elston also looked at a few other European recruits, including 2019 defensive tackle Joseph Appiah Darkwa.

Darkwa garnered an ND offer but did not announce it publicly, Collier said. The Irish emerged late in the process. Initially a 2020 recruit, Darkwa reclassified and committed to Penn State on Friday.

“If he ended up being 2020, I think Notre Dame would have had a realistic shot at landing him,” Collier said.

Ehrensberger became the fourth verbal pledge in ND’s 2020 class, joining quarterback Drew Pyne and tight ends Kevin Bauman and Michael Mayer. Rivals ranks the class No. 11 nationally, while 247Sports tabs it at No. 12.

“There were a lot of funny reactions,” said Ehrensberger about his announcement. “Someone asked me, ‘OK, what does this mean now? Are you going there?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s what a commitment means. You decide to go there.’”

There’s a path in which Ehrensberger joins ND’s 2019 class. He attended St.-Ursula-Gymnasium for academics and graduated in August of 2018. Ehrensberger likely won’t reclassify like Darkwa, though, and he hopes to join the Irish in January of 2020. Should he stick to the plan, Ehrensberger would play his final season in Germany this fall, he said.

247Sports and Rivals list ND and Florida International as Ehrensberger’s Division I offers. He made his commitment decision public Thursday night on Twitter.

Around 15 Power Five schools offered Ehrensberger, however. He also verbally pledged to the Irish in late December of 2018, Collier said. Why did he keep both under wraps? Broadcasting his recruitment didn’t seem appropriate. To Ehrensberger, his Nov. 20, 2018 visit to ND’s campus left more than an impression.

Visits to Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State that same month weren’t the same.

“I just felt a different vibe than I did at other schools,” Ehrensberger said. “It was a different feeling, being on campus. It felt like home.”

Ehrensberger understands there will be doubts about his ability to compete at the college level. He's heard the questions. Was his German competition up to standard? How will he translate?

“People just think German football isn’t (good) enough,” Ehrensberger said. “People say you can’t go to big schools like Notre Dame, Power Five schools. Obviously, I proved them wrong. Football is bigger in Germany than people think. Players have better skills than people think.”

“That’s the perception, that the competition is just so horrible,” Collier said. “They can’t see on film if the kids can play or not. That’s something I hope in the next year gets wiped away, because like I said, go down to parts of Indiana, there’s some bad football in a lot of these states.

“Another thing is, they throw out the word raw a lot. It does not matter how good a kid could be. They are always raw just because they are European. That’s one of my biggest pet peeves. I hate to hear it.”

Special teams coordinator Brian Polian established ND’s pipeline to Hawaii, recruiting Manti Te’o, Robby Toma and now 2019 signee Marist Liufau. If Ehrensberger thrives, maybe the Irish will install a similar infrastructure across Europe.

“They are getting a long, high-motor, athletic kid that’s never going to give up and stop,” Collier said. “He’s very tough. He will be a leader from day one in the locker room. When he goes into the weight room, he’s going to be the first one there and the last one out. Notre Dame is getting a future captain of that team with the qualities he brings.”

Düsseldorf, Germany native Alexander Ehrensberger, a strong-side defensive end, became the fourth player to commit to Notre Dame's 2020 class.