Will Notre Dame improve its cornerback recruiting in the 2021 cycle?

Carter Karels | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

Terry Joseph calls it one of the craziest recruiting stories he’s witnessed.

In his lone season as North Carolina’s defensive backs coach, Joseph received a tip from a walk-on quarterback. He suggested that Joseph should look at a long, rangy sophomore safety from his high school, Marist in Atlanta. The safety’s name was Kyle Hamilton.

“So I had some time. I stopped by the school and the coach signed off on him,” Joseph said. “Then you see the kid play and move around and you’re like, ‘Oh my God. How can I keep this from the rest of the world?’”

Had Notre Dame not hired Joseph a few months later in January of 2018, Hamilton might not have landed in South Bend. The Irish did not offer a scholarship to the now 6-foot-4, 210-pound standout until after Joseph arrived. He was considered an afterthought as a three-star prospect at the time.

Joseph’s hand in turning around the Irish safety unit and delivering Hamilton helped earn him a promotion of sorts. Hired as ND’s defensive backs coach, Joseph now goes by the title “defensive pass game coordinator.”

The word around the Guglielmino Athletics Complex is that Joseph’s new role changes the most when it comes to recruiting. His presence will be felt more in cornerback recruiting than before. From talent evaluation to communication, Joseph’s involvement with cornerback recruits is expected to increase.

Cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght needed assistance. Most of ND’s other assistants were able to capitalize on ND’s College Football Football Playoff appearance last December, earning commitments from top targets such as wide receiver Jordan Johnson, left tackle Tosh Baker, running back Chris Tyree and defensive end Jordan Botelho.

Meanwhile, the following 2020 cornerbacks were once considered top Notre Dame targets but committed elsewhere: Christian Gonzalez (Purdue), Jalen Kimber (Georgia), Ryan Watts (Oklahoma), William Nixon (Nebraska) and Clark Phillips III (Ohio State).

A majority of recruiting analysts forecast uncommitted Irish target Dontae Manning to Texas A&M. Manning opened up his recruitment after originally picking Oklahoma. Notre Dame expects two three-star cornerbacks in Ramon Henderson and Collin Gamble to take official visits for its Sept. 28 home game against Virginia.

Lyght settled for commitments from a trio of three-star cornerbacks: Caleb Offord, Clarence Lewis and Landen Bartleson. Of the eight cornerbacks Lyght signed in his other four cycles at Notre Dame, only one, Houston Griffith, was ranked among the top 230 players overall by both Rivals and 247Sports.

The rise of former All-America cornerback Julian Love and current corner Troy Pride Jr. suggests development is not the concern with Lyght. Recruiting misses and gaffes are what presented problems. Like in the 2017 cycle, when Notre Dame did not sign a cornerback after losing commitments from Elijah Hicks (California) and Paulson Adebo (Stanford).

The Irish were in need of a correction.

Going forward, Notre Dame will approach cornerback recruiting with a more collaborative effort from Joseph and other assistants. Landing another Hamilton-like player, this time at cornerback, could help cement ND’s 2021 recruiting class among the nation’s best.

With their new approach and the options on the table, the Irish look capable of obtaining a strong cornerback haul in 2021. Below is a look at a few of those options.

CB Jakailin Johnson, 6-1, 170; St. Louis DeSmet: No 2021 cornerback will likely attract more of a collaborative effort on his Notre Dame recruitment than Johnson, a four-star recruit.

The Irish receive help on a daily basis from their top receiver commit Jordan Johnson, Jakailin’s teammate. Because he’s recruiting Jordan, wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander heads Jakailin’s recruitment.

NCAA rules prohibit Division I coaches from initiating off-campus contact with recruits until Sept. 1 of their junior year. Before Sunday, recruits like Jakailin had to initiate communication himself or through his coach. The most face-to-face conversation Jakailin Johnson’s had with ND’s coaching staff came on his March 23 unofficial visit. He left with a scholarship offer.

Sunday also marks the first day of the evaluation period. Division I coaches will be permitted to visit high schools around the country to watch workouts and practices and gather information on recruits.

So then will Lyght and Joseph increase their communication with Johnson. Defensive line coach Mike Elston will also assist in their efforts since defensive tackle commit Gabriel Rubio lives near St. Louis.

DeSmet head coach Robert Steeples expects Elston, Alexander and the defensive backs coaches to visit as early as next week.

“That’s what Del told me,” Steeples said, “that Jakailin is a priority. He’s obviously one of the best corners in that class. As they are allowed to increase their level of contact, I expect that eventually Del will pass that baton off to the secondary coaches.”

Pinson (Ala.) Valley’s Ga’Quincy McKinstry and Virginia Beach (Va.) Princess Anne’s Tony Grimes are ND’s other top cornerback targets. Both recruits are in line for five-star distinction.

Notre Dame’s chances for McKinstry and Grimes are less likely than Johnson at the moment. However, Joseph is expected to increase his communication with both over the coming months.

247Sports: Four stars, No. 6 CB, No. 83 overall | Rivals: Four stars, No. 5 CB, No. 64 overall

CB Daylan Carnell, 6-2, 190; Indianapolis Ben Davis: Notre Dame’s 2019 success did not pay dividends for 2020 cornerback recruiting. But it might with Carnell.

Carnell was in attendance as the Irish extended their 2018 record to 11-0 with a 42-13 victory over Florida State on Nov. 10. A visit two months later resulted in Carnell receiving a scholarship offer. Carnell watched as Houston Griffith played high-leverage snaps at nickelback as a freshman.

The emergence of freshman safety Kyle Hamilton this preseason camp was also difficult to ignore.

“We are planning on watching Griffith and Hamilton to see how that happens and how that matures,” said David Carnell, Daylan’s father. “What that does is it gives those kids hope that they can play early.”

Joseph’s communication with Carnell is primed to increase over the coming months. The Irish believe Carnell could have the growth potential and size to play safety. How Carnell’s body develops should determine his position. The Irish will throw both Lyght and Joseph at him in the meantime.

“I can tell you this for a fact,” David said. “Daylan specifically said that Lyght has done everything that he would like to do. He was an All-American. He started at Notre Dame. He has been in the NFL. He’s played at the highest level. He’s won a national championship. That’s what is appealing about Todd Lyght to my son.

“He’s been there and done that. That speaks to him a lot.”

247Sports: Three stars, No. 38 ATH, No. 431 overall | Rivals: Four stars, No. 19 ATH, No. 231 overall

CB Ceyair Wright, 6-0, 170; Los Angeles Loyola: The Irish extended scholarship offers to more than 20 cornerbacks out of the 2020 class. With fewer than 10 offers dispensed to 2021 cornerbacks, Notre Dame remains far from closing its book on evaluations.

At the moment, Notre Dame is in its preliminary recruiting stages with Wright more than its other cornerback targets. Considering the attention toward Irish defensive back recruiting, it’s only fitting that even Wright owns the spotlight.

“I’ve been getting a lot of love from Notre Dame fans,” Wright said. “That’s really cool to me. It’s definitely the most out of the other schools I have offers from.”

Which is notable considering the attention Wright received elsewhere this month. He first landed his Irish scholarship offer on Aug. 2. A couple of weeks later, the LA Times broke the news that Wright will play LeBron James’ son in the movie “Space Jam 2.”

Wright auditioned for the role in March. Shooting began early this past summer. The movie is set for release in July of 2021.

“I definitely want to go to a place that has a film program,” Wright said. “When I go up there, I want to see what the community is like and what the people are like.”

Alexander and Lyght are Wright’s main recruiters. If Wright ascends up ND’s recruiting board, Joseph will likely join the effort as well.

247Sports: Four stars, No. 14 CB, No. 179 overall | Rivals: Four stars, No. 10 CB, No. 149 overall

Safeties coach Terry Joseph talks with players during Notre Dame football practice at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday, August 17.
Los Angeles Loyola’s Ceyair Wright, a 2021 cornerback, landed a Notre Dame scholarship offer on Aug. 2, 2019.