Notre Dame finds elite recruits on offense in 2020 class

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame’s on-field response to scoring just three points against Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal last year resulted in the highest scoring season of head coach Brian Kelly’s Notre Dame 10-season tenure.

What the Irish finalized on Wednesday, the first day of college football’s early signing period, should give the program the firepower to sustain offensive success.

Notre Dame’s 2020 class of 18 signees doesn’t rank in the top 10 nationally. As of Wednesday evening, Rivals and 247Sports ranked Notre Dame at No. 15 and No. 14, respectively. But the Irish were limited by having fewer than 20 signees in a class that needed to be small based on scholarship availability.

What Notre Dame’s class does have is star power on offense. Four offensive recruits — wide receiver Jordan Johnson, running back Chris Tyree, tight end Michael Mayer and offensive tackle Tosh Baker — rank among the top 70 recruits in the country, according to both Rivals and 247Sports.

Not since 2008 has Notre Dame signed a recruiting class with four offensive recruits in the Rivals 100. Former Irish head coach Charlie Weis hit that number three times: four in 2006, six in 2007 and five in 2008. But Kelly’s offensive hauls have never been this well-regarded by Rivals.

“Long-standing relationships, success on the field over a long period of time, and then Notre Dame continuing to be who it is and who it’s been has allowed us to put together an elite class,” Kelly said Wednesday.

The Irish recruited so well on offense that no recruits backed out of their verbal commitments following the departure of offensive coordinator Chip Long earlier this month. Long deserves credit for helping reach productive heights in his three seasons running the offense, including 37.1 points per game this season. But in all six losses in the last three seasons, the offense failed to score more than 20 points.

For whatever Notre Dame lacked in offensive firepower in last year’s loss to Clemson or this season’s setbacks to Georgia and Michigan, the 2020 recruiting class may provide an answer. Johnson, Tyree, Mayer, Baker and others could be the missing pieces.

Kelly said the Irish recruiting pitch didn’t focus on what Notre Dame lacked, but provided a blueprint for success for each player.

“When it comes to each one of these guys,” Kelly said, “it’s picturing yourself, ‘Here’s where we are. Here’s where we can go, adding you to the success that we have already had. So painting that picture is certainly important, but we certainly do it from a positive perspective and then let them take it from there.”

Drawing a line from past to future shouldn’t have been too challenging for some offensive players. Johnson could become the next Chase Claypool or Miles Boykin. Mayer could become the next Cole Kmet or Tyler Eifert. Baker could become the next Mike McGlinchey or Ronnie Stanley.

There might not be a comparison for Tyree.

A running back with the speed that the 5-foot-10, 185-pound product of Chester (Va.) Thomas Dale High possesses is a rarity in South Bend. Tyree owns a 40-yard dash time of 4.37 seconds.

Notre Dame’s on-field success, 32-6 in the last three seasons, helped the Irish find footing in Tyree’s recruitment. But Kelly said the Irish coaching staff had to be persistent in showing Tyree why he’d fit in at Notre Dame.

“We did a great job of selling who we are and why it was right for him,” Kelly said, “Great student, AP classes — all those things lined up. If those things don’t line up, he’s not buying. So 32-6 only gets you so far. All those other things have to line up, too.”

Finding speed like Tyree’s became a priority in the 2020 class. There likely wasn’t a doubt in Tyree’s speed at any point, but the Notre Dame staff made a concerted effort to verify accurate times for prospects. Whether it was a 40-yard dash, a 100-meter dash, or a 110-meter hurdle event, the Irish wanted evidence.

Recruiting coordinator Brian Polian said the staff did research on how to equate speed in different track events to football speed. Recruits and high school coaches were asked to provide documented times.

“That would motivate some kids to go out to a camp and post a 40,” Polian said. “Or in some cases run a 40 and have a coach film it and send us the tape. So we had to get outside the box a little bit in terms of we can’t just take anybody’s word for it anymore. We have to find ways to verify the speed.”

Tyree’s speed allowed him to become the highest ranked running back, per Rivals, to sign with Notre Dame since Greg Bryant (No. 19 overall) in the 2013 class. Rivals ranks Tyree as the No. 2 all-purpose back and No. 43 overall in the 2020 class. 247Sports slates him as the No. 1 all-purpose back and No. 61 overall.

Johnson, a 6-2, 185-pound product of St. Louis DeSmet Jesuit, becomes the highest-ranked wide receiver to sign with Notre Dame in the Rivals era (since 2002). Rivals rates Johnson as a five-star recruit, the No. 3 wide receiver and No. 25 overall. Michael Floyd owned the previous Notre Dame high at No. 27 overall in 2008. 247Sports slates Johnson as the No. 12 wide receiver and No. 63 overall.

The last three wide receivers to sign with Notre Dame and be ranked among the top 122 nationally on both Rivals and 247Sports didn’t exactly meet their lofty projections: Davonte Neal, Justin Brent and Javon McKinley.

With so many styles of offenses and varying quality of quarterback play in high school, wide receiver evaluations can be tough to nail.

“The developmental process there, it’s just huge when you go from high school to college in terms of all the things that are available to you in terms of developing that position,” Kelly said.

“It makes it really difficult to clearly say, other than maybe a few players at the top, top end of that spectrum. A lot of those guys are in that area of developmental.”

Signing top tight ends and offensive tackles hasn’t been a problem for the Irish in recent years. But that doesn’t diminish the importance of Mayer and Baker.

Mayer, a 6-5, 235-pound product of Park Hills (Ky.) Covington Catholic, became the highest ranked tight end on Rivals to sign with Notre Dame since Kyle Rudolph (No. 20 overall) in 2008. Rivals ranks Mayer as the No. 3 tight end and No. 37 overall. 247Sports slates him as the No. 3 tight end and No. 69 overall.

Baker, a 6-7, 275-pound product of Phoenix Pinnacle, will be teammates with the only offensive tackle ranked higher on Rivals than him next season. Current right guard Tommy Kraemer was ranked as the No. 41 overall recruit in the 2016 class. Rivals ranks Baker as the No. 5 offensive tackle and No. 48 overall. 247Sports slates him No. 4 at the position and No. 44 overall.

With almost all of Notre Dame’s 2019 starters returning on offense next season and this impressive crop of 2020 recruits, the open offensive coordinator job should be an attractive one. The progress will be measured Oct. 3 against Wisconsin and Nov. 7 against Clemson.

But Wednesday’s signees will have much longer to live up to the hype.

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Jordan Johnson, left, became the highest-ranked wide receiver on Rivals to sign with Notre Dame since Rivals started ranking players in 2002.