Speed remains a high priority as Notre Dame offers a scholarship to WR Kaden Saunders

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

As Notre Dame scours for recruits in the 2021 class and beyond, one attribute remains a high priority on offense: speed.

That message became clear to Westerville (Ohio) South’s Kaden Saunders during his Irish junior day experience on Saturday. As the only wide receiver recruit visiting South Bend, Saunders spent plenty of one-on-one time with position coach DelVaughn Alexander and left with a scholarship offer.

“(Alexander) told me they are trying to add more speed in the receiver room,” Saunders told the Tribune. “He said they are going to try to do more of (the jet sweeps). They would see me in more of that role, and then going to the outside whenever I would need to and taking the top off (the defense).

“Lorenzo (Styles) and me, since we are the fast guys, he said you just have to get the ball in the playmakers’ hands and let them make plays.”

Styles, a 2021 receiver commit, running back signee Chris Tyree and junior-to-be wide receiver Braden Lenzy are a few of the more notable speedsters the Irish have recently landed. The Irish coveting speed continues to be reflected in the recruits they are pursuing.

The only three receivers out of the 2022 class to garner a Notre Dame offer — Chicago St. Rita’s Kaleb Brown, La Grange Park (Ill.) Nazareth Academy’s Tyler Morris and now Saunders — are comparable with their smaller size and vaunted speed.

Saunders’ indoor 60-meter dash time of 7.13 seconds as a freshman launched his recruitment nationally. Michigan State, Michigan, Penn State and West Virginia were among schools to then offer him.

The 5-foot-11, 175-pound Saunders qualified for the state finals the past two years and estimates his 40-yard dash falls between 4.4 and 4.5 seconds. He clocked a 10.9 100-meter dash in the eighth grade, but a hamstring injury last spring prevented him from improving that time at competitions. Saunders believes he’ll record a 10.6 this outdoor track season — a time considered blazing not just for a sophomore.

“He has put on almost 20 pounds between his freshman year and now, and he hasn’t lost any speed,” said Matthew Christ, Saunders’ head football coach at Westerville South. “I think he gets that he has to get bigger and stronger to compete at that level, the best level there is in college football.

“In terms of being an explosive playmaker, I think that’s exactly what he’s going to correspond to at the next level.”

247Sports has only ranked the top 101 overall players in the 2022 class and excluded Saunders from that group. Rivals has yet to release its 2022 player rankings.

As a lifelong Notre Dame fan, Christ influenced Saunders to check out the Irish football program last spring. Saunders then visited South Bend with Christ last June before attending Notre Dame’s Oct. 12 home game against USC.

Those were arguably Notre Dame’s biggest recruiting weekends of 2019, so Saunders spent most of his time there in the shadows. Only about 20 recruits were present at junior day, including newly committed safety Justin Walters (2021) and two targets in defensive end David Abiara (2021) and safety Braelon Allen (2022). Defensive end Colin Mobley (2021) also landed an offer.

Saunders, joined by his dad and uncle, spent one-on-one time with Alexander, head coach Brian Kelly and others at Saturday’s junior day. Alexander dissected film with Saunders, giving him pointers on how to improve. Kelly commended Saunders for his work as a student before offering him.

When news surfaced that Saunders received the offer, Irish offensive line commit Blake Fisher and Styles, a fellow Ohioan out of Pickerington Central High, contacted him.

“It was definitely different. My dad and I both said that after we left,” Saunders said. “Coach Alexander and I were there together the whole day. He showed me a whole lot of attention. All the other coaches did as well. It was a great experience.”

Christ knew Notre Dame would attract Saunders because academics ranks as his highest priority. The highlight of junior day, Saunders said, was meeting Adam Sargent, Notre Dame’s associate director of academic services for student-athletes and academic counselor for football.

“We were really surprised by how truthful he was — not trying to sell us on Notre Dame or anything like that,” Saunders said of Sargent’s academic presentation. “He was saying that they will graduate you, get your degree and then you’ll have plenty of opportunities after college if you don’t make it to the NFL.

“Hearing that and knowing how great of an academics school they are, that got to my dad, me and definitely my mom from home.”

The Irish have laid the groundwork in garnering Sanders’ interest long before key moments in the 2022 recruiting cycle. Division I football coaches are prohibited from initiating off-campus contact with recruits until Sept. 1 of their junior year. Official visits won’t be permitted until April of 2021.

Saunders will meanwhile accrue more offers, take more visits, compete in more camps and look to shave off his track times. But the Irish identified what they want at an early stage and are in prime position to land Saunders if they push for him.

“It’s hard to explain,” Saunders said, “but as the day went on, I got more and more comfortable with the university and everyone around me.”

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Westerville (Ohio) South's Kaden Saunders, a 2022 wide receiver, reported a Notre Dame scholarship offer on Feb. 1.