A look at Notre Dame's biggest recruiting storylines this spring

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Rivals’ updated recruiting rankings on Tuesday reaffirmed the staying power of Notre Dame’s vaunted 2021 class to this point.

Five of Notre Dame’s eight verbal commits are ranked among the top 100 overall players: offensive lineman Blake Fisher (20), wide receivers Lorenzo Styles Jr. (37) and Deion Colzie (71), quarterback Tyler Buchner (43) and defensive tackle Gabriel Rubio (99). Offensive line pledge Greg Crippen (129) also appeared in the top 250.

But the Irish sustaining an elite class ranking — they come in at No. 3 and No. 4 nationally on 247Sports and Rivals, respectively — likely requires a spring just as lucrative as their start.

The three-week contact period last month sent Notre Dame’s coaching staff scouring the nation for talent, visiting high schools and extending dozens of scholarship offers to members of the 2021, 2022 and 2023 classes. Then February enacted a recruiting hiatus of sorts.

Last year’s recruiting calendar included just four days of the dead period — which prohibits Division I coaches from in-person evaluations and visiting high schools and prevents recruits from trekking to college campus — in February. The dead period this year lasts from Feb. 3 through the rest of the month.

As a result of those fewer opportunities to host recruits, the importance of spring visits figures to increase. Recruits may begin making trips to colleges on March 1 and are encouraged to attend spring practices. Offseason official visits are permitted from the first weekend in April through the third weekend of June.

Here are five storylines to watch for Notre Dame’s 2021 class before the next few months unfold. The Tribune also talked with CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming.

Major visit weekends: In-state commit Blake Fisher will be joined by fellow offensive linemen Landon Tengwall, Nolan Rucci, Wyatt Milum, Garrett Dellinger and Rocco Spindler for a March 20-21 visit to South Bend.

All six are ranked among the top 55 overall players in the 2021 class by either Rivals or 247Sports. Lemming pegs Tengwall, Fisher, Rucci and Milum as four of his top five offensive linemen in the class, with Georgia’s Amarius Mims being the fifth.

“This is definitely one of the biggest (offensive line recruiting visits) in years,” Lemming said. “It has to be right up there. Maybe the best or right among the very best they’ve ever had.”

The Irish are aiming even higher later in the offseason. Seven of Notre Dame’s eight commits, with new safety pledge Justin Walters pending, plan to schedule an official visit on either the first weekend in April or June 19-21. They will encourage Notre Dame’s top targets to join them.

Notre Dame’s first trial run of official visits came last cycle. The following signees committed to the Irish following their official visits: wide receivers Jordan Johnson and Xavier Watts, defensive linemen Rylie Mills and Jordan Botelho and cornerbacks Clarence Lewis and Caleb Offord.

The chase for Will Shipley: Look for four-star running back Will Shipley to also visit Notre Dame on March 20-21. He’s likely to come to campus for the commit-heavy official visit weekend.

Shipley feels like Notre Dame’s top target in the class. His head coach, Andy Capone, told the Tribune that no out-of-state coach swung by Matthews (N.C.) Weddington High more than Lance Taylor in the past two months. 

Taylor played a major role in landing four-star signee Chris Tyree in his first cycle as running backs coach. The fact that Shipley’s favorite running back and mentor, Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers, previously played under Taylor at Stanford also appeals to him.

“If he would get Shipley, that would cement him as one of the premier recruiters,” said Lemming, adding that offensive line coach Jeff Quinn, defensive line coach Mike Elston and former offensive coordinator Chip Long fit that billing.

Head coach Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees also visited Shipley's school last month. With Clemson and N.C. State emerging as Notre Dame’s biggest threats to land him, Shipley’s spring visits will be worth monitoring.

Recruiting approach: Whether Kelly increases his recruiting involvement year-round will remain a storyline in the coming months.

Two in-house promotions and a pair of new assistants will also be part of the discussion. Rees, Taylor, impending tight ends coach John McNulty and who Notre Dame hires as its cornerbacks coach are handling new roles.

Last year’s departures and previous misses on the recruiting trail at corner bumped the position to among Notre Dame’s biggest questions this offseason. Work needs to be done before the Irish secure a promising corner haul this cycle.

“The cornerbacks coach should definitely come in with the mindset that he’s got to bring in five-star guys,” Lemming said. “Look at the nation’s top 20 corners, try to decide which guys are Notre Dame-type players, recruit 10 of them super hard and then if you get two, you are in business.”

“(McNulty) comes in absolutely loaded (at tight end). All he’s got to do is maintain it and make sure he brings in a great tight end every year.”

The three corners who seem to garner the most interest from Notre Dame — Los Angeles Loyola’s Ceyair Wright, St. Louis DeSmet Jesuit’s Jakailin Johnson and La Puente (Calif.) Bishop Amat’s Dyson McCutcheon — are not exactly leaning heavily to the Irish.

Jacksonville (Fla.) Trinity Christian Academy’s Corey Coley Jr., Cincinnati La Salle’s Devonta Smith, Denton (Texas) Guyer’s Deuce Harmon, Dallas Kimball’s Ishmael Ibraheem and Chatworth (Calif.) Sierra Canyon’s D.J. Harvey received Irish scholarship offers last month but have yet to visit.

Sorting through the front seven: A total of 15 defensive ends received Notre Dame scholarship offers in a span of 18 days last month.

That includes Mansfield (Texas) Legacy’s David Abiara, who visited Notre Dame for the Feb. 1 junior day. He has landed offers from LSU, Alabama, Utah, Ole Miss and Texas A&M in a one-week span and wants to take more visits this spring.

Abiara included his top two schools, Oklahoma and Notre Dame, in a top seven list this past Friday.

“He’s got length, he’s got a great first step, he’s got long arms, great hands,” Lemming said. “He’s the kind of guy who could really develop into an outstanding pass rusher.”

Lemming expects the Irish to land Aaron Armitage, a four-star defensive end from Blairstown (N.J.) Blair Academy. Armitage is also expected to see Notre Dame on March 20-21. Securing commitments from Abiara and Armitage in the coming months would clear up Notre Dame’s otherwise murky options on the front seven.

The Irish seem to be still in the process of evaluating linebackers. Arlington (Texas) Martin’s Morice Blackwell and Dallas (Ga.) Paulding County’s Smael Mondon Jr. landed Notre Dame offers late last month.

Of the five uncommitted linebackers to accrue an Irish offer, only one has visited Notre Dame: West Lafayette (Ind.) High’s Yanni Karlaftis. Recruiting analysts don’t expect him to join the Irish.

Because 10 of Notre Dame’s 13 scholarship linebackers last year were underclassmen, the Irish passed on adding another in the 2020 class. Notre Dame’s involvement with linebackers this spring may indicate how behind they are in the process.

Adding a final piece: The Irish coaching staff told safety Justin Walters and wide receivers Lorenzo Styles Jr. and Deion Colzie that they would seek one more commit at their positions this class.

Because Walters brings a bruising style that seems to translate to strong safety, the Irish may look to pair him with a projected free safety. Notre Dame extended offers to Beggs (Okla.) High’s Kendal Daniels, Canonsburg (Pa.) Township’s Donovan McMillon, Downey (Calif.) Warren’s Xamarion Gordon and Alpharetta (Ga.) High’s Jaden Slocum within the last couple months. All four possess the body type and ranginess to play free safety.

One of Notre Dame’s top receiver targets, Beaux Collins, pledged to Clemson last month. Now four-star Cristian Dixon from Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei remains as Notre Dame’s best, most realistic option at the position. The other realistic options are mostly three-star caliber, though more developments could come.

“Not only is he good,” said Lemming of Dixon, “but Notre Dame has had very little success in the (high school athletic conference) Trinity League out there. The best league in the country. I would like to see Notre Dame open up a pipeline to that league. It’s mainly Catholic schools, and Notre Dame has been mostly non-existent in Los Angeles.”

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Matthews (N.C.) Weddington's Will Shipley (9), a four-star running back in the 2021 recruiting class, visited Notre Dame for its Oct. 12 home game against USC.