A position-by-position update of Notre Dame's 2021 class (defense)

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Aaron Armitage always envisioned he would play college football, even if the blueprint became apparent only a few years ago.

Harboring the notion that living and competing in Toronto hindered his football exposure and resources, Armitage enrolled at Blair Academy as a freshman. The boarding school in Blairstown, N.J., brought athletic opportunities that paved the way for the 6-foot-4, 242-pound Armitage to become a four-star defensive end in the 2021 recruiting class, per Rivals.

“The competitiveness is drastically different to Canada,” Armitage said. “There’s a few really good (Canadian) players I’ve played against who should have a lot more exposure. But the opportunity isn’t there, so it’s difficult to get out. Coming here, I’ve learned a lot more technique on the field.

“No one knew about me back then. Then it all blew up when I was a sophomore. That was a crazy year.”

Virginia extended Armitage his first Division I scholarship offer in November of 2018. Then he accrued offers from 34 other programs, including Notre Dame last December. 

The Irish and defensive line coach Mike Elston were among the first to identify Armitage's potential. Notre Dame hosted him for its Irish Invasion recruiting camp last June and Nov. 16 home game against Navy. He will return to South Bend for the acclaimed March 20-22 recruiting weekend.

Elston’s efforts influenced Armitage to elevate Notre Dame among the top of his list.

“When I walk around campus,” Armitage said, “I feel comfortable there. I’ve been there twice already, and I feel like I could live there. I could see myself walking around campus every day.”

Armitage plans to announce his commitment either in the summer or following his senior season. His recruitment will be worth following in case this month’s visit speeds up the process.

A handful of other recruits could commit to the Irish this spring. With campus visits returning this week, here’s a position-by-position update of Notre Dame’s 2021 class on defense and what to expect these next few months.

The upcoming visitors listed as TBD haven’t scheduled a specific date but intend to swing by Notre Dame. Click here to read ND Insider's offensive recruiting update. 

Three-star defensive end David Abiara, from Mansfield, Texas, remained a three-star in 247Sports’ latest player rankings of the 2021 national football recruiting class.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Committed: Saint Peters (Mo.) Lutheran defensive tackle Gabriel Rubio.

Upcoming visits: Mansfield (Texas) Legacy defensive end David Abiara and Blairstown (N.J.) Blair Academy defensive end Aaron Armitage (March 20-22), Warwick (R.I.) Bishop Hendricken defensive end Jason Onye (March 23-24) and Suffield (Conn.) Academy defensive end Kechaun Bennett (March 28).

• 2022 defensive end target Dani Dennis-Sutton plans to visit on March 20.

Outlook: The six offensive linemen visitors seem to dominate the conversation revolving the March 20-22 weekend.

But by the following week, the Irish may have their defensive line class wrapped up. Elston will likely take Rubio as his lone defensive tackle. Depending on the number of scholarships available, Notre Dame will accept two or three defensive ends.

Elston extended offers to 15 defensive ends in 18 days during the winter but positioned himself well for an early finish to the class. Some of Notre Dame’s verbal pledges even believe Onye, Armitage and Abiara lean heavily toward the Irish and could commit this month.

The Irish will especially look to close Armitage and Abiara during their visits because of the offers and attention they continue to garner. Armitage received offers from Texas, Oklahoma State and Oregon last month and will visit Stanford and UCLA this week. Alabama, LSU, Virginia Tech and Michigan State were among schools to offer Abiara following his Feb. 1 trip for Notre Dame’s junior day.

Bennett’s March 28 visit could be interesting if Armitage and Abiara remain uncommitted.

Denton (Texas) Guyer’s Deuce Harmon, a cornerback in the 2021 class, will take an April 3-5 official visit to Notre Dame.

DEFENSIVE BACK

Committed: Bolingbrook (Ill.) High safety Justin Walters.

Upcoming visits: Denton (Texas) Guyer cornerback Deuce Harmon (April 3-5 official visit), Indianapolis Ben Davis cornerback Daylan Carnell (April 18) and Ewa Beach (Hawaii) James Campbell athlete Titus Mokiao-Atimalala (June official visit).

TBD visits: Los Angeles Loyola cornerback Ceyair Wright, Jacksonville (Fla.) Trinity Christian Academy cornerback Corey Coley Jr., La Puente (Calif.) Bishop Amat cornerback Dyson McCutcheon, Gardena (Calif.) Junipero Serra athlete Devin Kirkwood and Canonsburg (Pa.) Peters Township athlete Donovan McMillon.

• Premium Sports, a renowned 7-on-7 team in Los Angeles that features Notre Dame athlete target D.J. Harvey, canceled their Monday visit to South Bend because of a scheduling conflict.

• 2022 safety targets Braelon Allen (March 21) and Kamari Ramsey (two summer recruiting camps) also plan to visit. Allen will be on commitment watch this month.

Outlook: Notre Dame’s vetting process for its two new assistants, cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens and tight ends coach John McNulty, lasted more than two weeks each but concluded on Monday.

Now Mickens, who comes from the University of Cincinnati, can work toward landing two or three high-end corners this class. The Irish have a need at the position after missing on several top corners in previous cycles and losing experience from last year, particularly two-year starter Troy Pride Jr.

The Irish already appear out of the running for one of their top defensive targets in Jakailin Johnson. The four-star corner from St. Louis DeSmet Jesuit excluded Notre Dame from his top six school list, released last month. Harmon and Wright are the two four-star corners who look to be the most interested in the Irish.

That Harmon scheduled his first official visit to Notre Dame shows his high interest level. He made the decision despite landing his Irish offer recently, on Jan. 25, and not knowing who would fill former cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght’s vacancy. Wright considers Notre Dame as one of his top schools after visiting in December.

The Irish coaching staff have shown recent interest in McCutcheon and Downey (Calif.) Warren safety Xamarion Gordon, stopping by their schools multiple times in the winter. They could land Carnell if they push for him. Notre Dame projects Mokiao-Atimalala and Kirkwood at wide receiver and defensive back, and both two-way prospects peg the Irish as one of their favorite schools. 

Because Walters brings a bruising style that translates to strong safety, defensive pass game coordinator Terry Joseph will likely pair him with a rangy free safety. McMillon, Gordon and Alpharetta (Ga.) High’s Jaden Slocum are among Notre Dame's safety targets who fit that mold. The Irish are even considering McMillon as a nickelback and rover.

Time will tell whether Notre Dame’s newly offered defensive backs from Monday — Fort Smith (Ark.) Northside corner Dreyden Norwood and Atlanta Woodward Academy safety Khari Gee — will be interested.

Carrollton (Ga.) High’s Chaz Chambliss, a linebacker in the 2021 recruiting class, plans to visit Notre Dame this spring. 

LINEBACKER

Committed: None.

TBD visits: Carrollton (Ga.) High’s Chaz Chambliss.

• 2022 linebacker target Cyrus Moss (TBD) also plans to visit this spring.

Outlook: Linebacker recruiting should not have been a concern after the Irish appeared to set the stage for a fruitful haul this cycle.

Notre Dame’s linebackers exceeded expectations last season after Jaylon Smith, Drue Tranquill and Te’von Coney revitalized the position group. Clark Lea started strong and brings stability entering his third year as the Irish defensive coordinator. Notre Dame allotted enough time to work ahead after passing on linebackers in the 2020 class.

Of the five uncommitted linebackers to accrue a Notre Dame offer, however, only one has visited South Bend: West Lafayette (Ind.) High’s Yanni Karlaftis. He's expected to land elsewhere.

Chambliss hopes to swing by South Bend this spring but has not scheduled a visit. Neither have Notre Dame's other three uncommitted linebacker targets: Arlington (Texas) Martin’s Morice Blackwell, Suwanee (Ga.) North Gwinnett’s Barrett Carter and Dallas (Ga.) Paulding County’s Smael Mondon Jr.

Four-star tight end Brock Bowers, who visits Notre Dame on Wednesday, could receive a look at linebacker. He’s a two-way player for Napa (Calif.) High and recorded 25 tackles, eight tackles for a loss, one sack and a forced fumble in nine games at outside linebacker last season.

The Irish may also extend an offer to three-star linebacker Aidan Hubbard. He visited for Notre Dame’s junior day last month and comes from Cleveland Saint Ignatius, a private, Catholic high school. The aforementioned McMillon, a 6-foot-2, 185-pounder, brings a unique skill set that could result in him developing into a rover.

Because of tight scholarship numbers at the position, expect the Irish to add just one or two linebackers in 2021. All but one of Notre Dame’s 11 linebackers, Jordan Genmark Heath, will have at least one year of eligibility following the 2020 season.

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Blairstown (N.J.) Blair Academy’s Aaron Armitage (72), a defensive end in the 2021 recruiting class, will visit Notre Dame on March 20-22.

The following recruits with Notre Dame scholarship offers are expected to visit South Bend this spring (those who are TBD are not listed).

March 4

2021 TE Brock Bowers

March 20-22

Stanford graduate transfer RB Trevor Speights

2021 OL Nolan Rucci

2021 OL Landon Tengwall

2021 OL Rocco Spindler

2021 OL Garrett Dellinger

2021 OL Wyatt Milum

2021 DE David Abiara

2021 DE Aaron Armitage

2021 RB Will Shipley

2021 QB commit Tyler Buchner

2021 TE commit Cane Berrong

2021 WR commit Lorenzo Styles Jr.

2021 OL commit Blake Fisher

2021 DL commit Gabriel Rubio

March 20

2022 DE Dani Dennis-Sutton

March 21

2022 S Braelon Allen

March 23-24

2021 DE Jason Onye

March 28

2021 DE Kechaun Bennett

April 1

2021 TE Thomas Fidone

April 3-5

2021 OL Landon Tengwall*

2021 OL Rocco Spindler*

2021 CB Deuce Harmon*

2021 OL commit Blake Fisher

April 9

2022 WR C.J. Williams

April 14-15

2021 WR Dont’e Thornton Jr.

April 18

2021 CB Daylan Carnell

*Denotes official visit