Exploring Notre Dame linebacker recruiting in the 2021 class

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Approximately eight months before the three-day early signing period for the 2021 class, Notre Dame is still in the beginning stages with recruiting linebackers.  

The Irish either received verbal commitments or recruiting visits from top targets at all their other position groups. Of the seven uncommitted linebackers to receive a Notre Dame scholarship offer, only one has visited South Bend: West Lafayette (Ind.) High’s Yanni Karlaftis. He’s expected to land elsewhere.

Linebacker recruiting ranked low among Notre Dame’s priorities. The Irish signing a combined seven linebackers in the 2018 and '19 classes meant limited scholarship space at the position. Only one of Notre Dame’s 11 linebackers (Jordan Genmark Heath) completes his eligibility following this season.

But after passing on linebackers last cycle, the Irish are looking to replenish the position by adding at least one or two in 2021. Their head start resulted only in Karlaftis’ early interest and no other visits, however. At this point, Notre Dame lacks a sizable amount of options.

The Irish are pursuing more rovers than their other two linebacker positions, middle and buck. Donovan McMillon and Morice Blackwell will be the two top rover targets worth following in the coming months. Brock Bowers, who included Notre Dame in his top-eight list last week, could play linebacker but is being recruited at tight end.

The Tribune interviewed McMillon, Blackwell and a handful of Notre Dame’s other linebacker options. Below is a closer look at their recruitments.

Most promising options

Canonsburg (Pa.) Peters Township’s Donovan McMillon, a three-star safety in the 2021 recruiting class, considers Notre Dame as a top school.

ROV/S Donovan McMillon, 6-2, 185; Canonsburg (Pa.) Peters Township

247Sports ranking: Three stars, No. 48 safety.

Rivals ranking: Three stars.

Status: Cornerback, linebacker, nickelback, strong safety and free safety are positions McMillon’s played in high school. His prowess as a hybrid player spawned a mixed bag of position preferences from the 49 programs (as of Wednesday night) who offered him.

Notre Dame envisions McMillon as a rover, while safety will be the backup plan. McMillon’s background as a renowned wrestler helped refine his versatility of being a physical player who can cover in space.

“It’s more of a mindset as well,'' McMillon said about how wrestling helps him in football. "That hardworking mentality and just will to win. It’s one-on-one. You don’t have any teammates helping you.

"I feel like if it’s one-on-one, I’m coming out on top. You either get beat, or you beat someone.”

McMillon said he does not prefer a particular position. He listed the Irish in his top 15 schools last month and hopes to visit for one of their next two recruiting weekends. They are tentatively planned for June 12-14 and 19-21.

Once looking to commit before this season, McMillon said he's now aiming to announce his decision at the end of the year. That delay gives Notre Dame time. Head coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Clark Lea are contacting McMillon multiple times per week in hopes to secure a visit. They offered him on Feb. 7.

Oklahoma, Penn State, Pittsburgh and LSU are among other contenders for McMillon.

“I’ve checked out the (Notre Dame) campus before online,” McMillon said. “It’s a beautiful campus. Just the history there is awesome. It has been a program that’s dominated multiple times in the past. Plus, they wear gold, which is awesome. I can’t wait to learn more about it.”

ROV Morice Blackwell, 6-1, 190; Arlington (Texas) Martin

247Sports ranking: Three stars, No. 35 outside linebacker.

Rivals ranking: Three stars.

Status: After the coronavirus pandemic called for the NCAA to cancel recruiting trips through May 31, Notre Dame looked to replace its biggest offseason recruiting weekend that was planned for March 20-22.

The Irish are now touting June 12-14 as that weekend. The key distinction between March and June recruiting trips is that official visits are permitted during the latter month. So Notre Dame will host recruits who would have been there in March, like running back Will Shipley, plus those who come from a far distance and require the paid official visits to make the trip.

Blackwell fits that mold and heard from Lea this week about making a trip in June. He’s now in the process of seeking approval from his parents regarding that potential visit.

“Notre Dame is high on my list. They are recruiting me hard,” said Blackwell, who the Irish coaching staff has contacted multiple times per week since offering him in January. “I think I’m a high priority.”

Texas, Oklahoma State, San Diego State, Baylor and Notre Dame are the programs recruiting Blackwell the hardest, he said. The Irish like him at rover, a position similar to what he plays at his high school. Blackwell’s treating his recruitment day-to-day and does not expect to make a decision soon.

Faithfulness and selflessness are among Blackwell’s top priorities he covets in a school. The Irish praying before games appeals to Blackwell, who said he "grew up in the church."

“Notre Dame has a winning team,” Blackwell said. “If you go there, you are going to be known as a player who wants to win. They don’t recruit players who don’t want to win.”

Other options

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

DE/LB Chaz Chambliss, 6-3, 239; Carrollton (Ga.) High

247Sports ranking: Three stars, No. 41 outside linebacker.

Rivals ranking: Four stars, No. 13 outside linebacker, No. 183 overall.

Status: Notre Dame’s first offer extended to a 2021 linebacker came to Chambliss on May 23, 2018. The second offer didn’t come until nine months later, to Karlaftis.

The Irish have since cooled off on Chambliss, an option at defensive end and middle and buck linebacker. Chambliss said his recruitment is up in the air now, so the Irish could still land him if they circle back. He remains interested.

“I really want to visit there,” Chambliss said. “My mom really wants me to visit there. With school, getting a plane ticket up there and missing spring practices, it was probably going to be in the summer to where I could probably spend a couple days up there.”

ROV Smael Mondon Jr., 6-3, 220; Dallas (Ga.) Paulding County

247Sports ranking: Four stars, No. 3 outside linebacker, No. 18 overall.

Rivals ranking: Four stars, No. 5 outside linebacker, No. 82 overall.

Status: Lea didn’t maintain much contact with Mondon after visiting his school and offering him as a rover in January. He talks with Mondon about every other week.

Mondon said Georgia, Ohio State, Auburn, Florida, LSU and Texas A&M are recruiting him the hardest. Notre Dame still has time to join that group. Mondon wanted to visit South Bend in the spring or summer before recruiting trips were canceled. His decision won’t come until the fall, Mondon said.

“The (Notre Dame) program is going in a good direction,” Mondon said. “They are one of the top programs every year. They compete for a national championship every year. It’s been a solid program for a while now, so that shows the culture there is not just a one-year thing.”

Options without offers

Chicago Mount Carmel’s Benjamin Perry (10), a three-star safety in the 2021 recruiting class, is receiving interest from Notre Dame.

Notre Dame’s linebacker recruiting board could expand with more offers. The following linebackers do not hold offers but have received interest from the Irish.

ROV Benjamin Perry, 6-3, 185; Chicago Mount Carmel: Perry considers Notre Dame as a top school and visited for its Feb. 1 junior day. He did not leave with an offer, however. McMillon and Blackwell are higher priorities.

MLB Aidan Hubbard, 6-4, 218; Cleveland St. Ignatius: Hubbard also visited for that junior day. The Irish were interested but have cooled off on his recruitment. He considers Notre Dame as a top school.

ROV Cole Bishop, 6-3, 200; Fayetteville (Ga.) Starrs Mill: One month after leaving from that junior day without an offer, Bishop verbally committed to Duke. The Irish could flip his pledge if they pursue him. 

LB Wynden Ho’ohuli, 6-3, 220; Mililani (Hawaii) High: Ho’ohuli told the Tribune Notre Dame would be a top-three school if he’s offered. However, the Irish cooled off on the four-star linebacker last summer. According to a source with knowledge of his recruitment, Ho’ohuli does not qualify academically.

Off the table

West Lafayette (Ind.) High's Yanni Karlaftis told the Tribune he has not heard much from Notre Dame's coaching staff lately.

The following linebackers hold Notre Dame offers but are off the table, barring unforeseen developments.

Yanni Karlaftis, 6-3, 205; West Lafayette (Ind.) High: Karlaftis told the Tribune Notre Dame no longer contacts him much. He’s prioritizing other schools too.

Barrett Carter, 6-1, 220; Suwanee (Ga.) Gwinnett: Carter told the Tribune he’s not interested in the Irish.

DE/LB Zavier Carter, 6-4, 190; Atlanta Hapeville Charter: The Irish could make a late push for Carter, but he hasn’t expressed much interest.

Reid Carrico, 6-3, 225; Ironton (Ohio) High: Committed to Ohio State.

Branden Jennings, 6-3, 225; Jacksonville (Fla.) Sandalwood: Committed to Florida State.

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Arlington (Texas) Martin linebacker Morice Blackwell strips the ball away from Duncanville wide receiver Roderick Daniels (13) in a playoff game on Nov. 29.