Notre Dame WR recruiting target Jayden Thomas feeling the effects of COVID-19

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

The impact of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is hitting Jayden Thomas differently compared to most football recruits.

The time off has hindered Thomas' development as a two-sport athlete. He hopes to play football and baseball in college and professionally. He’s also still recovering after suffering a turf toe injury last season.

And maybe in normal circumstances, Thomas would have been verbally committed to Notre Dame by now.

“I definitely want to bring my family up there to Notre Dame, because they weren’t there when I went by myself (last November),” said the 6-foot-2, 205-pound wide receiver in the 2021 class.

Never mind that Thomas is still set to play football this fall, unlike thousands of other high school athletes. Never mind that he plays for Pace Academy, a private school in Atlanta that boasts top-of-the-line resources to prevent a potential outbreak. The football program, as of Friday, has yet to yield a positive COVID-19 case since returning to team activities a few weeks ago.

So Thomas’ predicament may seem like first-world problems in the grand scheme of things. Nonetheless, they are unusual hindrances.

Georgia, Notre Dame, Arkansas, Michigan and Penn State were included in Thomas’ top five school list released last month. Because his family has only joined him to see Georgia among that group, Thomas said he’s far from announcing a verbal commitment.

The pandemic may keep Thomas from visiting his other four top schools with his family this fall. Since March, the NCAA has prohibited recruits from taking unofficial and official visits to college campuses. The current dead-period mandate lasts through Sept. 30 and could be extended again.

The Irish are willing to wait if Thomas wants to visit before making his decision in the eleventh hour. They consider him to be one of their top uncommitted targets remaining this recruiting cycle. Wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander leads his recruitment and contacts him multiple times per week.

Rivals rates Thomas as a four-star recruit, ranking him as its No. 23 wide receiver and No. 131 overall player in the 2021 class. 247Sports considers Thomas to be a three-star recruit, slating him No. 96 at the same position and No. 631 overall.

Maybe Thomas will move up his timeline, but he's maneuvering through too many obstacles at the moment.

“My family is definitely a big part of my recruiting process. They’ve got to see everywhere I’m looking at,” Thomas said. “So that’s probably why I haven’t committed yet.”

Notre Dame still looks to be the current favorite to land Thomas’ verbal pledge. He received a scholarship offer during his first trip to campus for ND’s home game against Virginia Tech on Nov. 2.

Former Irish running back Mick Assaf and his family joined Thomas for the trip and showed him around campus. Mick’s father, Fred Assaf, is the headmaster at Pace Academy. Thomas said Tommy Assaf, Mick’s younger brother, is his best friend.

Having that influence is one of a few reasons why Thomas would pick Notre Dame for more than athletics.

“Academically-wise, they are just prestigious,” said Thomas about his interest in Notre Dame. “That’s the reason why I’m at Pace: academics. It’s like none other. It’s better than a public school education. Also just the vibe I get there, the culture. It’s pretty much like the culture at Pace Academy.”

Baseball possibility

Wide receiver Jayden Thomas, one of Notre Dame's top targets in the 2021 recruiting class, is also a star centerfielder for Atlanta Pace Academy.

Seth LaFera contends that had Thomas stopped playing football, he would have developed into a top two-round pick in the MLB Draft.

“He’s a first-round body. The way he runs is first-round material. The way he throws, first-round material,” said LaFera, who coaches for Pace Academy’s baseball program. “His experience is what would be holding him back. He doesn’t have a ton of on-field experience.”

Thomas said he stopped playing travel baseball during summers from sixth grade onward. He has since spent most summers training for football and competing in 7-on-7. Thomas’ toe injury also infringed on his baseball development. Then his junior baseball season was truncated to 10 games because of the pandemic.

As a sophomore centerfielder, Thomas caught the attention of college baseball and MLB scouts. They came to see his teammate Andrew Jenkins, now a third baseman for Georgia Tech. Thomas said some scouts told him they would be back to observe his last two seasons. He recorded an impressive .394/.427/1.124 batting line in 32 games.

But scouts have not been able to watch Thomas play much baseball for more than a year now. And missing all that time has proven to be costly.

“I don’t really have a (MLB Draft) stock right now,” Thomas said.

LaFera is not the only one who believes Thomas has plenty of untapped potential as a baseball player. Thomas said Georgia Tech’s coaching staff told him that if he plays just baseball for the Yellow Jackets, he could eventually become a top-five pick.

“It’s crazy to hear that I could be that good in one sport,” Thomas said, “and that’s not even my main sport.”

Though two-sport athletes are not uncommon at Notre Dame, head football coach Brian Kelly will have to approve of that route. Also, LaFera and Thomas said they have not communicated much with head baseball coach Link Jarrett and his staff.

Describing baseball as his “first love,” Thomas has played the sport since he was 4 years old. He grew up idolizing athletes who played professionally in football and baseball, like Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson.

Ideally, Thomas said he would follow that two-sport path. He said he’s open to playing just football in college, however. So the Irish offering Thomas in baseball would be more of plus than a requirement. He’s also not expecting to declare for the 2021 MLB Draft.

“Right now, it would be hard not to go to college,” LaFera said. “He hasn’t been on enough radars yet where scouts are seeing him at the professional level.”

National Signing Day for the 2021 football recruiting class falls on Feb. 3, a few weeks before Thomas is scheduled to begin his senior baseball season. That timeline means Notre Dame’s baseball coaching staff won’t have fresh scouting material on Thomas before he signs. Thomas may choose the Irish for football and have to learn later if he will be invited to join their baseball team.

Michigan and Arkansas are the two schools in Thomas’ top five that have offered him for both football and baseball.

“I just haven’t seen or heard from the Notre Dame baseball program about him,” LaFera said. “I would hope they would realize that this is a kid who is very interested in baseball, too. But I don’t know if the coaching staff changing and things of that nature is something that’s been on their radar at all. It should be.”

Notre Dame fit

Atlanta Pace Academy's Jayden Thomas, a wide receiver in the 2021 recruiting class, visited Notre Dame for its Nov. 2 home game against Virginia Tech last season.

Golden Tate and Cole Kmet. Those were the two former Notre Dame football stars included with Thomas in a graphic he tweeted out last month.

What do they all have in common? Thomas would want to play football and baseball for the Irish like Tate and Kmet did. Those three were each featured in two different pictures that displayed them in Notre Dame football and baseball uniforms.

The Irish football recruiting staff made the graphic for Thomas. That graphic suggests Notre Dame might be open to Thomas being a two-sport athlete. Even if they have not made that possibility clear yet, the Irish are looking to impress Thomas as much as possible.

Pace Academy head football coach Chris Slade understands why the coaching staff has made Thomas feel like a top priority. Slade said Thomas could be in the NFL and is in the same conversation with the best players he’s coached in recent memory.

Slade’s evaluation carries weight. And he knows talent when he sees it. Slade was a consensus All-American linebacker for Virginia in 1992 before enjoying a nine-year career in the NFL. Offensive linemen Andrew Thomas (Georgia, New York Giants) and Jamaree Salyer (Georgia) were former five-star recruits who played under Slade at Pace Academy. So did Duke running back Deon Jackson.

“He’s deceptively faster than you’d think,” said Slade of Jayden Thomas. “He’s a long strider. So he eats up a lot of ground. He’s just one of those kids who can do so many things. Again, I think his versatility will get him to places that other kids won’t. They are just kind of limited to one side of the ball.”

Slade remembers taking Andrew Thomas, Salyer and Jackson to visit South Bend during their recruitments. They didn’t pick the Irish, but Slade recalls they left feeling like Notre Dame reminded them a lot of Pace Academy.

Jayden shared their first impressions. The pandemic complicated Thomas’ two-sport vision and overall development. But if he ends up coming to Notre Dame, his reasoning will likely be for more than just football and baseball.

“I think the most important thing is going to be the academics,” Slade said of Thomas’ priorities. “I think that’s huge, wanting to go to a school where every student walks through the same door.

“The athletes won’t have one door and then these students will have another. I think he likes that. He likes the academic challenge. Obviously history, the prestige of going to Notre Dame. What that degree holds and the value that can be carried for life.

“Obviously being on TV every week is big if you live in Atlanta. Their schedule, they will always have their few ACC games where his parents can come see him play.”

Notre Dame wide receiver signee Jayden Thomas.