Assessing Notre Dame WR recruiting in the '21 class and beyond

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Tom Lemming identified wide receiver as a position group Notre Dame could recruit better.

Not that the Irish have been lacking in wide receiver talent lately. The Baltimore Ravens selected Miles Boykin in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft. The following draft saw Chase Claypool picked in the second round by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

What Lemming meant had to do more with variance and depth. The recruiting analyst for CBS Sports Network said Notre Dame recruits plenty of big-bodied receivers like Boykin (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) and Claypool (6-4, 238).

Absent have been speedsters like Will Fuller and Rocket Ismail.

“One that can create in the open space, catch the ball, run with it and cause a lot of havoc with the defense,” Lemming said. “A kid like that can stretch the defense, open things up for the tight ends and the running backs who are coming out of the backfield to catch passes. They’ve had these big, strong guys like Chase Claypool.

“Those guys are good, but none of them are really going to run away from the defense. You can keep these big, strong guys and add a Will Fuller (type).”

Receiver depth lacked in Notre Dame’s 27-13 win over Duke last Saturday. The Irish were exposed without their top three receivers. Top receiver Kevin Austin Jr. (foot) remained out and Braden Lenzy (hamstring) did not play. Austin’s backup, graduate transfer Ben Skowronek, permanently left the game in the second quarter after tweaking his hamstring.

Joe Wilkins Jr. (four catches for 44 yards), Avery Davis (two catches for 26 yards and a touchdown) and Lawrence Keys III (one catch for four yards) finished as Notre Dame’s only receivers to record at least one reception. No receiver caught a pass until Wilkins snagged a four-yard pass with 50 seconds remaining in the second quarter.

That drop-off should not be so apparent, Lemming said. He believes receiver is the easiest position to recruit.

“There are so many good receivers out there that you should never be short-handed,” Lemming said. “It’s the one position you should never be short-handed in or lack in quality depth.”

Wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander seemed to turn a corner as a recruiter last cycle after previously struggling. He helped land Jordan Johnson, a five-star recruit on Rivals. Johnson finished with the second-highest overall ranking (No. 28), behind Michael Floyd (No. 27), among Irish wide receivers in Rivals history. Notre Dame also signed promising receivers in Xavier Watts and Jay Brunelle.

Work still needs to be done, though. At 18 pledges in their 2021 recruiting class, the Irish could add up to three more receivers. And they are still looking to land their first receiver in the 2022 class.

Notre Dame’s lone verbal commit at the position, Lorenzo Styles Jr., seems to bring the speed and playmaking ability Lemming mentioned. The Pickerington (Ohio) Central product clocked a 4.43 40-yard dash at Notre Dame’s Elite Skills Camp in June 2018. At 6-1, 185 pounds, Styles shows fluidity and athleticism on defense and could also play cornerback in college.

Below is a look at the remaining options for the Irish this cycle, along with intel on their recruitments.

Deion Colzie, 6-4, 205; Athens (Ga.) Academy

Notre Dame wide receiver signee Deion Colzie (middle).

Colzie announced last week that he will make his commitment public on Sept. 28.

Barring a major change, there’s a high probability that Colzie picks Notre Dame. He decommitted from the Irish on March 20 for a variety of reasons. For starters, Colzie wanted to stay close to home. Notre Dame also stopped pursuing him as much after parting ways with his primary recruiter, former offensive coordinator Chip Long, in December.

Losing Colzie figured to be a wakeup call for the coaching staff. They started recruiting him harder. Their efforts should pay off.

“Colzie fits the mold of the Notre Dame type receiver that they’ve been going after all these years,” Lemming said. “The big, strong kid who can catch.”

The COVID-19 pandemic also helped Notre Dame in a way. Colzie started receiving more attention from other schools following his decommitment, but he couldn’t take official or unofficial visits anywhere. The NCAA announced on Wednesday that the recruiting dead period has been extended through Jan. 1.

The Irish had already established a relationship with Colzie. They hosted him for multiple visits, including when he committed before the USC game on Oct. 12, 2019.

Colzie told Rivals that Notre Dame, Florida and Tennessee are his top three schools going forward. He surprisingly excluded Georgia from that list. The Bulldogs had emerged as his favorite earlier in the spring.

They satisfied his desire of staying close to home. He had visited multiple times and remains close with the coaching staff. The mutual interest lost steam because of Georgia’s stockpile of talented receivers. The Bulldogs also already have three receivers committed this class.

To Colzie, the Irish are familiar and bring a combination of football and academics unlike his other options. And his mother, Yolanda Jackson, continued to be an influence. She considers herself a lifelong Notre Dame fan.

“That would be a great catch,” Lemming said. “When I went and saw him (in late January), I was very impressed with him. He’s a Notre Dame type kid. He’s the kind of guy Notre Dame looks for. Student-athlete and he’s a good athlete, too. I was impressed with him as a person when sitting down and talking to him, but also as an athlete.”

247Sports: Four stars, No. 13 WR, No. 110 overall | Rivals: Four stars, No. 17 WR, No. 107 overall

Jayden Thomas, 6-2, 205; Atlanta Pace Academy

Notre Dame wide receiver signee Jayden Thomas.

Thomas seems to be one of the more polarizing receiver recruits in the 2021 class. He plunged from four-star to three-star status by 247Sports. Rivals still pegs Thomas as a four-star recruit and ranks him 451 spots higher overall.

Reduced exposure seemed to influence this debate. Thomas also played just four games last season before injuring his toe. He didn't fully recover until last month.

That injury and the pandemic kept Thomas from proving himself on the field and in recruiting camps this offseason. With Division I baseball offers from Michigan, Arkansas, Georgia Tech and others, Thomas also splits his focus between two sports.

So just how talented is Thomas? Lemming values him as a four-star recruit.

“He’s a physical receiver. I like him,” Lemming said. “He’s got good hands. He’s a Notre Dame type receiver. The type they’ve always been going after.”

As of late last month, Notre Dame’s baseball program had yet to show much interest in Thomas. He wants to be a two-sport athlete in college, but that desire is not non-negotiable. In fact, the Irish are still considered to be his heavy favorite. They made a lasting impression on him during his first visit to campus for the Virginia Tech game on Nov. 2, 2019.

Those close to Thomas expect him to make his decision public next month. He listed Notre Dame, Michigan, Arkansas, Georgia and Penn State as his top five schools in July. Look for the Irish to emerge from that group.

“Academically-wise, they are just prestigious,” Thomas told the Tribune last month. “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.”

247Sports: Three stars, No. 99 WR, No. 645 overall | Rivals: Four stars, No. 36 WR, No. 194 overall.

Dont’e Thornton Jr., 6-5, 205; Baltimore Mount St. Joseph

Baltimore Mount Saint Joseph’s Dont’e Thornton Jr., a four-star wide receiver in the 2021 recruiting class, considers Notre Dame as a top six school.

Colzie and Thomas appear to be locks for the Irish. What about Thornton?

At the moment, Notre Dame’s chances with Thornton appear to be slim. Oregon has emerged as his overwhelming favorite. Thornton’s decision timeline gives the Irish time to catch the Ducks, though. He plans to announce his commitment at the All-American Bowl in San Antonio next January.

Maybe Thornton ends his recruitment sooner than expected. There have been plenty more surprising developments this cycle. And the All-American Bowl could be canceled because of the pandemic. But until he does, Thornton will be a top target worth monitoring.

Especially because of his talent and 4.44 speed at that size.

“He is a five-star player,” Lemming said. “He’s got great height, but he’s also got great speed and hands. He’s got everything. He can create after the catch. He does everything well. Dont’e Thornton is a big-time guy. He’s the kind of guy who normally Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State get. He’s the best of all of them.”

When Notre Dame hosted Thornton for a recruiting camp in June 2018, Virginia and Rutgers were his only Division I offers. The Irish offered him a scholarship in September 2019, one month after he decommitted from Penn State.

Thornton planned to visit South Bend on April 15 before recruiting trips were canceled. He listed Notre Dame as a top six school during the summer.

“The campus was amazing,” Thornton told the Tribune in the spring. “I didn’t know how different Notre Dame was from the other schools. The education part, it’s really strong there.”

247Sports: Four stars, No. 9 WR, No. 65 overall | Rivals: Four stars, No. 9 WR, No. 55 overall

Athens (Ga.) Academy’s Deion Colzie, a four-star wide receiver in the 2021 recruiting class, considers Notre Dame as a top three school.