Jordan Addison, the one that got away? Why the star freshman chose Pitt over Notre Dame

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

The alternate universe that includes Jordan Addison playing for Notre Dame brings intriguing hypotheticals.

Maybe with a recruiting different approach, the Irish coaching staff makes that universe a reality. Maybe if Addison signed with Notre Dame instead of Pittsburgh in the 2020 recruiting cycle, the true freshman would have started at wide receiver this season. And maybe if he had Addison, Irish quarterback Ian Book would not be struggling as much as a passer.

All three possibilities are conceivable, but they are not certainties. At Pitt, Addison looks to be a star in the making, if he’s not one already. At minimum, he could have improved Notre Dame’s predicament at receiver — now and later.

Through six games this season, Addison has 15 more catches than any other freshman in the country. He ranks first among freshmen nationally in receptions per game (6.3) and receiving yards per game (74). Among pass catchers in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Addison comes in at No. 1 in receptions (38) and behind only Boston College’s Zay Flowers in receiving yards (444 with three touchdowns).

When the No. 3 Irish (4-0, 3-0 ACC) face the Panthers (3-3, 2-3) on Saturday (3:30 p.m. EDT on ABC), they will have to account for Addison. The Football Writers Association of America named him to its Freshman All-American watch list this week.

“Jordan is a go-to guy right now,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said.

Notre Dame could use a go-to guy at receiver. Kevin Austin Jr. garnered that acclaim from his coaches and peers, but the junior receiver has just one catch for 18 yards through two games. He missed last year with a university-imposed suspension and the first two games of this season after suffering a broken left foot in preseason camp.

Graduate senior Javon McKinley (seven catches for 127 yards), junior Braden Lenzy (six receptions for 61 yards and a touchdown), senior Avery Davis (five catches for 56 yards and a score) and graduate transfer Ben Skowronek (two receptions for 28 yards) have been Book’s other primary targets. Those four options have not produced much. Lenzy and Skowronek have battled injuries.

Book ranks No. 44 in pass-efficiency rating nationally (133.9) among 71 quarterbacks who qualify. The Irish rank last in the ACC in completions of at least 15 yards (16). When comparing Addison's last four games to Notre Dame's first four games, Addison has caught more passes of at least 12 yards (11) than every Irish receiver combined (10).

Yet the Irish during the recruiting process targeted him to play defense.

“We thought early on in our recruiting efforts that he would be a guy who would do well at the cornerback position because of his length,” ND head coach Brian Kelly said. “That’s kind of what stood out to us. But obviously he could play other positions as well. We are finding out that he’s going to be one of the top receivers in this league for a few years now.”

Vince Ahearn, Addison’s head football coach at Frederick (Md.) Tuscarora, remembers him heavily considering Notre Dame. Addison verbally committed to the Panthers in June of 2019 before making his pledge official during the three-day early signing period in December. He enrolled a semester early in January.

Hometown Maryland finished as one of Addison's top schools. So did Notre Dame, despite his preference of playing receiver.

“It went down to the wire as is, I will say that,” said Ahearn, now the head coach at Smithsburg (Md.) High.

Having family in South Bend figured to be part of the allure. Addison said he has “an aunt and uncle or two” from the area. He even turned an unofficial visit to Notre Dame into a family event of sorts.

Former Irish cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght reportedly watched Addison work out before offering him a scholarship in May 2019. Notre Dame started pursuing him harder last fall. Defensive pass game coordinator Terry Joseph reportedly visited Tuscarora that October.

Ultimately though, Addison chose Pitt.

“I’m glad they recruited me,” said Addison of Notre Dame. “I think it’s a really nice place. But I just felt more comfortable with Pitt.”

Potential impact

While Addison has made a name for himself, there’s no guarantee he would have contributed much for Notre Dame this season.

True freshman receivers have rarely made a significant impact on the Irish under Kelly. Since 2017, three Notre Dame receivers have been selected in the NFL Draft: Equanimeous St. Brown, Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool. Those three combined for 89 yards on nine catches as true freshmen for the Irish.

Wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander also helped sign three promising recruits in the 2020 class: Jordan Johnson (five-star receiver on Rivals), Xavier Watts (four-star receiver on 247Sports) and Jay Brunelle (53 catches for 1,076 yards and 11 touchdowns in nine games as a high school senior).

Yet those three have combined for just 30 snaps and zero catches this season.

“There have been more physically talented receivers to head to Notre Dame than Jordan (Addison), and they still hadn’t seen the field as a freshman,” said Adam Friedman, Rivals’ Mid-Atlantic analyst who scouted Addison plenty as a recruit. “I think it’s more of a systemic thing at Notre Dame than having to do with the players themselves.”

Kelly also has found success turning players who were recruited on offense into cornerbacks. Former Irish stars Bennett Jackson (2014) and KeiVarae Russell (2016) were drafted into the NFL following successful position switches. Julian Love (2019) and Troy Pride Jr. (2020) were recruited and played as cornerbacks before being drafted. But Love (1,729 all-purpose yards and 25 touchdowns) and Pride (804 all-purpose yards and 12 touchdowns) were productive on offense as high school seniors.

Backup boundary corner Cam Hart flipped from receiver as a freshman last season. Junior TaRiq Bracy, sophomore Isaiah Rutherford and freshmen Clarence Lewis and Ramon Henderson also were productive on offense in high school.

So Notre Dame attempting to flip Addison to cornerback was not exactly a flawed, unprecedented strategy.

“That’s the right way to evaluate (cornerbacks),” said Barton Simmons, director of scouting for 247Sports. “That’s the right way to find the guys who will really hit from an upside standpoint as opposed to the player who has been playing cornerback at every 7-on-7. Find a guy who is just around the football. He’s comfortable making plays with it. He’s comfortable with tackling in the air.”

Still, Addison seemed to have a realistic path to earn at least some playing time. At 6-foot, 170 pounds, the shifty Addison would have likely played slot receiver at Notre Dame. Davis, junior Lawrence Keys III and Watts have combined for only 60 receiving yards and a touchdown on six receptions from the slot this season. Junior Joe Wilkins Jr. moved to the slot this week.

The Irish have not received considerable production from their other slot receivers in the past decade. No slot receiver under Kelly has recorded at least 50 catches or 575 receiving yards in a season. Walk-on Chris Finke came the closest to those marks in 2018, hauling in 49 passes for 571 yards and two touchdowns.

“We liked his length as a corner. We’re looking for longer corners,” Kelly said of Addison. “He kind of stood out from that perspective. It didn’t work out for other reasons, but I think he’s going to be a premier player in this league. He’s coming into his own. I think they are finding that he’s going to be that kind of player. He’s going to get bigger, stronger, more physical. He’s a fine player right now as a true freshman, and he’s only going to get better.”

Choosing Pitt

Addison admitted even he was surprised by his hot start.

“I knew it was possible, but I didn’t think it was going to be this quick,” Addison said.

Recruiting services offered relatively tame expectations for Addison, at least until the end of his recruitment. 247Sports and Rivals pegged Addison as a three-star athlete/receiver for a majority of his recruiting process. Then 247Sports bumped Addison to four-star status late in the recruiting cycle.

247Sports pegged Addison as its No. 4 athlete and No. 131 overall player in the 2020 class, while Rivals slated him as its No. 86 receiver.

Friedman said Addison faced lackluster competition at Tuscarora. While he played receiver, Addison also lined up at cornerback, running back and wildcat quarterback. Exposure was limited, too. He rarely attended recruiting camps.

So evaluating him proved to be challenging, Friedman said.

“The reason he wasn’t rated higher was,” Friedman said, “if he was going to play defense, why would he be a four-star receiver? So we kind of hedged our bets a little bit there. At least in the early going, Jordan has proved us wrong so far.”

Fueled by wide receivers coach Chris Beatty, Pitt’s coaching staff never wavered from its belief in Addison as an offensive player. While Beatty served on Maryland’s coaching staff, the Terrapins were the first Division I program to offer Addison in June 2018.

Pitt hired Beatty in January 2019. One month later, Addison accrued an offer from the Panthers. They were reportedly his second Power Five offer. Knowing Beatty and being within driving distance (approximately three hours) enticed Addison.

“That was part of it, the cornerback versus receiver,” said Addison on why he chose Pitt over Notre Dame. “But there were other things that led me toward Pitt. It wasn’t too much about getting on the field early. I knew I had a shot at getting there.

“But it was the relationships that I built here. When I first got here, it just felt really comfortable. You’ve got that home feeling. So it was like, I could do really well here.”

Whether Addison would have seen significant action as an Irish freshman remains unclear. Seeing time does not mean he would have provided a boost to Notre Dame’s passing game either. But the Irish hardly flirted with the idea of Addison playing wide receiver.

So they will never truly know the answers to those hypotheticals.

“They would’ve sorted it out once he got on campus,” Friedman said. “His first reps in practice probably would’ve been on the defensive side. His second and third reps may have been at receiver once they just saw how he moved in person, and all the coaches really got a good idea about the player he was when they saw him in person.

“Because that can change an opinion pretty quickly. We’ve seen guys kind of bounce from one side of the ball to the other and then back again. That was something they would have figured out once he got on campus, I would imagine.”

“It’s not having that flexibility to allow them to sort it out once he arrived. That definitely bit them in the butt there.”

Pittsburgh Panthers wide receiver Jordan Addison (3) runs with the ball against Boston College on Oct. 10.