Assessing Notre Dame's 2021 class and what remains before the early signing period

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

In one of the more abnormal recruiting cycles ever, Notre Dame could finish with a top 10 class nationally.

With 24 recruits verbally committed to their 2021 class, the Irish come in at No. 7 and No. 9 on 247Sports and Rivals, respectively. Only two other Notre Dame classes out of 11 under head coach Brian Kelly finished top 10 on both recruiting websites: 2011 and 2013.

The Irish reaching that point required them to navigate through unique challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. Limited evaluation opportunities and no official or unofficial visits since March were among obstacles.

The three-day early signing period begins on Wednesday. Notre Dame will look to sign all 24 pledges and is still pursuing a few more recruits. The Irish will court recruits at cornerback and running back before National Signing Day in February.

In an unconventional cycle, Notre Dame will finish with one of its highest-ranked classes under Kelly.

“This class conceptualizes Notre Dame’s recipe and why they’ve been so successful in the Brian Kelly Era, especially as of late,” said Steve Wiltfong, 247Sports’ director of recruiting.

The Irish have commitments from five offensive linemen, one quarterback, one running back, two tight ends, three wide receivers, four defensive linemen, two linebackers, four cornerbacks, one safety and a place-kicker.

Seven of those commits are ranked among the top 245 overall recruits this cycle on 247Sports and Rivals: quarterback Tyler Buchner, wide receivers Lorenzo Styles Jr. and Deion Colzie, offensive linemen Rocco Spindler and Blake Fisher, defensive tackle Gabriel Rubio and linebacker Prince Kollie.

“I think this group has several future pros in it and will continue the dominance that we see on Saturdays,” Wiltfong said. “Notre Dame recruited the offensive line this cycle in a manner that maintains the standard they are used to seeing at the point of attack.

“You have your potential franchise quarterback in Tyler Buchner. He has a ton of talent. He is maybe not as proven as some of his peers as far as playing against big time competition on the prep level. But he’s a high I.Q, highly talented signal caller.’’

“They’ve got some guys who can be dynamic at wide receiver in Deion Colzie, Lorenzo Styles Jr. and Jayden Thomas.

“Prince Kollie is going to be an All-American type player on defense. That was a monster pickup for Notre Dame.”

Below are some other takeaways from this class, along with what remains for the Irish in the 2021 cycle.

Recruiting rollercoaster: Late last year, Notre Dame boasted the No. 1 recruiting class in 2021. Then came the coronavirus.

The Irish initially struggled to adjust to the new reality of no campus visits. Several of their key targets committed elsewhere, including running back Will Shipley (Clemson) and offensive lineman Landon Tengwall (Penn State). Colzie decommitted from Notre Dame in March.

From mid-October to early July, the Irish landed a commitment from just one 2021 recruit on offense: three-star offensive lineman Pat Coogan. They plunged to as low as No. 20 in the national recruiting rankings.

But Notre Dame eventually adjusted and resurged from August onward. The Irish coaching staff landed key pledges from Kollie and Spindler to spark an impressive stretch of commitments. Colzie also re-committed in September.

“This will be Brian Kelly’s third top 10 class,” Wiltfong said. “They’ve done a terrific job of building off the momentum that they’ve had on the field. That has carried over on the recruiting trail. Notre Dame has got themselves a group that will continue to keep them in playoff conversation down the road.”

Intriguing three-star additions: What prevents Wiltfong from questioning Notre Dame signing three-star recruits is how successful the Irish have been at molding players of that pedigree.

“Notre Dame has recruited well. But you could argue that they are the best developmental program in the country right now,” said Wiltfong, 247Sports’ director of recruiting.

From quarterback Ian Book to rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and defensive end Adetokunbo Ogundeji, plenty of Notre Dame’s top contributors were three-star recruits in their classes. Even running back Kyren Williams held three-star status for most of his recruitment until he received a bump from 247Sports late in the process.

Excluding kicker Joshua Bryan, 15 of the other 23 Irish commits received three-star distinction on 247Sports or Rivals. Kollie and Riley are the only four-star recruits among the pledges on defense.

Multiple three-star signees from this class exceeding expectations would not surprise Wiltfong.

“They don’t have a lot of instant-impact guys on defense right now,” Wiltfong said. “It’s because they are recruiting good football players who maybe need development physically. Since (former Irish defensive coordinator Mike) Elko was hired and they changed that culture on that side of the ball with the smooth transition to Clark Lea and what he’s done, he has elevated the talent level. The upperclassmen are not relinquishing their roles.”

Plenty of poaching: Under Kelly, Notre Dame has found success flipping recruits verbally committed to other schools.

Book (Washington State), defensive ends Daelin Hayes (USC) and Ogundeji (Western Michigan), Owusu-Koramoah (Virginia), wide receiver Braden Lenzy (Oregon) and center Jarrett Patterson (Arizona State) are among current Irish contributors who flipped their pledges from other schools to Notre Dame during their recruitments.

Six recruits flipped their commitments from another school to Notre Dame in this class: defensive ends Will Schweitzer (Nebraska) and Devin Aupiu (UCLA), cornerbacks Philip Riley (USC) and JoJo Johnson (Cincinnati), offensive lineman Caleb Johnson (Auburn) and Bryan (Colorado).

Wiltfong said Schweitzer and Aupiu, both three-star recruits, stand out to him.

“Those are two guys who I could really see being very productive for Notre Dame and some of their better players,” Wiltfong. “Notre Dame is a developmental program on the edge. You see guys really take off, whether it’s Ogundeji, and you are starting to see (Isaiah) Foskey. These two guys will be guys who make a lot of plays in the backfield for Notre Dame down the road.”

Early-enrollee mania: Notre Dame will have its most midyear enrollees in program history this cycle. The previous high came in the 2019 class with 10.

Among the current Irish commits, 13 of them plan to enroll early: Buchner, tight ends Mitchell Evans and Cane Berrong, cornerbacks Ryan Barnes and Riley, safety Justin Walters, Caleb Johnson, Fisher, Spindler, Aupiu, Rubio, Schweitzer and Styles.

Buchner, Barnes, Walters, Aupiu and Schweitzer did not play football this fall after their senior seasons were delayed to the spring because of the pandemic. They chose to enroll early instead of playing in the spring.

“First, you get a chance to get ahead on your physical preparation for college football,” said Wiltfong on the benefit of enrolling early during these circumstances. “You are now in with the strength staff and on a nutrition plan that you weren’t getting at home. That four- or five-month head start, that’s a four- or five-month head start you have for four years for where your nutrition is and where your strength and conditioning is.

“The second part is understanding the scheme and what they are asking you to do. You are in meetings. You can pick up little nuances of the offense or defense that can help you on the field.”

Notre Dame is slated to begin its spring semester on Feb. 3. A spring football schedule has yet to be announced.

“We don’t know what the housing is going to be like yet,” Walters told the Tribune on Saturday. “A lot of the freshman and the whole football team were in apartments because of COVID. But I don’t know if we are going to be in the dorms.

“Something confirmed is that if we are in the dorms, then we will have a midyear roommate. But that’s all we know right now.”

Remaining targets: Four-star running backs Donovan Edwards, Byron Cardwell and Audric Estime, and four-star cornerback Ceyair Wright are the most significant 2021 recruits who are still being pursued by the Irish coaching staff.

According to 247Sports, Edwards will announce his decision at 1:30 p.m. EST on Wednesday. Notre Dame, Michigan and Georgia are considered his top schools, but Edwards is keeping his internal leaning close to the vest.

“It’s tough getting in touch with him,” Spindler told the Tribune this weekend. “You get him on the phone, you better tell him everything that you are thinking and even in the future, what you are thinking. When you get on the phone, it’s challenging because he’s never on his phone.

”And when he is, he’s not answering other recruits. He’s either texting coaches, fans or posting something. He’s a tough guy, but hey, he likes to keep it private.”

Whether the Irish land Edwards and sign running back commit Logan Diggs should determine how they proceed with Cardwell and Estime. Diggs received a scholarship offer from LSU last week. The Metairie (La.) Archbishop Rummel product will consider the Tigers, but they likely entered the mix too late in the process.

Cardwell and Estime plan to announce their decisions after the three-day early signing period. Notre Dame offered Cardwell a scholarship offer on Nov. 9. He plans to announce his decision on Jan. 25. Florida, Florida State, UCLA, California and Oregon also are pursuing him.

Estime has not reported an Irish offer but hears from their coaching staff. He has been verbally pledged to Michigan State since Sept. 13.

Wright visited Notre Dame earlier this month and plans to announce his decision on Jan. 2. USC and Michigan are among his other favorites.

Clarkston (Mich.) High’s Rocco Spindler (middle), a four-star offensive lineman in the 2021 recruiting class, celebrates with his family after announcing his verbal commitment to Notre Dame on Aug. 8.