Notre Dame LB signee Prince Kollie's ascendance 'sounds like a made-up story'

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Prince Kollie told his friends last week he didn’t expect to win the high school version of the Butkus Award.

Claiming such recognition typically doesn’t happen for someone with Kollie’s background.

Kollie comes from Jonesborough, the oldest town in Tennessee. It's surrounded by the Great Smoky Mountains in the northeast region of the state and has a population just under 6,000. He moved there with his family from Liberia as a toddler. 

So it didn’t matter that Kollie emerged as one of five finalists for the award given to the nation’s top linebacker. It didn’t matter that Kollie’s success already earned him 34 Division I scholarship offers and a spot in Notre Dame’s 2021 recruiting class. It didn’t matter that Kollie’s numbers as a senior at David Crockett High were borderline comical.

Being overlooked was a feeling Kollie knew all too well.

“Not a lot of people pay attention to what goes on around here,” Kollie said.

On Monday, Kollie learned they do now. He became just the third Irish linebacker signee to garner the high school Butkus Award, joining Manti Te’o (2008) and Jaylon Smith (2012). Te’o (2012) and Smith (2015) went on to claim the college iteration of the award. Notre Dame rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah won the college award on Monday.

Former Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith (9) won the high school and college Butkus Award in 2012 and 2015, respectively.

Understanding Kollie’s initial skepticism requires diving into his significant rise. This time last year, he essentially was an unknown recruit. Being isolated in a recruiting dead zone long hindered Kollie’s opportunities to receive exposure and acclaim.

“I’ve been in this for 42 years, and I don’t think I’ve ever been to that high school,” said Tom Lemming, the longest-tenured recruiting analyst who now works for CBS Sports Network. “He plays in the middle of nowhere.”

Before Kollie, David Crockett never experienced much success. From 1975 to 2012, David Crockett reached five wins only four times. The Pioneers finished with two or fewer victories 27 times during that span. They won their first playoff game in program history in Kollie’s sophomore season.

Head coach Hayden Chandley and wide receivers coach Kevin Ramsey joined David Crockett’s football staff before that season. The Pioneers have since tallied three playoff wins and a 28-8 record.

Still, drawing attention to Kollie’s success proved to be a challenge.

“It was unfortunate. I couldn’t get very many people to talk to him,” Ramsey said. “I didn’t know anybody. And nobody on the staff had ever gone through this kind of deal. He is a generational player in northeast Tennessee. Guys just don’t pump out like this. Nobody had ever been through something like this.”

When Notre Dame extended him an offer in May, Kollie ranked as a low three-star recruit on 247Sports (No. 33 outside linebacker) and Rivals (No. 57 athlete). Kollie did not land his first scholarship offer until Jan. 29 via Virginia. LSU, Oklahoma, Louisville and Georgia joined the mix in the spring.

“That caught the eye of some other schools,” Chandley said. “Next thing you know, he’s going to Kentucky. He’s going to Wake Forest. He’s going to Virginia Tech. Things snowballed from there. It’s crazy to see how far he’s come.

“It sounds like a made-up story.”

The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Kollie has since climbed to four-star status and is expected to receive another considerable bump in the recruiting rankings soon. 247Sports slates Kollie as its No. 5 outside linebacker in the class, while Rivals pegs him No. 16 at the position and No. 239 overall.

This week, it was the Butkus Award. Earlier this month, Kollie was named Tennessee Titans Mr. Football. Wide receiver Golden Tate and safety Harrison Smith are the other former Irish players from Tennessee who have won that award.

“He ranks up there with all the top linebackers they’ve signed since Jaylon Smith,” Lemming said. “Notre Dame needs these kind of athletes on defense if they want to compete with Clemson, Alabama and Ohio State.”

JOK comparison

The 2020 BlueCross Bowl/Tennessee Titans Mr. Football Division I Class 5A winner Prince Kollie, of David Crockett, at Nissan Stadium in Nashville on Dec. 8.

Early in his high school career, Kollie thought a few different positions were possible if he played in college: running back, wide receiver, cornerback and safety.

But linebacker? Not so much.

“I definitely didn’t think I would grow to where I am today,” Kollie said.

Neither did Owusu-Koramoah.

As Kollie developed, he started to hear the comparisons. Like Owusu-Koramoah, Kollie brings a versatile skill set. They also began their high school careers as defensive backs before transitioning to utility roles. They were overlooked for all or the majority of their recruitments. 

The Irish coaching staff nearly passed on taking a linebacker for a second straight cycle after whiffing on their top rover targets in 2021. Then they discovered Kollie and drew the comparison.

“People always talk in terms of playmakers on offense. He’s a playmaker on defense. He wrecks your day on offense,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “We just saw so many similarities with Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Prince in terms of the way they play, his suddenness and just a natural fit at the rover position for us. Which we will continue to employ in our defensive structure.

“To add a playmaker of his capabilities was so attractive to us. It was just a natural fit.”

As a senior at Hampton (Va.) Bethel High, Owusu-Koramoah played a position dubbed “joker." That role saw him operate at defensive end, linebacker and safety. Recruiting analysts harbored doubts, because he could not be evaluated at one position. He finished as a three-star recruit in the 2017 class.

Since his sophomore season, Kollie impressed on offense. He played wide receiver, running back, tight end and wildcat quarterback. He was a 1,000-yard receiver last season and a 1,000-yard rusher in 2020.

How Kollie developed physically and as a defensive player helped launch his recruitment.

Notre Dame rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah tackles Syracuse’s Sean Tucker on Dec. 5.

Kollie played strong safety as a sophomore. Then he moved to a multi-purpose outside linebacker role in 2019. That position called for him to bring pressure off the edge, cover in space and defend against the run. Similar to joker.

The COVID-19 pandemic kept Kollie from proving himself by competing at recruiting camps this past offseason. He made the most of his senior season after moving to middle linebacker. Across 11 games, Kollie totaled 109 tackles, 11 tackles for a loss, two sacks, four pass breakups and an interception.

“He was under 200 pounds a year ago,” Lemming said. “Once people saw him as a linebacker, and adding weight while keeping his speed and great production, made him very receptive to offers.”

With his play on the Irish, Owusu-Koramoah is projected to be a first-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. His multi-faceted style translated in college. He can wreak havoc as a blitzer. He can cover shifty receivers. He can line up in the box and offer adequate run support.

Observing Owusu-Koramoah these past two seasons left Kollie feeling like he was watching himself.

“It’s like we are related or something,” Kollie said. “I look up to him as a big brother.”

Lea leaving

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea has the Irish among the nation's leaders in scoring defense.

The Irish managed to secure Kollie’s verbal commitment in August without ever hosting him on a recruiting visit.

They nearly lost him four months later.

On Dec. 13, Kollie learned of reports that Clark Lea would be named Vanderbilt’s head coach. Kollie didn’t want to believe it. The Notre Dame defensive coordinator played a major role in his recruitment.

Later that day, Kollie said he heard from a college coach at another school. He mentioned Lea’s pending departure and wondered if Kollie would reconsider his recruitment. That's when it felt real.

And on Dec. 14, Vanderbilt officially announced Lea’s hiring. The news came out the same week of the three-day early signing period for the 2021 class.

“He did a great job of winning me over. He’s a genuine guy,” said Kollie of Lea. “That’s what I look for, and the things that Notre Dame has to offer is what intrigued me. He’s a guru in terms of defensive scheme. I was excited to get to play for someone like that.

“So I was devastated. He was a lot of the reason why I was comfortable with making that decision. I had to take a step back, reevaluate everything and talk to God.”

College coaches from other schools started flooding Kollie’s phone with calls and text messages. A majority of them were ignored. Kollie had not received that amount of attention his entire recruitment.

“The limelight is just not where he wants to be,” Ramsey said. “He wanted to be alone with his thoughts and prayers and figure out what kind of response he wanted to have.”

Multiple Notre Dame coaches eventually reached Kollie before Wednesday, the first day of the early signing period. Several members of the 27-player Irish class contacted Kollie, too. Their efforts paid off. He signed on Wednesday.

Kollie said Kelly told him Notre Dame will continue to incorporate a rover in its defensive scheme. Kelly also assured him that he plans to remain with the Irish for a while. Lea connected with Kollie and offered that he still believes Notre Dame is the right fit for him.

Irish recruiting/special teams coordinator Brian Polian and defensive analyst Nick Lezynski also were involved.

“Part of the reason I was there in the first place was for life after football,” Kollie said. “And being able to provide for my family if, God forbid, I wasn’t able to play football anymore. With a Notre Dame degree and experience, that will take care of my life after football. So that’s why I stayed true to that.”

Staying true to his word gives Kollie the opportunity to become the next Owusu-Koramoah at Notre Dame. If he's another college Butkus Award winner for the Irish, the Jonesborough product would pull off a remarkable feat.

Simply having that opportunity seemed inconceivable just a year ago.

“We haven’t had really anybody who brings what God allowed me to do this year,” Kollie said. “We’ve had a lot of players that I believe are Division I. But because of where we are from, nobody really gave them a chance. There’s at least three or four of my closest friends who are just like me that I believe should be playing Division I right now. They weren’t as fortunate as I am.”

Notre Dame linebacker signee Prince Kollie.