What this spring could do for Notre Dame's six early enrollees on defense
Philip Riley starting at cornerback as a true freshman next season would not represent a new trend under Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly.
In the last five years, a handful of Irish cornerbacks have seen the field early. Julian Love (2016), Troy Pride Jr. (2016) and Clarence Lewis (2020) all started multiple games at cornerback as Notre Dame true freshmen. Shaun Crawford and TaRiq Bracy also earned playing time at cornerback near the beginning of their Irish careers.
Riley will be one of a program-record 14 early-enrolled freshmen. A majority of them moved into their on-campus dorms this weekend before officially beginning the spring semester on Wednesday.
By coming to Notre Dame now, Riley likely gives himself a better chance to ascend the depth chart. There can be several benefits to enrolling early. He namely will have the ability to impress the Irish coaching staff during spring practice.
Unless new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman tweaks the scheme, the Irish will look for a new starting boundary cornerback for a fifth straight offseason. Nick McCloud, last season’s starter, declared early for the NFL Draft. Junior Cam Hart and sophomore Ramon Henderson are the returning boundary corners. Neither of them have played many high-leverage snaps, though.
At 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, Riley brings the size and physicality to play the boundary position. The Valrico (Fla.) Bloomingdale product also brings four-star recruiting pedigree. Hart and Henderson were three-star recruits. Lewis, another three-star recruit, starts at field corner.
Defensive backs and wide receivers are often spotlighted during spring football. To mitigate injuries, tackling and contact is discouraged at times. Drills that match up defensive backs and receivers in one-on-one coverage situations are encouraged. So Riley will have plenty of opportunities to stand out.
What about the other five midyears on defense? Here’s a look at how they could benefit from enrolling early and playing spring football.
• DT Gabriel Rubio, 6-5, 285; Saint Peters (Mo.) Lutheran: An interior defensive lineman received significant playing time as a true freshman every season since Mike Elston started coaching the position group again in 2017.
Rubio continuing that trend might be challenging. Interior defensive line looks to be the deepest and most talented position group on Notre Dame’s defense. Graduate senior Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, senior Jayson Ademilola and sophomore Rylie Mills should be ahead of Rubio on the depth chart at defensive tackle.
From a physical standpoint, Rubio looks ready. After suffering a minor knee injury last fall, Rubio is back to 100 percent. He just needs to be patient. Learning Freeman’s scheme and polishing his technique should be Rubio’s focus this spring.
• DE Devin Aupiu, 6-5, 220; Oxnard (Calif.) Pacifica: Aupiu is one of Notre Dame’s five early enrollees who did not play a football season as a senior in high school because of the COVID-19 pandemic, joining quarterback Tyler Buchner, defensive end Will Schweitzer, cornerback Ryan Barnes and safety Justin Walters.
This spring should be about development and physical growth for Aupiu, who is projected to play vyper defensive end. Aupiu spent most of his childhood playing linebacker. He still has plenty to learn about pass rushing and playing defensive line.
With his versatility and foot speed, Aupiu could be utilized at a couple different positions. But to play vyper, he will have to gain a considerable amount of weight. He’s far from being physically on par with the top three players on the projected depth chart: Isaiah Foskey (6-5, 257), Jordan Botelho (6-3, 248) and Alexander Ehrensberger (6-7, 247).
• DE Will Schweitzer, 6-5, 205; Los Gatos (Calif.) High: Schweitzer has even more to learn about vyper defensive end than Aupiu.
In his last high school season as a junior, Schweitzer played middle linebacker. Notre Dame even targeted him as a middle linebacker for a majority of his recruitment before changing course last summer. So it may take some time before Schweitzer shows impressive technique as an Irish defensive end.
Notre Dame listed Schweitzer at 205 pounds when he signed with the Irish last month. Schweitzer said he comes closer to 230 now after gaining weight during his off time last fall. Looking more like a defensive end than a linebacker will likely be the priority for Schweitzer this spring.
• CB Ryan Barnes, 6-2, 180; Gaithersburg (Md.) Quince Orchard: Notre Dame heavily pursued Barnes as a recruit because of his length and position flexibility.
From cornerback to safety to nickelback, Barnes could play any position in the secondary. Being a jack-of-all-trades risks the possibility of being a master-of-none, though. So the Irish may look to experiment with Barnes at multiple positions this spring before plugging him into a position long term.
The Irish signed four cornerbacks in the 2021 recruiting class: Barnes, Riley, Chance Tucker, and JoJo Johnson. Barnes looks like the best candidate among those four to move to safety. And Notre Dame will need more bodies at safety. This spring, the Irish will have only two scholarship free safeties in junior Kyle Hamilton and senior DJ Brown. Incoming freshman safety Khari Gee joins the team in June.
• S Justin Walters, 6-1, 175; Bolingbrook (Ill.) High: Walters played in the box so much in his high school career that he could be confused as a linebacker. He flashed a bruising style and played a major role in how Bolingbrook defended the run.
Look for Walters to begin his Notre Dame career at strong safety with senior Houston Griffith and juniors KJ Wallace and Litchfield Ajavon. Depending on how he grows physically, Walters could develop into a rover.
Pass coverage is the area Walters has room for improvement. He was rarely challenged in coverage from the run-heavy offenses he faced in Illinois. So the one-on-one coverage drills in spring practice should challenge Walters and make him better.