Tuihalamaka's commitment to Notre Dame adds to stars aligning for historic linebacker haul

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Los Angeles Bishop Alemany High standout linebacker Niuafe "Junior" Tuihalamaka (5) verbally committed to Notre Dame on Saturday, June 19, 2021.

The context of what’s happening to Notre Dame’s talent level at linebacker is not only aptly framed by the latest elite prospect to join the 2021 Irish recruiting class, but also who won’t be.

Roughly 48 hours before Californian Niuafe “Junior” Tuihalamaka made his announcement public Saturday afternoon via Twitter to be the 15th addition to the nation’s consensus No. 2 class, fellow prep standout linebacker Sebastian Cheeks — a reported Notre Dame lean, from Evanston, Ill. — was dropped from this weekend’s Irish official recruiting visitors’ list.

The latter transaction would have never happened in most recruiting cycles at ND in the past couple of decades. Maybe the first transaction, too, in some years  — plucking a linebacker the caliber of one-time USC commit Tuihalamaka.

Then again, there’s been an unprecedented feel building at the linebacker position group since Marcus Freeman became Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator/linebackers coach on Jan. 8, a week after the 2020 Irish season ended with a 31-14 College Football Playoff semifinal loss to eventual national champ Alabama.  

And the Irish aren’t done.

Hilton Head Island (S.C.) linebacker Jaylen Sneed (6-2, 210) raved about the official visit he took to Notre Dame less than a week ago. Should he join four-star prospect Tuihalamaka and previously committed four-star linebackers Nolan Ziegler (6-4, 210) and Joshua Burnham (6-4, 215), he’d become just the third linebacker and top 50 national prospect to end up at Notre Dame in the Rivals Era (2002-present).

The others were eventual All-Americans Manti Te’o (No. 12 in 2009) and Jaylon Smith (No. 3 2013). Daelin Hayes (No. 31 in 2016) was classified by Rivals as a linebacker, but Notre Dame recruited him as a defensive end.

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“Cheeks is a heck of an athlete, the No. 1 player in Illinois,” offered CBS Sports recruiting analyst Tom Lemming. “Notre Dame dropping him, to me, means two things: That they feel pretty good about landing Sneed, and that this has a chance to be the best linebacker group at Notre Dame in the past 40 years.

“They’re dropping an All-American, because they have too many All-Americans. They’re doing so well, they’re turning down All-Americans. Linebacker is a position Notre Dame has struggled with consistently bringing in impact players. That’s the difference with Marcus Freeman.”

A case in point, with Sneed Notre Dame would have four four-star linebackers in the 2022 class alone, one more than former ND head coaches Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis combined to amass in a six-year span (2002-07).

The latest addition, Tuihalamaka, played an abridged junior season at Bishop Alemany in Mission Hills, Calif., this past spring because of COVID-19 restrictions. The 6-foot-3, 230-pounder — whose head coach is former ND quarterback Jimmy Clausen’s older brother, Casey — is ranked as the No. 144 prospect regardless of position by Rivals, 120 by 247Sports and No. 95 by ESPN.

He first committed to USC in February of his sophomore year. Notre Dame offered him a scholarship 11 months later, on Jan. 21. He decommitted from the Trojans two days later.

Oregon, Stanford, Texas and Arizona State joined the Irish in his reconfigured final five. Tuihalamaka chose Saturday as his commitment day to honor his father on his father’s birthday.

He took his official visit to Notre Dame the weekend of June 11-13.

“Manti’s his hero,” Lemming said of Tuihalamaka, “and I think he patterns his game after Manti. They’re similar size-wise, and they’re both physical guys, good straight-ahead linebackers.

“I’m not saying he’s as good as Manti — Manti came in second in the Heisman. But he’s one of the better inside linebackers in the country and perfectly suited for that position.

“They’ve had other good linebacker groups, but I’m talking about impact. These guys have the potential to be impact players in college and then be NFL players. All four of them.”

Four-star linebacker Joshua Burnham, a 2022 recruit from Traverse City (Mich.) Central, is part of an impressive linebacker haul for the Irish.

Lemming believes Burnham, ranked No. 140 by Rivals and 85th by 247Sports, will turn out to be the best among the four.

“I think Burnham could be a five-star guy, to be honest with you,” Lemming said. “The reason he’s not ranked higher is because he’s from Traverse City (Mich.), and not a lot of people get up there to see him.

“Watch him on film. He’s in on every play. He’s got the length, the speed, the burst to get to the ball. And he’s going to be 6-4, 230 in another year or two. If he stays healthy, watch, he’s going to be a superstar. 

“But I really like all four of them.”

There’s a lot to like in the next class as well. And so far, Notre Dame has gotten four linebackers in the 2023 Rivals Top 100 to take unofficial visits to South Bend this month. That includes three ranked in the top 30, higher than any of the 2022 Irish linebacker targets. 

That group comprises Drayk Bowen (No. 16) of St. John, Ind., Jordan Ausberry (No. 24) of Baton Rouge, La. and Sonny Styles (No. 30) of Pickerington, Ohio — all three on five-star trajectories.

Burnham and fellow Michigander Ziegler (Grand Rapids), incidentally, were back on campus on their own dime this weekend helping to recruit another group of 2022 and 2023 prospects loaded with star power.

Notre Dame linebacker commit Nolan Ziegler, right, finished his junior season at Grand Rapids (Mich.) Catholic Central with a Division 5 state championship victory on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021.

“I think too often Notre Dame was willing to settle for the blue-collar, overachiever type at linebacker,” Lemming said. “And there’s a place for those, just not a steady diet of them.

“I don’t think Bob Diaco, Kelly’s first defensive coordinator, was a very good recruiter. Brian VanGorder didn’t even know what recruiting was. Mike Elko and Clark Lea were good recruiters and very good at player development, but Marcus is at a different level.

“They’ve gone from the majority, three-star players to four- and five-star players at linebacker. They made that massive jump because of Freeman. They’re doing really well at the other position groups, but I believe Marcus Freeman may be the guy who finally puts them over the top.”

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @ehansenNDI

ND Class of 2022