Notre Dame takes recruiting star power to new level with commitment from Ohio DE Vernon
As Tom Lemming worked his way through game tapes last summer, the longtime college football recruiting analyst had a hard time believing that the defensive end playing at a five-star level in them was a freshman.
Let alone doing so with a torn labrum serious enough that it required postseason surgery.
Fast forward to a pandemic retreat that finally allowed for campus visits, and in the past couple of weeks game film star and Mentor (Ohio) High defensive end Brenan Vernon sized up Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Notre Dame in person.
Irish fans have seen this movie before, but not with this ending.
On Tuesday, the nation’s No. 9 player in the 2023 class regardless of position verbally committed to Notre Dame.
In 20 completed recruiting cycles since recruiting website Rivals.com began compiling national player rankings in 2002, only twice have the Irish signed players with a higher overall ranking — quarterback Jimmy Clausen (No. 1 in 2007) and linebacker Jaylon Smith (No. 3 in 2013).
“Wow, wow, just wow,” Lemming said. “This is a massive catch, beating the super teams to get him. This is a kid who grew up a Buckeye fan and is, quite frankly, the kind of kid you expect to end up at Ohio State.
“Already he has quickness off the ball that makes him special, and he’s only going to get better. But this isn’t just about Brenan Vernon. The way Notre Dame is closing with its 2022 class and the way it’s starting with its 2023s, this is big.”
The Irish are No. 2 in the 2022 team recruiting rankings, behind only Ohio State, with its most recent and 16th commitment coming Saturday from Lawrenceburg (Ind.) offensive lineman Ashton Craig.
Keon Keeley, a four-star defensive end from Tampa, Fla., kicked off the 2023 class commitments Monday. Five-star Vernon, 6-5 and 250, joined him roughly 30 hours later.
The Notre Dame coaching staff systematically and relentlessly worked on both classes during a 27-day opening to host and evaluate prospects. That was bookended by the end of the COVID-19-induced, 15-month NCAA recruiting dead period that finally relented on June 1 and a natural-occuring one that started Monday and lifts on July 24.
In addition to scheduling official/paid visits for every one of its remaining top 2022 targets, Notre Dame was able to attract more than 100 2023 prospects paying their own way to campus for unofficial visits and/or the Irish Invasion Camp.
That includes no fewer than 25 of the 2023 Rivals Top 100, with elite quarterback prospect Dante Moore from Detroit the final one to visit on Sunday. Vernon, meanwhile, visited twice during the month.
“Brian Kelly let everyone know he wants to make a move in recruiting,” Lemming said of the 12th-year Irish coach. “And this is the way you do it. You go after the great ones. You get them on campus as much as you can. That sets the table for great things to happen later.”
Defensive line coach Mike Elston’s role in the table-setting can’t be overstated. After defensive coordinator Clark Lea left for the Vanderbilt head coaching job and Marcus Freeman was hired as his replacement in January, Elston had opportunities to become a defensive coordinator elsewhere.
Instead he stayed, took on recruiting coordinator duties and formed a powerful recruiting collaboration with Freeman that has inspired the rest of the coaching staff.
The 2022 defensive end haul so far comprises top 100 prospect Tyson Ford from St. Louis, ascending four-star prospect Aiden Gobaira of Chantilly, Va., and intriguing three-star recruit Darren Agu, who landed a scholarship offer from Alabama.
Agu is an Ireland native who grew up in England and is attending high school in Rabun Gap, Ga. His football career is just beginning. His athleticism is advanced. Agu was a member of a 4x100 relay team that brought Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School a state title in that event this past spring.
“Mike Elston has always been able to identify talent and develop it,” Lemming said. “Now he’s getting even more of it and then handing it over to what may be the best strength coach in the country in Matt Balis.”
Notre Dame in the Rivals Era has only previously signed four defensive ends who were top 30 players overall, per Rivals: Victor Abiamiri (No. 23) in 2003, and Ishaq Williams (No. 16), Stephon Tuitt (22) and Aaron Lynch (28) all in 2011.
The Irish are still in play in 2022 to add more defensive line talent. Both end Cyrus Moss (No. 89 per Rivals) of Las Vegas Bishop Gorman High and Anthony Lucas (No. 148) of Scottsdale (Ariz.) Chaparral visited ND this month and have designated the Irish as contenders.
Lucas is a 6-5, 285-pounder who recruiting analysts project as a defensive tackle but who fashions himself as an end.
“I still think this has a chance to end up a top five class,” Lemming said of the 2022s. “And 2023 I still think is going to be even better. Why not think big if you’re a Notre Dame fan? Brian Kelly is.”
With his commitment behind him, Vernon is reportedly focused on staying healthy through his upcoming junior season at Mentor. His sophomore year was limited to five games because of a foot injury that required surgery.
Vernon’s Cardinals went 9-2 in 2020, falling to Pickerington Central, 38-31, in an Ohio Division I state semifinal. Current Notre Dame freshman receiver Lorenzo Styles Jr., and Irish 2023 recruiting target Sonny Styles helped Pickerington Central to the victory.
Sonny Styles is a 6-5, 216-pound safety who rated No. 26 overall in the 2023 class by Rivals and who is projected to play linebacker in college.
“Brenan Vernon and Sonny Styles are the best two players in Ohio in the 2023 class,” Lemming said. “Notre Dame’s been able to come into Ohio and get some elite offensive lineman before, but Ohio State’s usually able to get everyone else they want in state.
“Now Notre Dame has Vernon, and they could end up with Sonny Styles too. If you’re Brian Kelly, you’ve got to like where things could be headed.”
Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @ehansenNDI