Wide receiver Williams' commitment boosts Notre Dame football perception and reality

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei wide receiver standout C.J. Williams verbally committed to Notre Dame on Sunday, Aug. 8, 2021.

C.J. Williams on Sunday provided the consummate perceptual recruiting bump, a player who personifies and legitimizes Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly’s insistence that a recruiting renaissance is achievable.

And the reality of a polished wide receiver with the kind of physical maturity, wired for the mental toughness, needed to make an early college contribution if needed in 2022.

The 6-foot-2, 190-pound Californian becomes the 21st verbal commitment in the 2022 cycle for the Irish, choosing Notre Dame from among 50 scholarship offers that included finalists Alabama, Texas, USC and Stanford.

“I feel like the determining factor that kind of set Notre Dame apart was just the way they kind of treat each other and the way they deviate from the rest," Williams said during his Sunday announcement.

“It’s a faith-based school, and that really plays into my life and that’s something that was really important in my recruitment. I wanted to be around like-minded people who made me a better person and who will compete with me every day.”

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He's the second four-star wide receiver in less than a week to pledge to the Irish, joining Tobias Merriweather of Camas. Wash.

And for the moment, Notre Dame sits atop the national team recruiting rankings configured by Rivals.com. In the 247Sports Composite team standings, the Irish leapfrogged Alabama into the No. 2 spot, now behind only Penn State.

“Maybe the best part of this is where this could lead,” CBS Sports recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said of the Sunday addition of the highest-ranked prospect to the ND recruiting class of 2022 to date (No. 29 nationally per Rivals, No. 72 per 247Sports).

“Notre Dame finally gets someone from Mater Dei High School (in Santa, Ana, Calif.) — and a good one from Mater Dei. It’s the most productive school in the country and plays in maybe the most talent-rich conference in the country, the Trinity League.

“Alabama and Clemson pulled high school All-American quarterbacks out of there recently in Bryce Young (Mater Dei) and D.J. Uiagalelei (St. John Bosco). Notre Dame couldn’t get them to even visit.

“But Brian Kelly’s made changes in the past year that have made a difference. Putting (assistant coach) Brian Polian back in Southern California, for one, has been a great reinforcement. I visit the Trinity League every year as part of my travels. There’s so much talent in that one league it makes my head spin.”

Rivals.com 2022 Recruiting Rankings

The six other private schools comprising the Trinity League are JSerra in San Juan Capistrano, Servite in Anaheim, Santa Margarita in Rancho Santa Margarita, Rosary Academy in Fullerton, Orange Lutheran in Orange, and St. John Bosco in Bellflower.

Mater Dei alone has produced at least one Rivals top 250 player every recruiting cycle since 2013, and 19 combined in the 2018-22 cycles. All four top 100 prospects in the 2022 class, in fact, are ranked 61st or higher.

But the last Mater Dei player before Williams to be offered an ND scholarship out of high school and who ended up signing with the Irish was defensive lineman Brandon Nicolas in 2004. Before that it was 1998 and Mike McNair, a five-star fullback with sprinter speed whose promise was derailed by injuries and then-ND coach Bob Davie’s indecision on how best to utilize the healthy version.

Nicolas was a three-star prospect signed in head coach Tyrone Willingham’s last recruiting class and a player who clashed with successor Charlie Weis before and transferring prior to  the 2005 season starting.

He landed at Colorado, where he went on to become a three-year starter.

Between Nicolas and Williams, there was a Mater Dei player who made a splash for the Irish, coming to Notre Dame as a walk-on linebacker. Joe Schmidt eventually earned a scholarship, started two seasons and was voted team MVP in 2014.

The first Mater Dei player to land at Notre Dame was a Heisman Trophy winner in 1964, quarterback John Huarte.

Outside of the Trinity League, Notre Dame has been strong in California during the Kelly Era and particularly recently. Since the 2018 cycle, California (14) and Georgia (11) are 1-2 among states providing Irish signees and current verbal commitments in the 2022 class.

It reinforces ND’s desire to remain an independent in football rather than exploring full conference membership, because it’s easier to schedule games in California and Georgia that way.

And then there's this recruiting nugget: There are more more five-stars, more top 50 recruits and top 100 prospects from Georgia and California combined in the 2022 cycle than there are from the entire Big Ten 11-state footprint.

Williams is not only one of six players in the Irish class with an Alabama offer, he has a Tuscaloosa birth certificate and a father (Shelby) who played basketball for the Crimson Tide.

He’s tied for the ninth-highest-ranked recruit of the Kelly Era (per Rivals) with recent wide receiver enigma/defector Jordan Johnson (UCF) and former All-America guard and first-round draft pick Quenton Nelson.

“I think C.J. Williams is better than Jordan Johnson,” Lemming said. “Both are very good athletes. Both are similar-type players — big, physical receivers. But C.J. is more consistent. He’s got a better mindset.

“And he’s played better competition. He faces better competition in practice than a lot of players ever see in games.”

Getting to play in games has been a challenge, though. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mater Dei’s 2020 season was delayed until spring, then condensed to six games.

Then earlier this week, the team’s scheduled Aug. 20 season opener with Corona Centennial was canceled after Centennial discovered COVID issues within its program. Irish four-star cornerback recruit Jaden Mickey plays for Centennial and might have been matched up with Williams in the game.

“When he finally does get to play again, I think C.J. is going to remind people of Michael Floyd (ND’s career reception leader),” Lemming said. “Floyd wasn’t a brilliant speed guy. He had good speed. And (Williams) has proven himself in big-game competition as a go-to receiver who catches everything within his frame.

“That’s what really impresses me. He has great vice-like hands. And you throw it to him, if it’s anywhere near him, he’s going to catch it. And then he’s tough to bring down, because of his physicality.

“Really was impressed with him. Great kid. Always has a smile on his face and Notre Dame’s going to like him a lot.”

He also has the profile of the kind of recruits with whom the Irish will try to finish the cycle, leading up to the national signing window (Dec. 15-17).

Almost all of the remaining top-of-the-board targets are ranked in the top 100 by Rivals, 247Sports or both. Most of them are being pursued by Alabama. Ideally, Notre Dame would sign between 25 and 27 prospects.

"The momentum is real," Lemming said. "Notre Dame wants to play for national championships, and they're backing that up with important players like C.J. Williams who can help make that happen."

Notre Dame football verbal commitments

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @ehansenNDI