Inside Recruiting: Five burning questions and answers as Notre Dame signs a new class

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
New Notre Dame head football coach Marcus Freeman is recognized on the court during a timeout in a college basketball game between ND and Kentucky on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021, in South Bend.

Editor’s Note: Inside Recruiting is a recurring feature that addresses key topics involving Notre Dame football recruiting and recruiting in general.

The story is presented in a roundtable format. Today’s contributors are Steve Wiltfong, director of recruiting for 247Sports, and Tom Lemming, recruiting analyst for CBS Sports.

Q: Does the recruiting class Notre Dame signs this week help the Irish take a step toward not only making the College Football Playoff but being able to win games on that big stage?

Wiltfong: “I think it’s a class that keeps Notre Dame in the same discussion that they have been in the last four years, one that’s in the forefront of college football and in the mix to make the College Football Playoff. 

“I think that defensively it’s one of the better defensive hauls in the country. I love Jaylen Sneed and Joshua Burnham. Throw in Aiden Gobaira there, too. I think those guys are going to be major difference-makers for them. 

“And I think that when you look at Notre Dame’s bread and butter — offensive line play — for the second straight year, Notre Dame brings in one of the top offensive line classes in the country. “  

Lemming: “I think it does. Maybe Steve Angeli could be a special quarterback — we don’t know yet. They do lack a speedy wide receiver and playmakers, like you saw Alabama and Georgia have. And losing (wide receiver) C.J. Williams hurts, because they may fall short at wide receiver. 

“Lorenzo Styles, in the last class, looks like he could be a difference-maker, but the Irish need more of those on offense. Yes, they’ll take a step forward, but next year’s class will take an even bigger step forward. What saved this class was Marcus Freeman being named head coach. 

“I would imagine at least half of this class would have jumped ship had Marcus left with Brian Kelly.” 

Related:Meet the Notre Dame Football 2022 recruiting class

More:Four-star WR C.J. Williams drops Notre Dame commitment two days before early signing period

Q: Is there reason to believe the 2023 Irish class will be better?

Wiltfong: “Yeah, because I think Notre Dame, first of all, has the chance to go out and sign one of the elite quarterbacks in the country in 2023, which we haven’t seen Notre Dame do in quite some time. And so I think they’re obviously already off and running again on defense with guys like Keon Keeley and Drayk Bowen and Brenan Vernon.  

“Cooper Flanagan is going to be another one of Notre Dame’s All-America tight ends. But I think the one thing Notre Dame hasn’t done in a while is sign an elite quarterback, and I think they’ll have a chance to get one of the nation’s best next year.” 

Lemming: “Not only is there reason to believe it will be better, but I would be astounded if it wasn’t. Marcus will have a full year to recruit. 

“I also think they’ve got a good assistant coaching group. And anyone who doesn’t recruit elite players will be made to recruit elite players by Marcus Freeman, because he’ll set the tone. Just like Urban Mayer did, like Nick Saban did, like Pete Carroll did. 

“When you have a head coach who’s setting the tone in recruiting, where he’s out there working his butt off, that bodes well for the rest of the guys doing it, because they see the head coach doing it. If they don’t, their time at Notre Dame will be short.” 

Q: How does Notre Dame best move forward from the C.J. Williams late decommitment?

Wiltfong: “Those things happen. It happens to every program. All the schools at the top of the food chain in this recruiting world, they have defections from their classes. And Notre Dame’s no different. But I think Notre Dame signed a talented wide receiver class last year, with guys like Lorenzo Styles and Deion Colzie already seeing the field. 

“And then you come back this year with a guy like Tobias Merriweather and then you try and hold onto Amorion Walker. You’re battling Michigan there. I’m not worried about Notre Dame’s wide receiver room. I like the way it’s trending.  

“I think they’ve got some good, young talent in that room, and Tobias Merriweather is going to push those guys.” 

Lemming: “There isn’t a whole lot left. Maybe you go through the transfer portal and look for an elite guy. If there’s an elite playmaker who’s unhappy at one of the top schools, they’re going to want to check them out. And Notre Dame has enough people behind the scenes now to keep an eye on the transfer portal and really look for elite players.  

“I don’t know if there will be any players of that caliber left in the high school rankings after this early signing day, or else you have to wait another year. So I think that’s the only way they can do it. I do think Notre Dame is one or two playmakers short on offense. You’d also like to see them get some elite secondary help on defense. 

“All that said, I think they’re an elite quarterback away from winning a national title.” 

Notre Dame Players celebrate with new head coach Marcus Freeman in a video posted on the Notre Dame Football twitter account, Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. Video screen grab via Notre Dame Twitter

Q: How does Marcus Freeman, as the head coach, change the recruiting dynamic from Marcus Freeman, the tenacious recruiter as a defensive coordinator?

Wiltfong: “He had his hand on every defensive recruit, as the defensive coordinator. He was instrumental in Notre Dame landing all those guys. And it meant something to those prospects to have a relationship with their position coach and the defensive coordinator. 

“Now, he’s going to, as the head coach, be at the forefront of everybody — every top target’s recruitment. Recruiting is a game of inches, and you never know which inch is going to be the one that pushes a program over the top. It may be the head coach relationship that helps Notre Dame get a bit of an advantage in a tight battle in this 2023 cycle. 

“I think with Marcus Freeman as the head coach, Notre Dame’s going to be relentless recruiting their top targets.” 

Lemming: “He’s got all the power now. He’s got the power of proxy, over all the ball players — where they’re going to be playing at every position now. Not just linebackers, but everywhere. Being the head coach at probably the most visible school in the country makes him almost a superstar. 

“He went from being a great defensive coordinator to being one of the most famous coaches in the country just because he got the Notre Dame job, really. It’s still a prestigious school. There are only a handful like that. 

“Immediately when you get elevated to that position, your aura and your ability to recruit gets a major boost, because you’re the head coach at Notre Dame. You’re already a great recruiter, but now he’s coming in as the head man. So his word means everything. No longer does he have to acquiesce to coach (Brian) Kelly. Everything flows though him.” 

Q: Logan Diggs and Joe Alt were two recruits in the 2021 class who well outperformed their star ratings. Who might be a candidate to do that in the 2022 class? And who will be the class’ most impactful player?

Wiltfong: “For the record, we did rank Joe Alt in the top 200 (No. 180). We should have ranked him much higher, but we’re proud of that ranking. We thought he’d be a good player, but wow. He’s got a chance to be one of Notre Dame’s next first-round picks at the position. 

“When you look at this 2022 class, a guy who maybe could outperform his ranking is Nolan Ziegler. At 6-4, 210 pounds, he was a two-way difference-maker for Grand Rapids Catholic Central. He’s another guy we’re higher on than the rest of the industry. 

“He could make us look bad, like Joe Alt, and become one of Notre Dame’s best players. 

 “As far as most impactful, I am just so intrigued by Joshua Burnham. I’m so curious to see what he grows into. Is he going to be a pass rusher at Notre Dame? I don’t know what he’s going to be, but I think he’s going to be in the middle of the action and he’s going to be a major difference-maker for the Irish. 

“I also think Eli Raridon is going to be special for Notre Dame and the guy who eventually will take the reins from Michael Mayer.”  

Traverse City (Mich.) Central linebacker Joshua Burnham (8), a Notre Dame linebacker recruit, runs in to make a sack on Petoskey quarterback Gavin Wargel (7) earlier this season.

Lemming: “I’m hoping it will be their quarterback, Steve Angeli. I like him a lot. He’s well-coached from Bergen Catholic. I’ve known him since his freshman year.  

“As far as most impactful, they’re all really good. I like the linebackers. Everyone knows about Jaylen Sneed, but those two from Michigan — Joshua Burnham and Nolan Ziegler — they’re both great athletes. But to me there’s 10 guys rated between 50 and 150 in the country, so they’re all very close in their potential to make a major impact.” 

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI