Notebook: Finding the right perspective of Notre Dame's 2022 recruiting class

Tyler James
ND Insider
Marcus Freeman blows his whistle to end a drill during Notre Dame football practice for the Fiesta Bowl on Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, inside the Irish Athletics Center at Notre Dame in South Bend.

SOUTH BEND — The perspective of Notre Dame’s 2022 recruiting class can shift depending on the angle from which its viewed. 

If you live and die with every recruitment the way you live and die with every third down on Saturdays, Wednesday might feel like a bit of a letdown. The Irish certainly took their lumps this week. 

Three-star wide receiver Amorion Walker, who had been verbally committed since March, flipped his decision to sign with Michigan on Wednesday, the first day of a three-day early signing period. Four-star defensive back Devin Moore, who backed off his commitment to the Irish in the wake of head coach Brian Kelly leaving for LSU, chose to sign with Florida over Notre Dame on Wednesday too.

► The signees:Meet the Notre Dame football 2022 recruiting class

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Four-star wide receiver C.J. Williams reportedly won’t announce his decision until the All-American Bowl on Jan. 8, but when he ditched his Notre Dame commitment on Monday night, he all be signaled he would be going to USC. 

Despite those late shortcomings, Notre Dame still entered Wednesday evening ranked among the top 10 schools in the country for its class of 21 signed recruits. The Irish were slated at No. 6 by 247Sports and No. 7 by Rivals when the Tribune’s print deadline hit. 

This 2022 class will arguably be considered Notre Dame’s best class since the 2013 group that coincided with Notre Dame’s trip to the BCS National Championship Game following the 2012 season. Regardless of which recruiting ratings you prefer, the Irish signed at least 15 recruits with a four-star rating or better. 

“Our staff did an unbelievable job,” said new head coach Marcus Freeman. “What you learned about this class is the majority of these kids, they were committed to Notre Dame. And it wasn’t about one person. It wasn’t about who was the head coach. It was about Notre Dame, and the kids who loved Notre Dame we’re so excited to have part of our class.” 

There’s plenty of reasons to be excited too. A quartet of four-star linebackers. A quintet of offensive linemen ready to carry on the tradition of the position group. A pair of tight ends that complement each other well. A trio of defensive backs with intriguing upside. 

But what might be most tantalizing about Wednesday is the thought of this only marking the beginning of a recruiting revolution for Notre Dame. 

“It’s not fair to evaluate what Marcus Freeman did over the last two weeks and decide whether he’s going to be the right recruiter for this role,” said Notre Dame recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach Mike Elston. “He’s going to be phenomenal.” 

“We’re going to bridge the gap from what’s challenging here and the location that we’re in and how hard it is to do the classwork here to the relationships that he’s going to build from the top down. You’re going to see it in the 2023 recruiting cycle. I believe that you already see it.  

“I believe that by this time next year, there’s going to be a lot more people in the room, there’s going to be a bigger buzz around our recruiting class. I believe that coach Freeman’s energy and his vision and what the staff is going to do over the next 12 months is really what’s going to make the difference.” 

The Irish coaching staff couldn’t spend much time trying to push for new targets in the final few weeks. The attention had to be given to Notre Dame’s commits and making sure they were comfortable with the transition from Kelly to Freeman. 

Notre Dame’s assistant coaches, who were in a limbo of their own between the time Kelly left and Freeman being promoted a few days later, were left to massage the relationships with the recruits who were devoted to Notre Dame. 

“Notre Dame football was turned upside down for about three days,” said Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees. “Until you had answers for them on the direction we were going to, that’s where a lot of the indecision came.  

“What’s the staff going to look like? Who’s going to be leading? Who’s going to be in our rooms individually? Those were the questions that continuously came up.  

“As soon as we had that information and could share it with them, we did. We were very transparent. We knew the guys that were a little bit on the fence, and we went and saw all those guys a couple times to make sure we hammered home the points that we felt were important.  

“At the end of the day, the people that resonate with this place as a university and as a program are the ones that are signing with us (Wednesday).” 

Making a mark at linebacker 

Freeman didn’t waste much time when he joined Notre Dame in January as defensive coordinator. Securing a talented linebacker class was a priority. He inherited the commitment of Nolan Ziegler, then he landed fellow four-star prospects Joshua Burnham, Niuafe Tuihalamaka and Jayden Sneed by mid-July. 

Nolan Ziegler, pictured on the right catching a touchdown pass for Grand Rapids Catholic Central in a Michigan state championship game, is one of four talented linebackers to sign Wednesday with Notre Dame.

The Irish could make a strong argument for putting together the deepest class of linebackers in the country. 

“Those are huge additions to this class,” Freeman said. “We needed it.  

“We're losing three, maybe four linebackers as we move forward. And so, we knew that was a position where we had to bring in some guys that can be immediate help, and the guys that can develop. And that's still to be determined, which of those guys are. But I think the talent level is there. The skill set is there for what we need in the future.” 

How NIL fits into recruiting 

The name, image and likeness (NIL) movement in the NCAA has given athletes access to outside money, but a deal contingent upon enrollment for a prospect violates the rules. In a recruiting world that’s always dealt with money exchanges whether legal or not, it’s natural to wonder how Notre Dame can best harness the potential of NIL in its favor. 

“You have to show them that you have a plan,” Freeman said. “But there are certain rules within the NCAA that you can't do. We can't say we're providing this name, image and likeness deal for you and things of that nature. We know it's real. And they know we have a plan to try to help promote it.  

“But we can't break the rules. And we won't break the rules. But we know it's a part of recruiting in the future and recruiting in the present.”  

That doesn’t mean every school across the country is following the rules. 

“We do things the Notre Dame way,” Freeman said. “I've told this staff that we're going to do everything we do with integrity and do it the right way. And we're going to win by outworking people. And that's going to be our mindset in football. It's going to be our mindset in recruiting. We're going to outwork our opponents. So, I don't want to do anything that has to do with breaking the rules.” 

Recruiting staff evolution 

The list of thank-you’s handed out by Notre Dame’s coaching staff on signing day seems to get longer every year. Freeman started with expressing gratitude to folks who helped with admissions and enrollment, Christy Pratt and Don Bishop, and the academic staff with associate director of academic services for student-athletes Adam Sargent.

The Fighting Irish Media crew, who put together a series of fun videos announcing Notre Dame’s signees, were given deserved praise. Executive producer Jodain Massad and feature producer Cody Baker were both mentioned for their roles.

Other shout-outs from Freeman and Elston included director of recruiting Aaryn Kearney, coordinator of on-campus recruiting Mackenzie Zanow, program assistant Reilly Fangman, art director Bo Savage, associate director of football social media and brand Shalika Shetty, assistant producer Emily Ragan, director of player personnel Dave Peloquin, director of scouting Bill Rees, offensive recruiting director Dre Brown and defensive recruiting director Chad Bowden. 

The addition of Brown and Bowden may have provided the most drastic evolution of Notre Dame’s recruiting efforts. New roles were created when Freeman brought Bowden with him from Cincinnati to help facilitate and organize the communication between coaches and recruits. 

Elston explained how the work of Brown and Bowden helped make the job easier for Notre Dame’s assistant coaches during a typical game week. 

“Monday night there’s a set of calls coming in. I didn’t set those calls up. They’re coming in,” Elston said. “Chad’s doing that for the defense. Dre’s doing that for the offense. Then Wednesday night same thing. Those are being set up and they’re coming in at a certain time. That wouldn’t have gotten done a year ago prior to those guys arriving.  

“Then on top of that, the Friday before we leave or a Friday home game, we have a set number of guys we’re going to watch and sit down and evaluate. Whether they have other offers or we’re evaluating a 2022 or '23. I was pretty much done with the '22 class, so I was evaluating 2023s and 2024s. That grunt work, that leg work, that organization is really what’s helped us.” 

Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.