High school students just weeks ago, 12 Irish football freshman transition to college life
SOUTH BEND — Jaden Mickey has always been a math guy. However, the Notre Dame freshman cornerback can still identify the most difficult part of his transition to college with one word.
He took statistics his senior year at Centennial High School outside of Los Angeles, so the No. 10 player overall from California in the class of 2022, per Rivals, was a little rusty heading into second-year college calculus.
Not that the early wakeups were a part of his high-school routine two months ago either.
“I was never (an) early riser, or (up) early working out,” he said. “So (that) has been an adjustment definitely.”
Mickey, like 11 other early freshman enrollees at Notre Dame, is making the fast-track transition from high school senior just weeks ago, to college scholarship football student-athlete at one of the country's most recognizable programs.
As is freshman defensive end Aiden Gobaira, who luckily has roommate — Josh Burnham — that ensures he doesn’t miss strength coach Matt Balis’ “gruesome” Friday-morning workouts.
“He sets the alarm,” Gobaira said of the freshman linebacker. “He wakes us up. It’s perfect.”
Mickey, Gobaira, Burnham and several other members of Notre Dame’s mid-year enrollees spoke last week about the benefits of getting acclimated together a semester early in the classroom, weight room and everywhere in between.
Most of them are taking classes such as statistics for business and writing and rhetoric together. In addition to Burnham, Gobaira said he’s fortunate to have fellow mid-year enrollees in linebacker Nolan Ziegler and offensive lineman Joey Tanona across the hall.
“Having all four of us really making sure that we’re succeeding and doing the right things, it’s keeping us accountable,” he said.
Peer support doesn’t hurt when handling a sudden dose of increased freedom. Burnham might be responsible for setting the alarm, but the 2021 Michigan Gatorade Player of the Year said managing his time with class, studying and lifting has been the biggest challenge of collegiate life so far.
“You don’t have your parents here telling you when to go to bed and stuff,” he said. “So you got to make your own schedule.”
Several of the new arrivals emphasized that they are a close-knit group. Mickey said he’s happy living with offensive lineman Billy Schrauth, but his exact placement wouldn’t have mattered.
“Well, we all love each other,” he said of the freshman cohort. “So any roommate we got, we would have been pleased.”
The camaraderie of this recruiting class was notable in the context of former head coach Brian Kelly’s sudden departure to LSU in late November 2021. For the most part, Notre Dame’s top-10 recruiting class remained intact.
Burnham said recruits urged each other over text not to bolt and wait for Notre Dame to make its move. When then-35-year-old defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman was promoted to his first head coaching job a few days later, they didn’t need further convincing to stay put.
“Everyone likes a guy like Coach,” Burnham said of Freeman. “He’s always there for you. He’s got, what, six kids, so he’s a family man. He makes sure that you feel like family.”
Mickey, who verbally committed to Notre Dame in March 2021, said he waited for Freeman to be hired before deciding to stay with the Irish.
“So it got a little shaky toward the end because of Signing Day,” he said. “I scheduled some visits, but once Coach Freeman got the job, all those visits got canceled. I was locked in.”
Mickey added it’s motivating to see Freeman working out when his players are, even if the head coach isn’t necessarily joining in on the running or getting barked at by Balis.
“A lot of players say (that) we see ourselves in Coach Freeman,” Mickey said. “He’s dripping sweat with us at 6 a.m. It’s cool watching that at a young age, watching him do that.”
While Freeman isn’t participating directly in Balis’ infamous SWAT program, the freshmen and the rest of the team are drafted onto squads that compete for ‘points’ during workouts. Mickey knew a bit about the program going in from his official visit.
“But once we got here, they really sold it to us,” he said. “And you really don’t want to let your brother down.”
Mickey loves the extra dose of competition, but he’s chomping at the bit to get on the field and show what he can do in spring practice. He’s only listed at 5-foot-11½ and 176 pounds, but he has experience against elite quarterbacks as he’s played against Clemson’s D.J. Uiagalelei and picked off reigning Heisman winner Bryce Young.
“I think I can make every play personally as a DB,” he said. “That’s just how DBs are.”
In the meantime, the process of acclimation continues. And some are more difficult than others.
Niuafe Tuihalamaka, who goes by “Junior,” graduated early from Los Angeles’ Bishop Alemany High School. The No. 4 inside linebacker in the country, per ESPN, said his first week on campus was his first-time seeing snow.
“Not really used to it," he said, "but adjusting.”