Inside Recruiting: Five burning questions answered about Notre Dame football recruiting

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Editor’s Note: Inside Recruiting is a new feature that will address key topics involving Notre Dame football recruiting and recruiting in general. We plan to make it a regular staple of our Irish football coverage.

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

Who are the must-get players — one of offense, one on defense — in the 2022 cycle for ND who have not previously committed to the Irish?

Wiltfong: “I don’t know that Notre Dame is in a must-get position, because I like what they’ve been doing. But my answer starts with a quarterback on offense.

“If you look at the teams Notre Dame has lost to in the College Football Playoff, those teams have had first-round draft picks at quarterback — Trevor Lawrence, Mac Jones. And Notre Dame’s getting all the way there with a good college quarterback, but not an elite difference-maker, probably, when you’re talking about a first-rounder.

“So I just think that position has got to be a point of emphasis for Notre Dame if Brian Kelly wants to go from 12 wins to 14 or how many ever it takes. That’s a room I’d be very zeroed in on, making sure I got an elite guy or elite potential year in and year out.

“Beyond quarterback, a big-play receiver to kind of come in behind the guys they signed last year. Notre Dame doesn’t have a lot of proven weapons on the perimeter, so if they could go and get a guy like Tyler Morris (6-0, 175; La Grange Park, Ill.) or someone like him.

“Defensively, I think they’re really doing well at linebacker. I think they’re going to land Josh Burnham (6-3, 200; Traverse City, Mich.) later this month. And I like where they stand with Sebastian Cheeks (6-2, 210; Evanston, Ill.).

“So my answer is a cover corner. I won’t throw out a specific name, because they’re some really good ones they’re involved with, and they’ve proven they can develop corners.’

Lemming: “I’d go with a running back like Gavin Sawchuk (5-11, 175; Highlands Ranch, Colo.). He’s an exceptionally quick-footed kid. I’m not saying they’re going to get him, but out of all the running backs they’re going after, he’s the most explosive and has great vision and balance.

I’d normally go with a quarterback for this answer,

“Defensively, I would say Niuafe Tuihalamaka (6-3, 230; Mission Hills, Calif.), a kid who was committed to USC. Really like him. Or Shawn Murphy (6-3, 220) from (Manassas) Virginia. They need to get some difference-makers at that position.”

How would you assess Notre Dame’s quarterback prospects in the 2022 class in terms of quality and potential? And how do you think it will end? (Note: Steve Angeli committed to Notre Dame Thursday night, several hours after this story was published.)

Wiltfong: “There’s good quality and potential with the three quarterbacks they’re involved with, to improve what they already have in the quarterback room.

“Drew Allar (6-5, 220; Medina, Ohio), I believe, can play championship football. Gavin Wimsatt (6-3, 200; Owensboro, Ky.) is raw, but the coaching staff likes a lot of his traits. Steve Angeli (6-3, 215; Oradell, N.J.) is a better thrower than some of the quarterbacks they already have at Notre Dame.

“I think this ends with Notre Dame signing Angeli.”

Lemming: “It's hard to tell who Notre Dame really wants among Steve Angeli, Gavin Wimsatt and Drew Aller. They’re all good, but none of them are great.

“If they want Angeli and go after him hard, I think that’s who they’ll end up with. He’s smart. Plays against great competition in north Jersey. He’s efficient. He’s a team leader. He’s got good size with decent feet. He’s not a guy who’s going to sprint for a lot of yards.

“Gavin is more of an athletic quarterback, but not quite the polished passer that Steve is now. He brings a lot of intangibles. He’s an exciting quarterback when you watch him. Drew is more like Steve, a quality quarterback who gets the job done.”

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly essentially doubled down recently on his December 2019 notion and commitment that the Irish should be able to consistently fare better in the national recruiting ratings. Are we seeing evidence that could happen in the 2022 cycle?

Wiltfong: “They’re No. 8 right now in the national team rankings (via 247Sports). They were No. 9 a year ago. I think they’re going to get hot here with some of these big-time guys in the Midwest.

“I think it’s not too much to ask for Notre Dame to be consistently in the top 10. And then within that, they’re hitting on their needs to make sure their roster doesn’t have any holes in it.

They’re getting guys with upside to develop within their program.”

Lemming: “Absolutely they are. I always thought what hurt Notre Dame was they didn’t offer kids early enough. You’re losing a third of the top kids nationally if you don’t.

“You don’t have to wait on academics. Offer them early, then if they eliminate themselves later because of academics, so be it.

“You’ve got to stay on top of these kids, and that’s what they’re doing now. They’re offering a lot more guys than they have in the past, and I think their new philosophy is fantastic. It’s going to pay big dividends for the class of 2023 and even more so the class of 2022."

“I think Marcus Freeman and Mike Elston combined are a great team of recruiters, and the mindset they bring and give the other coaches is invaluable. When you combine that and the way Jeff Quinn and Lance Taylor, for instance, are recruiting on offense, I think the future is super bright for Notre Dame. And this could be their best era since the late ’80s.”

Because of COVID-19, there were fewer opportunities to evaluate prospects. How confident are you that the ratings for the 2021 and 2022 classes are consistent with earlier classes?

Wiltfong: “Well, no. I wish that we would have more opportunities to see good-on-good in camp and all-star settings. So not having that component certainly leaves you in doubt compared with other classes.

“Obviously, you have your hits and misses in every class. And we’re going to have our hits and misses, moving forward. But I do feel moving forward, in correlation to the NFL Draft, we’ve gotten better every year.

“Part of that is because we’ve gotten the opportunities to see good on good, in camps and all-star settings, but also high school football games, where teams are leaving their state and going across the country to play another team.

“So not having that did take away part of our evaluation process of being able to split hairs with good players.”

Lemming: “They’re not too far off, but everything’s arbitrary anyway when it comes to ratings. These star ratings — I’m involved with it too, and have been involved for 42 years — it’s a measuring stick, but it’s not an exact measuring stick even in a normal year.

“As far as coaches’ evaluations, they’re still watching these kids on film. For the most part, since a lot of kids have already visited, they’ve seen a lot of them in person. If the NCAA opens up visits and camps on June 1 — which I think they will — you’ll have a chance to do more evaluating.”

Does more always equal more when it comes to the size of college football recruiting support staffs? If so, what can they accomplish that more modest numbers can’t?

Wiltfong: “I honestly don’t know how many people Notre Dame’s recruiting department has compared to their peers. I’ll say with the right infrastructure, more is always better, because you have better graphic designers. You have better ideas. You have more evaluators.

“You have more people with hands on deck for logistics.

“Alabama, known for the size of its support staff, has an amazing one, but not just because of the size. They bring on these coaches who get fired, but they come on as analysts, and those guys are bonus coaches. So they have all that going for them there.

“At the end of the day, I’ve talked to several coaches who have worked for Nick Saban. And they say they’ve never worked for a head coach who watches as much film as him (for recruiting purposes).

“He has a set of rules for what they’re offering scholarships to at each position. If a kid doesn’t check the basic level of boxes for that position, It doesn’t mean the kid won’t be a good player for someone else. But because of the way Alabama does it, their chances of having a miss is lower.”

Lemming: “It depends on who you have running the system. Sometimes there can be a clog in the system and you can have too many people doing too many things.

“I’ve seen how Alabama operates, and they’ve probably got the biggest system in the country. Everybody has their job to do. You can get evaluations done a lot earlier. Alabama offers kids much earlier than almost everybody else.

“So that means, yes, size does help. The more support you have the more likely you are to find the top players early. Alabama seems to be on those kids, followed closely by Ohio State.

“The support staff is also really important when it comes to developing the relationships. Where they’re not is in terms of superfluous stuff like mailings and all this crap.

“The kids say after the initial mailings, most of the kids throw them away. They don’t even open them most of the time. It all comes down to personal contacts,

“And it looks like Notre Dame is starting to get the message and starting to do it with these guys.”

Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly insists the Irish need to reach for a higher standard in recruiting.
Owensboro (Ky.) High’s Gavin Wimsatt is one of the three QB prospects that intrigue the Notre Dame coaching staff in the 2022 recruiting cycle.