100% loyal: Notre Dame football recruits look past 0-2 start, pledging to stay together
SOUTH BEND — Christian Gray was still on Notre Dame's campus when the messages began filling his phone.
A four-star cornerback in Notre Dame's 2023 recruiting class, Gray traveled last month from the Saint Louis area for the Irish home opener against Marshall. As The Thundering Herd celebrated a historic 26-21 upset, sending Notre Dame to 0-2 in Marcus Freeman's first season as head coach, Gray and many other Notre Dame 2023-24 commitments were met with an Irish fanbase at DEFCON 1.
"Are you going to stay committed," they asked. "Please stay with us," they pleaded.
Gray, the No. 81 overall player in the class by 247sports Composite, recalled reading the messages amid the panic and tried to bring some calm by tweeting "100,000,000 percent locked in man."
"I really am," Gray told The South Bend Tribune. "I am really 100,000,000% committed. I wanted to say that because fans were kind of down, questioning commits. Don’t question us after one loss. Everybody loses. Everybody wins. It’s one loss, but I am still committed to y’all. I still love y’all."
Shortly after, Drayk Bowen, a four-star linebacker from Andrean High School in nearby Merrillville, Ind., tweeted something similar, saying "Makes two of us"
One after another members of Notre Dame's 2023 class tweeted out confirmations that they were all still on board. That wasn't by accident.
As Freeman, his coaching staff and players were left to answer for the slow start, some future team leaders worked behind the scenes to help keep Notre Dame's recruiting momentum from unravelling.
"We saw everyone going crazy," Bowen said. "Notre Dame fans were all over the place after that game and we love (Marcus) Freeman and are all locked in. We are here for the future of Notre Dame and we wanted to make sure people understood that there is still more years to come and we can hopefully change the atmosphere of everything in 2023 when we get there."
Leaders of the recruiting classes
Bowen, rated the 90th overall player in the 2023 class by 247sports Composite, has been at the forefront of the Irish class since he committed on Nov. 4, 2021. It's the role Bowen said Freeman and his staff pushed him to take — the face of the program's 2023 class.
"A big part of that came from where I live," said Bowen who lives about an hour from campus. "Any big time recruit, I can get there, meet up with them. ... I love Notre Dame and want this class to be the best it can be. We want to win a national championship and need everyone doing their part.
"The other commits are doing their job, working on people, getting back to Notre Dame and trying to keep everyone and making new additions to finalize the class."
In the Irish 2024 class, which currently ranks No. 1 in its early stages, five-star quarterback CJ Carr (No. 13 overall) and four-star wide receiver Cam Williams (No. 89) have assumed those same leadership roles by committing early and being in close proximity of South Bend — Carr from Saline, Mich. and Williams from Ellyn, Ill.
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"I kind of feel appreciated," Williams said. "For the Notre Dame community to see me (as a leader) is pretty cool. I noticed that right away and I feel like it just pushes me to recruit more and be more active on all my socials. It is always fun interacting with the fans, too."
Notre Dame's 2023 class is ranked No. 5 with four top-100 recruits per 247sports, one five-star (Peyton Bowen) and 18 four-stars.
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Even with the loss of five-star edge Keon Keeley who decommitted in August and four-star offensive lineman Elijah Paige who decommitted this past week after pledging in June, Notre Dame is still slated to finish with its first top-five recruiting class since 2013.
It is not uncommon for recruits to decommit from any college program at any time of the year. Paige's decision just happened to come in the midst of Notre Dame's slow start, which raised eyebrows among some of the fanbase, but not those fulfilling the Notre Dame recruiting mission. The Irish have since won two games to even their record at 2-2 heading into Saturday's Shamrock Series game against No. 19 BYU in Las Vegas.
As, for the "affect" on recruiting, it's been business as usual.
"We just said, 'OK,'" Gray said of Paige's decision. "We will still be pushing, still be going on. We lost one, but we are still going at it. That is how we feel. That is how it is."
'The reason why we are going there'
The goal now for Freeman and the Irish coaching staff is getting this 2023 recruiting class to the finish line, with the majority of commits expected to ink commitments during the early signing period on Dec. 22.
Whether any future Notre Dame losses this season changes things remains to be seen. Historically, however, a bad season hasn't hurt the Irish on the recruiting trails.
Even after the disappointing 4-8 campaign in 2016, the Irish still brought in the No. 11 recruiting class, headlined by future NFL draft picks Cole Kmet and Robert Hainsey and current starting offensive lineman Josh Lugg.
Since 247sports began tracking recruiting class rankings in 2010, the top brands across college football have finished toward the top of the rankings year in and year out.
Texas, for example, has one 10-win season in the last decade, but has finished with a top-10 recruiting class six times in the same span, per 247sports. Miami (Fla.), who also has one 10-win season in the last decade has six classes ranked in the top-15 during that same period.
Notre Dame has one of, if not the biggest, branding outreach in college football. It's something, win or lose, Freeman and whoever comes after him can lean on.
While winning may make recruiting easier, a couple early-season losses hardly means the sky is falling.
"(That) has no impact on when we get there because we are bringing in a ton of talent in the 2023 and 2024 class," Williams said. "Obviously we would love for them to win every Saturday, but if they are not, we know that is the reason we are going there — to try to change."