The tradeoff for Notre Dame early enrollees as they advance their football careers

Mike Berardino
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — As spring practice unfolds for Notre Dame football, the benefits of early enrollment are becoming clearer for the dozen talented teenagers who arrived in mid-January.

They are getting a valuable head start on their fellow Class of 2023 signees who won’t start their college experience until the summer. All across the FBS landscape, this modern trend of fast-forwarding the indoctrination process continues to grow.

Yet, that doesn’t mean those who are already here haven’t sacrificed something meaningful in skipping their final semester as high school seniors. For some, it’s the chance to play a spring sport they enjoy as well; for others it’s precious time with family or friends or coaches or teachers or clergy.

“The moments that I had in my spring in high school were just moments you can’t get back in life,” rising sophomore wide receiver Tobias Merriweather said last fall. “You never know what’s going to happen. Just enjoying my life, enjoying my time at home with all my friends, my family, was just worth it. I wouldn’t trade anything.”

Asked what they are missing back home by jump-starting their college lives, members of the Irish signing Class of 2023 shed light on this challenging tradeoff:  

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Sam Pendleton, offensive lineman; Pfafftown, N.C.

“We're a very involved family. I didn't really go away from home much. I had friends obviously. I went and hung out with my friends, but I really enjoyed sitting down with my family at night and having conversations and having that time. It was just fellowship with your people and talk about your day. It's different (at college). You have a roommate, obviously, but it's not the same. …

“I was homeschooled throughout middle school. I went to high school first and (twin sister Emma, a Lenoir-Rhyne women's basketball signee) stayed home. We're really close. We don't really bicker much. We have our moments, because we're siblings. I love my sister. She speaks truth to my life. She's funny, and it was definitely hard leaving her. We talk quite often. I look forward to going home and seeing her.

Early-enrolled freshman offensive lineman Sam Pendleton (72) walks into spring practice Saturday, March 25, 2023, at Notre Dame in South Bend.

"That’s a hard thing about being here. I want to be here. I love Notre Dame. I love the area. I’m not a big city guy. This fits what I want to be. I wanted to be in a college town, but I also want to see my family. I want some gravy, I want some mashed potatoes, I want some good food. And I want to see my little brother (Eli). That’s the hardest thing about being here, I swear. He just turned 6. It was hard for the first few weeks not getting to see him. He tells my mom: ‘We should move to Notre Dame, Mom.’ He writes me letters. I write him back.”

Devan Houstan, defensive Lineman; Mississauga, Ontario

“I've had to grow up a lot faster than all the other people. A lot of my friends — I came from a boarding school (St. James School in Maryland) — so we were a pretty tight-knit community. So just seeing stuff that they're doing. Sometimes it's like, ‘Oh, I wish I were there to experience that with them and everything.’ But I just constantly remind myself of the bigger goal and why I'm here, and the amount of resources and ways for success that this place can give me I think puts it in perspective. I remain in that mode of just constantly getting better."

Ben Minich

Ben Minich, safety, West Chester, Ohio

“I definitely miss just being around my family and friends for that extra semester. Track season, of course. Prom. I'll miss out on just like some little things, but the benefits outweigh that so much more. … I’ll be back for prom and graduation (in May), so I’ll get to walk and everything. I don’t know (about a prom date). We’ll see.”

On the value of humor: “There are times when you’re down, like you just got out of an hour and a half workout — you’re hurting. It’s good to have a guy like (fellow early enrollees Christian Gray or Devan Houstan) just crack a joke. It makes you happy, makes you laugh and you forget about the pain and suffering you’re going through. It hasn’t been too rough for me.”

Christian Gray, cornerback, St. Louis

“Movie nights with my mom. I (would) hang out with my mom (Shonda) almost every day. We're like best friends. It's fun to hang out with her every day. She counts me as a momma's boy. Well, I am a momma's boy. I love my mom with all my heart. We’d have movie nights. We pick any type of movie. We'll go out to the theaters or we just stay in. We'll make popcorn and then we just sit there and just watch it.

“It will be Friday night. She'll be like, 'Get your work done, Christian! And all of this!' ... She picks the movie. She knows the movies more than me, I guess."

Notre Dame cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens talks to freshman cornerback Christian Gray (29) during warmups Saturday, March 25, 2023, at Notre Dame spring football practice in South Bend.

On continuing the tradition long-distance: “I try to make the time with it. I put it on my schedule. I actually do try to make movie nights with her, but then she’ll be like, ‘I'm tired, Christian. I'm going to bed.’ “

Jaden Greathouse, wide receiver; Austin, Texas

“I definitely want to be out there with those guys (at Austin Westlake High School), helping them out, hopefully go to another (basketball) state championship run. I definitely miss those guys (after going a combined 68-4 the previous two seasons), but I have business to take care of over here. They all understand. … I talk to those guys every single day. I’m just encouraging them from a distance. Unfortunately, they couldn’t get the job done (finishing 31-5 with a loss in the 6A area finals), but I’m still proud of them regardless.

Jaden Greathouse

“I definitely miss my family, No. 1, but ever since I left (in January) I’ve developed a much higher appreciation for Austin. I’ve lived there basically my whole life. So being away from it for a while definitely has me a little homesick. Everything about the city is great. It’s such a great city. I definitely miss that. I miss all my friends back home. … We had a snowstorm two years ago, my sophomore year of high school. School shut down for like a month. They can’t handle the cold in Texas.”

Adon Shuler, safety, Irvington, N.J.

“I would have (run track), but it would be the people (that I miss). My little brothers call me every day. Both of them call me to make sure I'm good. My parents, my grandmother, all my people, my coaches, my old teammates, they constantly call me to make sure I'm good. It would be the people more so than anything. Definitely a lot of FaceTime and calls. It’s hard; it’s definitely hard. … My guidance counselor. Ms. (Latoya) Brown definitely helped me throughout the process, helped me make sure I was doing right in school. I still talk to her now. She makes sure my grades are good here, the same way as back home."

Early-enrolled freshman wide receiver Rico Flores Jr. (17) walks into spring practice Saturday, March 25, 2023, at Notre Dame in South Bend.

Rico Flores, Jr., wide receiver, North Highlands, Calif.

“Back home at Folsom High School, I just miss my friends a little bit — just goofing around, cracking jokes and stuff like that. We snap like every day, but I don’t even use Snapchat like that. We still have a group chat: (scrolls through phone contacts) Diallo, Donovan, Baby O, Mitch, Julio, Aryan, Joseph, David, Greg and DJ. Whenever someone sends something , we just talk. I stay in contact with a lot of my friends and cousins, just every other day or a couple times a week.

“I have a little sister, Alexcina; we call her CC. She’s 11 years old; she turns 12 on the Fourth of July. I tap in with her — I have to — all the time, just to check up on her. I check on Mom too. My mom, she texts me every morning. She misses me a lot. (Does he miss her too?) Yeah, for sure.”

Braylon James

Braylon James, wide receiver; Round Rock, Texas

“It’s really the weather honestly. Being from Texas, you’re used to seeing the sun every day and 75-80 degrees. I’m just embracing it all, taking it all in, enjoying the process. I knew what I was coming into. It’s a good adjustment. That’s what I wanted, something different in life. Notre Dame's a different place. You can't get this anywhere else: top-flight academics, top-flight athletics. Location really didn't matter to me in the first place. If it wasn't here, I would probably be at Stanford (or) TCU, you know what I’m saying? You really have to sit down and think about what you want in life. Notre Dame checked all those boxes for me, so that’s why I’m here.”

Preston Zinter

Preston Zinter, linebacker, North Andover, Mass.

“It's still kind of, I would say, sinking in a little bit. We have to adapt to this and we have to make these adjustments quickly. Because if not, we're going to fall behind. As new stuff arises, we have to (rise up) to it and take advantage of it.” 

Early-enrolled freshman linebacker Drayk Bowen (34) goes through drills Saturday, March 25, 2023, at Notre Dame spring football practice in South Bend.
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Drayk Bowen, linebacker/infielder, St. John, Ind.

“My family. I get to see them obviously more than some of the other recruits here. Outside of that, I didn’t give up a ton. I gave up my (senior) baseball season obviously. But other than that, I gave up just about the same as everyone else here. It wasn’t like a big decision for me. I knew I had wanted to enroll early, get the jump on whatever: the playbook, baseball, football workouts. It wasn’t like I didn’t know what I was giving up.”

Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.