Catching up with… Shane Walton

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One of my favorite Irish football players past or present is Shane Walton. Walton’s story has been well documented. Recruited as a soccer player to Notre Dame, Shane was given the chance to walk-on during spring practice. After a handful of practices, coach Bob Davie and the defensive staff knew they had someone special, and the rest is history. Shane was named a consensus All-American cornerback during the magical 2002 season, the Irish’s first consensus All-American since Bobby Taylor in 1994. His 2001 season included two interceptions, one a 60-yard interception return for a touchdown against Purdue quarterback Drew Brees.

It was great catching up with a former classmate, who now lives and works back in his hometown of San Diego. Here’s more from Shane Walton.

ON BEING RECRUITED TO NOTRE DAME:

I wasn’t recruited really at all to play football. My only offer was to play wide receiver at Fresno State. It was actually my soccer coach, Mike Berticelli, who got me my tryout. He originally wanted me to play soccer for two years, and I’d play spring football for my freshman and sophomore years, and make a decision on what I wanted to do then. I don’t know if he thought I’d be a good football player or not, but he was actually the guy who spoke to Coach Davie and the staff, and got me a tryout with the football team in the spring. After three or four practices in the spring, Coach Davie saw that I could play, and he offered me a scholarship.

ON THE TRANSITION FROM SOCCER TO FOOTBALL:

There were parallels between the sports, but I basically had to reprogram my entire body. I went from being able to run fast for a long duration of time to having to add 25 pounds of muscle and being built more for quick bursts. That process took about a year to really transform. That was the toughest challenge. The parallels from soccer to football were tremendous, especially as a cornerback. Being able to read plays and what’s developing, and the balance it takes to play soccer, that’s incredible. The body control really helped me to be a good corner.

ON HIS MAGICAL SENIOR SEASON:

There are three types of people that play sports. There are people who don’t mind losing. There are people who don’t like losing. And then there are people like me, who hate and despise losing. I always expected to win, so when I lost, or when the team lost, I was devastated. That was the mentality of the entire defense. We never expected to lose. We didn’t care what the situation was. I think that mindset permeated throughout the entire team.

ON BEING NAMED AN ALL-AMERICAN:

To be honest, it didn’t really hit me until I was at the All-American things with all the other big time players. It’s actually crazy, I never had a chance to sit back and look at what I accomplished until I was done playing football. I remember my mother and my friends being so proud of me, and I was like “what’s the big deal, this is just what I do.”  You know, you write for NBC, other people go to work and climb telephone polls, and we all just try to do the best that we can. And that’s what I did. It just so happens that what society likes is athletics, so I’m in the limelight. It never really dawned on me. I never changed who I was, it just was something that I happened to do, and I was blessed to have a skillset that made me a decent corner.

ON TAKING DREW BREES TO THE HOUSE:

I used to love playing against Purdue, because that’s when the DBs and corners had the most chance to succeed and shine. We knew coming into the game that Purdue was going to put the ball up 30-35 times. That was always a game I marked in the calendar that was fun.

As for the play, we were in man coverage, and my guy just ran basically a four to five yard cross. The inside linebacker made him bump over the top of him and that gave me the chance to get in front of him, and I just hopped in front of the pass. I don’t think Brees ever even saw me. I just stepped in front of it and took it to the house.

ON GOING IN THE 5TH ROUND OF THE NFL DRAFT:

NFL coaches are egomaniacs. They feel like they can’t coach you to run a 4.3 forty, to bench press whatever, to jump out of the stadium, but they feel they can make you into a player. That’s why you hear of guys who have never done anything in college and they become great players, but you also hear of guys who were supposed to be great, got drafted high, but they never do anything. The NFL drafts on potential. They don’t draft on what matters. They don’t draft on heart, intelligence, because there’s no real way to measure those. They draft off stuff that they can see. But what I had was heart, desire, intellect, and instincts, but there’s no way to measure any of that.

ON A CAREER CUT SHORT:

I hurt my back in preseason. I just kept trying to fight through it. I was probably never over 80 percent at any time in my NFL career. I just remember playing against the Raiders, and I really tweaked my back, and I just kept fighting. They say, “You can’t make the club from the tub.” I was told to fight, to push through the injuries, that is was just sore and tightness. Then I remember we were playing Atlanta, and I couldn’t feel my left leg. I was running down the field and I had no control of my left leg. It was hitting up against my right leg. I remember getting yelled at for not sprinting down the field. They finally determined I was having back issues so they gave me epidurals in the back at the doctor, until I finally flew out to see a surgeon in Los Angeles. He told me I needed surgery 3 months ago. It was just bad business all the way around, and one of the reasons I’m happy I’m not in the NFL right now.

I had a ruptured disc. My disc exploded and spinal fluid leaked onto my nerves, damaging and almost killing my nerves that went to my left leg. I couldn’t lift my foot, couldn’t do a heal raise. If you pinched my left leg I couldn’t feel it. The leg shrunk an inch-and-a-half around. It was miserable. I couldn’t stand up for more than a minute, couldn’t sit down for more than two minutes, all I could really do was lay down in bed.

I got put on IR for the rest of the season. I rehabbed back home and was trying to come back in St. Louis during the offseason, but still wasn’t healthy. They released me, then Pittsburgh picked me up for camp. I was out there for a couple weeks, and hurt my back again. I knew right there it was tough to bounce back. I had never had an injury that I couldn’t bounce back from, but this was the one that I couldn’t overcome.

ON DEALING WITH HIS CAREER BEING OVER:

It was tough for one reason. I would have rather been not good enough. I would’ve rather been cut because I wasn’t good enough to make the team. I was 80 percent and I still made an NFL team. That’s what kills me. In my heart and in my mind, I was picking up the game. I really thought that I was going to be one of the best playmakers in the NFL. That’s me having confidence in myself, because that’s what I thought I could do. Never knowing because of the injury is what’s tough. It’s like when a movie ends but they don’t tell you the ending. I’d have rather been cut because I wasn’t good enough, it’d be easier looking in the mirror.

ON THIS YEAR’S IRISH:

I follow them faithfully. As much as I hate saying this word, there’s potential. I feel like they have the guys there, they have the talent, they have the speed, they have the depth, but I don’t think they’re living up to their potential right now.

ON PLAYING WITHOUT MICHAEL FLOYD:

First off, I think Floyd is amazing. He’s a special player that only comes around every so often. But I do think, and I will always think this, it is still
Notre Dame and we still have
some of the greatest players to play college football on that team right now. So somebody needs to step up. If Rhema McKnight doesn’t go down and get hurt, we never know about Jeff Samardzija. Same thing now. The talent is there, and someone needs to step up and become a man.

ON CHOOSING NOTRE DAME:

There were three things I was looking for. I wanted to go to a great
academic institution. I wanted to go to a school with a great sports
program as well. I’m a competitor and I like to be able to compete at
the highest level. The third thing kind of tipped things in Notre
Dame’s favor. I’m a fan of history and tradition of schools, and Notre
Dame outweighed everyone else. I was basically down to Stanford and
Notre Dame. My mindset has always been that I played for my teammates
that were here in the huddle with me, but I also played with all the
people who wore the jersey before me. I don’t think you can say that
with a lot of schools, but at Notre Dame, that means something. 

Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 79 Tosh Baker, senior tackle, again a backup but next year …

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 23 Notre Dame Spring Game
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Listed measurements: 6-foot-8, 310 pounds.
2023-24 year, eligibility: A senior, Baker has two years of eligibility remaining.
Depth Chart: Baker had the misfortune of arriving at Notre Dame just one year before the increasingly-heralded tackle duo of Blake Fisher and Joe Alt. Thus, Baker remains a backup as a senior, presumably penciled in as the No. 2 left tackle behind Alt on the public depth chart but perhaps the immediate option at both tackle positions if injury befalls either Fisher or Alt.
Recruiting: The No. 5 offensive tackle in his class, per rivals.com, when he signed with Notre Dame, Baker fell to No. 13 by the end of the recruiting cycle, another example of recruiting rankings being fickle and confounding. Baker chose the Irish over the likes of Alabama, Michigan and Ohio State, a high-profile recruitment despite coming from Scottsdale, Ariz.

CAREER TO DATE
Baker had one chance at a prolonged starting career at Notre Dame despite Fisher and Alt bearing down behind him. His headstart was mitigated by the loss of strength and conditioning effectiveness felt by freshmen across the country in 2020; Baker quite literally could not log the 12 months of intense weight-room work that is a pillar for freshman offensive linemen. That made it less surprising when Fisher beat out Baker for the starting left tackle gig in 2021, making Fisher the second freshman to ever start on the Irish offensive line in a season opener, but then a meniscus tear in that very first half sidelined Fisher until the bowl game. Current senior, then-sophomore, Michael Carmody stepped in for Fisher until a sprained ankle forced Baker into action.

Alas, a concussion ended Baker’s starting cameo two games later, two games with middling success but encouraging enough success given Baker was a sophomore, as well. Alt then took over, and the rest has become history.

Baker missed just one week due to the concussion, but Alt was already off to the races.

2020: 2 games.
2021: 11 games, 2 starts.
2022: 13 games as a reserve, largely as field-goal protection.

NAME, IMAGE, LIKENESS
The life of an offensive lineman at Notre Dame has long seemed an enviable one: Eat effectively as much as you want, have a built-in close friend group of about a dozen other behemoths, dodge most of the spotlight that can make being a top-tier football player less enviable.

Scroll to the third photo in this Instagram post and see a few examples of that: Having fun at a minor league baseball game with other offensive linemen. Look closer, and realize Baker towers behind comedian Bret Kreischer, who while only 6-foot has made some of his fame on being a rather robust individual, himself.

On that note, the previous entry in this “99-to-0” series was on No. 83 Jayden Thomas, a junior receiver often referred to as a tight end last season by broadcasters. They were imprecise in that description, but their reasoning was clear. Thomas is a wide-bodied target. And now realize Baker stands 6.5 inches taller than Thomas and weighs 90 more pounds.

QUOTES
New Irish offensive line coach Joe Rudolph shares an ethos with his predecessor, Harry Hiestand: Always get the five best offensive linemen on the field together and figure out positions as need be from there. In that respect, Rudolph mentioned Baker could be a backup at guard as well as tackle. In other words, Baker may be Notre Dame’s clear No. 6 offensive lineman, and barring an injury at center, he could have a chance to play if any shuffling is needed.

“You have to concentrate on always having a plan together in terms of what are the things you need to address,” Rudolph said in April. “… You have to have trust that there’s a vision that sees you and always has a vision of trying to put the five best buys on the field together.

“Those things probably have to go hand-in-hand. That’s what I’ve shared with [Baker] along the way, told him I’d get most of his reps at tackle, but he’s absolutely someone that could go inside.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“No offense to Baker, but the Irish would undoubtedly not mind a season of relative health at left and right tackle, keeping him on the sideline. The run of injuries last year was unprecedented in recent times, and played a distinct part in Notre Dame’s early-season offensive struggles. Now with a young quarterback, a stable offensive line will be crucial.

“To some extent, though, having Baker as a backup provides some stability. His two starts last season were not stellar, but they were promising enough. He has all the makings of a strong left tackle, should that opportunity arise.

“It is more likely he spends the season working behind Alt and learning under returned offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.”

2023 OUTLOOK
Let’s offer some transparency here: While this space refrains from speculating on transfer candidates, it keeps an in-house list in an attempt to be loosely prepared for the chaos of the winter and spring transfer windows. Baker’s name was at the top of that list this spring.

Obviously, he did not transfer.

The logic was simple: He should be close to his degree and he could start for most Power Five teams. Furthermore, quality offensive line talent is rare in the transfer portal, so a generous response could have awaited Baker.

A few things can be gleaned by Baker not transferring: Rudolph was well-received this spring, the Notre Dame offensive line culture so maintained by Hiestand has not wavered, and Baker is satisfied with how he is treated, both on the field and off.

All that said, it is still hard to see Baker as a starter in Dublin or one at all barring injury. Alt and Fisher are clearly entrenched at each tackle position, fifth-year Andrew Kristofic has starting experience at guard and three other interior linemen are competing to start opposite him. Rudolph may say Baker could play inside, but at 6-foot-8, he is very much an outside body type.

Another year of support work likely awaits Baker.

DOWN THE ROAD
But then, and this may be the other thought to him not transferring, a starting role could await Baker.

It will be an absolute stunner if Alt does not jump into the NFL draft after this season. He should be a top-10 pick, if not top-5. Fisher may go with him, if he has an impressive enough season. At some point, some offseason research needs to be done on teams that have sent two tackles into the same draft’s first two rounds, first round and first 15 picks, just to set some historical precedent.

Regardless of Fisher’s choice, Baker should be the clear beneficiary of Alt’s success. While it has forced Baker to the bench for years now, with Alt gone after 2023, Baker should start in 2024. Maybe that is at right tackle with Fisher flipping to left, maybe not. Either way, outside of Carmody and Fisher, no one else on the Irish roster has any collegiate experience at tackle.

That carrot presumably played a significant part in Baker not transferring despite there undoubtedly being a market for him. And one strong season as a starter on Notre Dame’s offensive line could be enough to propel him into an NFL career.

NOTRE DAME 99-TO-0
The summer countdown begins anew, Rylie Mills to Deion Colzie
No. 99 Rylie Mills, senior defensive tackle, moving back inside from end
No. 98 Devan Houstan, early-enrolled four-star defensive tackle
No. 97 Gabriel Rubio, junior defensive tackle, one of three Irish DTs with notable experience
No. 95 Tyson Ford, sophomore defensive tackle, up 30 pounds from a year ago
No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina, a senior defensive tackle now ‘fully healthy’ after a 2022 torn ACL
No. 91 Aiden Gobaira, sophomore defensive end, former four-star recruit
No. 90* Brenan Vernon, incoming freshman defensive end, four-star recruit
No. 90* Boubacar Traore, incoming freshman defensive end, four-star recruit
No. 88 Mitchell Evans, the next starter at ‘TE U’
No. 86* Cooper Flanagan, incoming freshman tight end, four-star recruit
No. 85 Holden Staes, sophomore tight end, up 20 pounds in a year
No. 84 Kevin Bauman, senior tight end coming off a torn ACL
No. 83 Jayden Thomas, junior receiver, probable No. 1 target in 2023
Rhode Island transfer safety Antonio Carter gives Notre Dame desperately needed backline depth
Penn State RB transfer Devyn Ford gives Notre Dame newly-needed backfield depth, experience

Penn State RB transfer Devyn Ford gives Notre Dame newly-needed backfield depth, experience

Ball State v Penn State
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Entering spring practices, Notre Dame looked stocked at running back, returning two juniors who each rushed for at least 800 yards last season as well as a senior with 285 career touches. With three underclassmen supporting them, the Irish were wealthy in both depth and experience at running back.

But then Notre Dame moved Chris Tyree to receiver, in part due to that bounty at running back and in part to be more assured the speedster would find playing time regardless, and Logan Diggs transferred to LSU. One of those underclassmen, sophomore Jadarian Price, is recovering from an Achilles injury that, on a common timeline following that devastating injury, could hinder him yet in August and September, if not longer should there be any version of a setback. Incoming freshman Jeremiyah Love has yet to arrive on campus.

Junior Audric Estimé may look the part of a workhorse, but the Irish depth is no longer as thorough and the experience has quickly diminished.

Enter Penn State graduate transfer running back Devyn Ford, adding depth back into the Irish backfield and possibly some untapped talent with his Friday commitment. Ford fell out of the Nittany Lions rotation the last two seasons simply because younger players impressed. He had 131 touches in his first two seasons, gaining 622 yards and scoring six times.

Ford focused on kickoff returns in 2021, taking 12 for 258 yards, an average of 21.5 yards, while getting just 14 carries for 61 yards. Then he was only a special teams contributor in 2022 as a pair of freshmen took over the rushing workload (Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen combining for 1,928 yards on 323 carries) and the kickoff return duties (Singleton had 14 returns for an average of 24.9 yards and one touchdown). Ford’s on-field roles were gone, so he called it a season after just four games in order to preserve a year of eligibility, transferring with up to two seasons still ahead of him.

Ford arrived at Penn State in 2019 as the No. 1 running back in the recruiting class, per rivals.com, and the No. 40 overall prospect. As anyone would expect from a recruiting profile like that, he was also sought by Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State, to name a few, as a high-school prospect. Players with that background somewhat rarely hit the transfer wire, making Ford an intriguing lottery ticket for Notre Dame.

Bringing in Ford gives the Irish 83 scholarship players expected for this fall, two less than the NCAA maximum allowed.

He wore No. 28 at Penn State, digits currently unclaimed on the Notre Dame roster aside from walk-on receiver Griffin Eifert, so unless Ford is proactively seeking a fresh start in all regards, he may end up in those familiar numbers in preseason practices. But let’s use his transfer announcement as an excuse to rattle off his “99-to-0” thoughts now.

Listed measurements: 5-foot-11, 200 pounds per Penn State’s website.
2023-24 year, eligibility: Ford enrolled at Penn State in 2019, so he has played four years, but 2020 did not count toward his ticking clock thanks to the universal pandemic eligibility waiver, and he stepped away from the Nittany Lions’ season after four games in 2022 in order to preserve an additional year of eligibility, meaning Ford has two years of eligibility remaining if wanted as he arrives in South Bend.
Depth Chart: Audric Estimé will start for Notre Dame in Dublin (88 days), barring injury. Behind him, sophomore Gi’Bran Payne is the most probable candidate to be the secondary Irish ball carrier, though he has his own history of injuries. Price should be given a lengthier runway to find full speed this season, a reason all on its own to want to bring in Ford. He could end up Estimé’s primary backup with an impressive preseason, but for now, presume Payne has that inside track while Ford begins his career in a gold helmet ahead of Love.
Recruiting: Some wondered if Ford’s collegiate career was concluded when he did not enter the transfer portal during the winter window. Instead, he entered the database in late April.

Notre Dame offensive coordinator Gerad Parker was Penn State’s receivers coach in 2019, Ford’s freshman year, giving the Irish some direct knowledge of Ford as both a player and as a person, as well as a connection while he looked for a new school.

CAREER TO DATE
Ford came out of the gates strong in Happy Valley before his playing time dwindled, the kind of start expected from a recruit of his caliber, no matter how his Penn State career ended.

2019: 12 games; 52 rushes for 294 yards and three touchdowns with five catches for 30 yards.
2020: 6 games; 67 rushes for 274 yards and three touchdowns with seven catches for 24 yards.
2021: 8 games; 14 rushes for 61 yards and three catches for 18 yards while returning 12 kickoffs for an average of 21.5 yards.
2022: 4 games; 7 rushes for 37 yards.

NAME, IMAGE, LIKENESS
If Ford spent a chunk of May in Paris, then delaying his transfer decision was an exceedingly understandable decision.

2023 OUTLOOK
Ford’s freshman year highlights show a player who should contribute for Notre Dame this fall. He does not run with the same force as Estimé — who does? — but Ford is an all-around back with able hands as a safety valve in the flat. Presuming he devotes himself to pass blocking, there should never be a moment when his being on the field gives away a play’s intention to the defense.

His tendency to keep his feet moving through contact allows Ford to maintain balance even after an initial hit, wearing out the defense a bit at the very least.

All of which is to say, Ford should be more than a place-filler transfer. Logically, at least one of Payne, Price and Love will be slowed by injury or fatigue this fall, a probability among any three running backs but a higher one among two with injury concerns and a third being a true freshman. If one of them gives pause, Ford will be no lower than Notre Dame’s fourth running back.

Because Estimé and Diggs were so durable last season, the Irish never leaned on a fourth back, but as often as not, one is needed. Consider the 2017-2019 averages from the fourth Notre Dame running backs in each season, taking 37.3 carries per season for 141.3 yards and 1.3 touchdowns. Those were backs by the names of Tony Jones Jr., Avery Davis and Jafar Armstrong, respectively.

Ford could add something similar to the Irish backfield in 2023. He certainly once had the physical skillset to do so. And if that becomes reality, no one should be more grateful than Estimé.

DOWN THE ROAD
Just because Ford will have eligibility in 2024 does not mean he will use it. That will be up to both the Irish coaching staff and Ford.

But given the likelihood Estimé heads to the NFL after 2023, keeping Ford around as an able body in the running back room would make sense. That may be where Diggs’ departure has the greatest impact. The odds were against both Estimé and Diggs having a strong enough 2023 season to justify jumping to the NFL, so one of them would have returned in 2024 and Notre Dame would have had four backs returning plus a freshman or two. (The No. 1 all-purpose back in the class, consensus four-star Aneyas Williams is currently the only Irish commitment at the position in the class of 2024.)

The Irish would now need Ford or yet another transfer to have those kinds of numbers, and the advantage of Ford will be familiarity.

NOTRE DAME 99-TO-0
The summer countdown begins anew, Rylie Mills to Deion Colzie
No. 99 Rylie Mills, senior defensive tackle, moving back inside from end
No. 98 Devan Houstan, early-enrolled four-star defensive tackle
No. 97 Gabriel Rubio, junior defensive tackle, one of three Irish DTs with notable experience
No. 95 Tyson Ford, sophomore defensive tackle, up 30 pounds from a year ago
No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina, a senior defensive tackle now ‘fully healthy’ after a 2022 torn ACL
No. 91 Aiden Gobaira, sophomore defensive end, former four-star recruit
No. 90* Brenan Vernon, incoming freshman defensive end, four-star recruit
No. 90* Boubacar Traore, incoming freshman defensive end, four-star recruit
No. 88 Mitchell Evans, the next starter at ‘TE U’
No. 86* Cooper Flanagan, incoming freshman tight end, four-star recruit
No. 85 Holden Staes, sophomore tight end, up 20 pounds in a year
No. 84 Kevin Bauman, senior tight end coming off a torn ACL
No. 83 Jayden Thomas, junior receiver, probable No. 1 target in 2023
Rhode Island transfer safety Antonio Carter gives Notre Dame desperately needed backline depth
Penn State RB transfer Devyn Ford gives Notre Dame newly-needed backfield depth, experience

Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 83 Jayden Thomas, junior receiver, probable No. 1 target in 2023

Notre Dame Spring Football Game
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Listed measurements: 6-foot-1 ½, 220 pounds.
2023-24 year, eligibility: A junior, Thomas has three years of eligibility remaining thanks to playing in only three games as a freshman.
Depth Chart: Thomas’s moments of success in 2022 made him a clear starter for this coming season, the only question being at what position. By the end of spring practices, Thomas looked like the frontrunner at the boundary position, a similar big body as past boundary stars Miles Boykin, Chase Claypool and Kevin Austin, though significantly shorter than those predecessors.
Recruiting: Considered the No. 45 receiver in the class of 2021 by rivals.com, Thomas turned down most of the SEC as he chose Notre Dame, most notably his homestate Georgia. And any recruit chased by the Bulldogs in the last four years stands out more than usual given the overall quality of Georgia’s roster.

CAREER TO DATE
Thomas played all of 14 snaps as a freshman, spread across three November blowouts, but in practices leading up to the 2021 Fiesta Bowl, there was increasing hype around him possibly contributing. Then, Thomas did not play against Oklahoma State, despite then-Irish quarterback Jack Coan setting a program record with 70 dropbacks while throwing to effectively just three receivers.

That literal no-show threw Thomas’s progress into doubt. Was the hype real or the product of a fluke bowl practice?

Thomas proved it real with 25 catches for 361 yards and three touchdowns last season, including five snags for 66 yards in the Gator Bowl win against South Carolina. Of those 25 receptions, 18 gained a first down, including eight on third down and another pair on second-and-long. When Notre Dame needed a chunk gain and tight end Michael Mayer was covered, Thomas was the most frequent beneficiary.

2021: 3 games.
2022: 13 games, 7 starts; 25 catches for 361 yards and three touchdowns, highlighted by three catches for 80 yards and a score against Navy.

NAME, IMAGE, LIKENESS
Thomas is an avid golfer, at least as much as a Division I football player can be. (Scroll to the last picture in this Instagram post to see evidence of such.) Given NBC may be the biggest broadcast partner in golf, one would think some opportunity could exist for Thomas down the road, be it with a sponsor or simply a day watching a tournament from an up-close vantage point.

Until then, Thomas offers personalized videos for fans via Cameo.

QUOTES
Thomas excelled out of the slot last season, many of those first-down gains coming when he worked downfield just past the linebacker level but still in front of the safeties. That positioning was advantageous for Thomas, and he knew it.

“In the slot, I definitely feel like I can get mismatches, whether that’s a nickel, smaller nickel, safety or even a linebacker,” Thomas said this spring. “None of those people can guard me at all.”

But with senior Chris Tyree moving to receiver from running back, slot is most likely filled by his speed. Moving Thomas to boundary will require some physical growth from him, even if some analysts already mistake him for a tight end.

“Definitely in the offseason, the spring, got to gain a little bit more muscle just to help me with my physicality and also speed,” Thomas said.

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“The spring version of Thomas was tantalizing. A leg injury played a role in his hushed freshman season, as did the strong play of Kevin Austin. Now fully healthy and without any clear-cut starter ahead of him, Thomas broke through. He may not be towering, but he has a wide frame, its own version of a size advantage. He ran a 4.6-second 40-yard dash before arriving at Notre Dame, better speed than one expects when looking at him.

“That combination is what the Irish had in mind when they chased the Peach State product. That combination could make him a 2022 starter. At the very least, he will be a contributor.

“Notre Dame needs him to be.

“When the Irish face Ohio State (104 days), they will have just six or seven healthy scholarship receivers. One of those will be a former walk-on, Matt Salerno. Another will be a freshman yet to partake in a single practice, Tobias Merriweather. The ‘or seven’ will be sixth-year Avery Davis, recovering from an ACL torn in November. It seems increasingly likely fifth-year Joe Wilkins is not yet full-go after suffering a Lisfranc injury this spring.

“Notre Dame will hardly have a two-deep depth chart at receiver, so each available will be needed.

“And this spring suggested Thomas will be up to that task. If all he needs is chances like he got this spring, then he will have them. If he can produce — especially before Wilkins returns later in the season — then the Irish will continue going to him; they will have no one else to go to.

“A dozen catches from Thomas this season may seem like minimal production, but that would be enough to force defenses to acknowledge him on routes, opening up the field for the likes of [Braden] Lenzy, [Lorenzo] Styles and star tight end Michael Mayer. If he builds that out to 20 catches, then suddenly Notre Dame’s offense may be nearing a worthwhile hum. …

“Lenzy should be gone in 2023. Davis certainly will be. Wilkins’ injury throws some uncertainty into his projections. But either way, the time will fully arrive for the Irish stellar 2021 receiver recruiting to pay off.

“Pulling in a trio of four-star receivers was unlike Notre Dame of late. It had not snagged that many four-star receivers in one class since 2015. In the five cycles between those two classes, the Irish snagged a total of 5 four- or five-star receivers, lowlighted by not signing a single receiver in the class of 2019.

“Things have bettered in this regard, or they at least seem to be, but for now, Notre Dame still needs to make the most of every possible perimeter playmaker it has on its roster. All three of Styles, [Deion] Colzie and Thomas need to pan out for the Irish to sniff the Playoff in the next two or three seasons.

“A full season of snaps with that dozen catches could propel Thomas into a strong offseason and such rewards.”

2023 OUTLOOK
Thomas met and exceeded last year’s modest expectations, more impressive when remembering he was not a consistent starter until the season’s final month. Stepping into a more leading role with a far more prolific quarterback directing the offense should amplify Thomas’s stats by default.

Are 50 catches possible? Yes, though that may be about Thomas’s ceiling this season, given Wake Forest transfer quarterback Sam Hartman should want to spread the ball around his targets, and 50 receptions could be nearly a fifth of Hartman’s completions.

More precisely, Thomas continuing to provide needed chunk gains would propel Notre Dame’s offense in ways that other receivers may be unable. Continuing at last year’s rate of first downs while catching 50 passes would equal moving the chains 36 times. That may be extreme, but doing so twice per week would make Thomas one of the more crucial receiving targets in recent Irish offenses.

DOWN THE ROAD
All of Notre Dame’s receivers, aside from former walk-on Matt Salerno, may return in 2024, and the junior duo of Thomas and Deion Colzie should be the established leaders next year. With that acknowledged reality, pondering a transfer from Thomas would be foolish.

It would take a far more prolific season than 50 catches for Thomas to ponder the NFL, not boasting elite speed or shiftiness which are the usual musts for early draft entrants among receivers.

In other words, Thomas may be looking to snag triple-digit catches across the next two seasons, if not more.

RELATED READING
Thomas’ leadership, freshmen arrivals already improve Notre Dame’s receivers room

NOTRE DAME 99-TO-0
The summer countdown begins anew, Rylie Mills to Deion Colzie
No. 99 Rylie Mills, senior defensive tackle, moving back inside from end
No. 98 Devan Houstan, early-enrolled four-star defensive tackle
No. 97 Gabriel Rubio, junior defensive tackle, one of three Irish DTs with notable experience
No. 95 Tyson Ford, sophomore defensive tackle, up 30 pounds from a year ago
No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina, a senior defensive tackle now ‘fully healthy’ after a 2022 torn ACL
No. 91 Aiden Gobaira, sophomore defensive end, former four-star recruit
No. 90* Brenan Vernon, incoming freshman defensive end, four-star recruit
No. 90* Boubacar Traore, incoming freshman defensive end, four-star recruit
No. 88 Mitchell Evans, the next starter at ‘TE U’
No. 86* Cooper Flanagan, incoming freshman tight end, four-star recruit
No. 85 Holden Staes, sophomore tight end, up 20 pounds in a year
No. 84 Kevin Bauman, senior tight end coming off a torn ACL
No. 83 Jayden Thomas, junior receiver, probable No. 1 target in 2023
Rhode Island transfer safety Antonio Carter gives Notre Dame desperately needed backline depth
Penn State RB transfer Devyn Ford gives Notre Dame newly-needed backfield depth, experience

One defensive lineman drops from Notre Dame’s class of 2024, consensus four-star end Loghan Thomas joins

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Only a few hours after a consensus four-star defensive lineman de-committed from Notre Dame, the Irish landed a pledge from consensus four-star defensive end Loghan Thomas (Paetow High School; Katy, Texas) on Wednesday evening. After a visit to South Bend this weekend, Thomas chose Notre Dame over finalists Georgia, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Arizona.

LSU, Texas, Texas A&M and USC were among the others to offer Thomas a scholarship.

A two-year starter already in high school, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Thomas’s body-type alone likely caught some recruiters’ attention. On top of that, he tested well at recruiting events following his junior season.

Rivals.com ranks Thomas the No. 9 weakside defensive end in the class of 2024, the No. 30 overall prospect in the state of Texas and the No. 162 recruit in the entire class, all fitting for a player who has used his length to star at a strong level of high school football.

Length has long — pun intended — been a focus for Irish head coach Marcus Freeman along the defensive line, and Thomas’s combines with enough strength to make arm tackles without much worry of a broken carry. His stride is long enough to quickly cover ground in the backfield.

Thomas plays mostly out of a two-point stance, upright, so learning the nuances of rushing the passer from a three-point stance will be the first piece of growth ahead of him at the collegiate level. Adding some heft to his frame will also be on the to-do list, though that should occur naturally, at least to some extent, in the next 18 months regardless.

Thomas joins Notre Dame’s class the same day consensus four-star defensive tackle Owen Wafle (Hun School; Princeton, N.J.) halted a year-long commitment.

“This decision was not made lightly, as Notre Dame has a rich football legacy that I truly admire,” Wafle wrote on Twitter. “However, I believe it’s important for me to explore other opportunities and find the best fit for my personal and athletic development.”

With Wafle’s de-commitment and Thomas’s commitment, the Irish continue to have 16 expected signees in the class of 2024 and three defensive linemen, Thomas joining consensus three-star end Cole Mullins (Mill Creek H.S.; Hoschton, Ga.) and rivals.com four-star end Bryce Young (Charlotte Christian; N.C.).