And In That Corner … A Thor-ough look at Notre Dame’s defensive draft hopefuls


Notre Dame has a number of draft prospects expecting to hear their names this weekend, so many it makes sense to break the discussion into defense and offense. While this space always has some thoughts about these players individually, draft analysis requires a different angle, one trying to project how these players will fit in at the next level rather than looking back on their college careers.

For that, and for a better understanding of the broader draft picture, let’s turn to Rotoworld’s lead college football writer and NFL draft analyst, Thor Nystrom. And let’s begin with former Irish defenders, as a couple hold genuine first-round hopes.

DF: Thor, if there is anything you like more than college football, it is the puzzle of the NFL draft. As you and I have discussed throughout the last few months, my insights into someone’s past and proven abilities, like Jerry Tillery’s as an example, provide only so much value this time of year. Thanks for helping fill in those gaps.

Let’s start with Tillery, as I believe the defensive tackle almost certainly will be the first Notre Dame player called this weekend, right? It took him a long time to grow into someone the Irish could rely upon, but by the end he was a defensive force that played a key role in propelling them to the Playoff.

About where do you see him going and why? What sets Tillery apart?

TN: Tillery will be the first of these names off the board, absolutely, followed by Julian Love (with the dark horse being Miles Boykin).

Where Tillery is going to go is up in the air. I have not seen him going in the first round in many mock drafts, but I have a gut feeling he will wind up in the first on Thursday.

Perhaps I am saying that because I love Tillery. I rank him as the No. 11 overall prospect in the class. But I also think he is the kind of the guy front offices are hush-hush about when talking with the media. He was very under the radar coming into this year because he played out of position in a role he was miscast for and had a petulant reputation that preceded him, the 2016 USC incident being the most public.

Then this fall Brian Kelly finally unshackled the kid and moved him to the position Tillery was put on this earth to play, three-technique, and he went thermonuclear.

The counting stats —  eight sacks and 10.5 TFL — don’t tell the story. This is a Notre Dame crowd, so I’m probably preaching to the choir, but I have three crazy Tillery stats from Pro Football Focus and a crazy Tillery contextual M. Night Shyamalan-twist to offer.

PFF Fact No. 1: Tillery tied Alabama’s Quinnen Williams (whom I consider the best player in this draft class) for the highest pass-rushing grade of interior defenders in college football last season.

PFF Fact No. 2:  Tillery created 48 total pressures (No. 3 among all interior defenders), with an additional 32 pass-rushing wins that didn’t result in a pressure. In other words, he whipped his man 32 times from the interior on passing downs and didn’t get credited with a pressure. He led college football in wins that didn’t result in a pressure — that’s just rotten luck. (DF Note: And probably a testament to some of the defensive ends Notre Dame returns in 2019.) Nonetheless, Tillery still finished in the top-three of interior in pressures.

PFF Fact No. 3: Tillery won nearly twenty percent of his pass-rushing snaps last year.

Shyamalan Twist: Tillery played the final eight games with a torn right labrum that was injured in late September. It’s not just that he played through it without a complaint — nobody even knew he had a torn labrum until he was home on vacation before the Playoff and his mother, a nurse, sent him in to get it looked at.

Thor’s complete DT rankings

And then Tillery went out and played Clemson, and then he went out and did full athletic testing. He didn’t duck the bowl or the combine with a phantom injury, like many of his contemporaries. He was willing to play compromised. And in 2018, he DOMINATED while not at 100 percent.

Tillery is a freak athlete with a perfect frame.  Interior penetration in the NFL is gold — like his old helmet — and that is Tillery’s calling card. I think he’s just getting started.

DF: Next up should be Julian Love. He has never tested all that well — how excited can an NFL front office get about him improving to a 4.45-second 40-yard dash at Notre Dame’s Pro Day after struggling to a 4.54 at the NFL combine? I am not sure any of his numbers set him apart, which is why many mock drafts have dropped him a round or two this spring.

Not all mock drafts, though. You, Josh Norris and Chris Simms did a mock draft last week in which Josh took Love at No. 29, to the Kansas City Chiefs. You did not speak against the pick (I am pretty sure you were too busy failing to find someone to pick at No. 30), while Chris went so far as to compare Love to his former teammate and five-time Pro Bowler Ronde Barber. That kind of thought process is more in line with what Irish fans expect after watching Love for three seasons.

Which end of the spectrum do you lean toward?

TN: That mock draft was a trip! NFL teams have 10 minutes to pick. We did it on the spot, and I had to contend throughout with the distraction of Simms’ banter, a challenge no NFL front office will face this weekend.

And yeah, I’m with him on Love.

He’s bigger than former Washington cornerback Byron Murphy, more athletic than Byron Murphy — and he had a career almost as good as Byron Murphy. (Murphy had PFF grades of 86.6 in 2017 and 92.0 in 2018; Love had grades of 81.8 in 2017 and 90.4 in 2018.)

Love is a natural cover corner. He’s agile, technically-elite and super smart. Oh, and he’s got loosey-goosey hips that help him swivel like a chair and flow with the receiver. He shares Murphy’s deep speed concerns, but that is the biggest knock.

Thor’s complete CB rankings

I don’t think Love is quite at Murphy’s level as a player, but he’s not far off. There are a lot of similarities in coverage (Murphy is better against the run). Love has the brains, the body and athleticism. I’m bullish. (DF Note: Thor compares Love to Murphy because the two are competing to be the second cornerback drafted behind former LSU cornerback Greedy Williams.)

DF: I am not sure who to go with next. How about Notre Dame’s leading tackler each of the last two seasons, Te’von Coney? Another player who does not test as well by the clock or the weight as many others, no matter how solidly he plays. Since Clark Lea began coaching the Irish linebackers in 2017, Coney progressed by leaps and bounds. He went from recognizing a play about as quickly as I do to instinctively filling a hole before the hole even opened. That is how you rack up 239 tackles the last two seasons, including 33 between two bowl games against LSU and Clemson.

How much can Coney’s production make up for his lack of elite athleticism?

TN: I fear Coney Island is going to suffer in translation to the next level. He measured  in at only 6-foot and 234 pounds at the NFL Combine, and then he tested in the fifth-percentile of SPARQ, a database correlating a player’s athleticism tests to historic marks at his position.

His RAS score — a metric out of 10 rating your size-adjusted athletic test scores which weights the tests by importance — was 2.56. Ten would be the most athletic linebacker to ever test while zero equates to an inanimate trash can set up behind the nose tackle. Scoring a 2.56 further confirms Coney enters the NFL out-gunned athletically.

The kid is a warrior, though. Loved him in college. A reliable, tone-setting All-American. Very smart player, great instincts. I just think he’s going to be a negative in coverage at the next level.

He’s always going to be on the wrong end of size/athleticism encounters, and want-to and heart only go so far when you’re on a playing field with 21 NFL-caliber athletes. In the modern NFL, you have to cover well. That’s why unathletic linebackers are going the way of the immobile seven-foot center in the NBA.

I rank Coney as LB14. I know I’m lower on him than others, but I do think he’s a high-floor prospect who can help against the run. I just don’t think he’ll ever be more than a replaceable starter in the NFL because of the coverage concerns. Good depth piece, if nothing else. I grade him in the late-round 5/early-round 6 neighborhood.

DF: And that brings us to Drue Tranquill. Talk about a college career. From maligned safety to injured safety to rover and finally to inside linebacker, one could argue it took five years for Tranquill to land at his best position. Before getting into his current draft stock, I have to ask — Do you think he would have been drafted last year?

TN: Last year, yeah, I do, I think he made a big enough leap in 2017 to justify a flier. But he really struggled in 2016, and your point about his journey to this point is well taken.

DF: And what about nowadays? There are Irish fans who laugh at the thought of Tranquill being drafted at all. If it was in the realm of possibility a year ago, his work at Buck in 2018 should make it a certainty in my mind. He’ll never be a top-flight NFL player, maybe not even more than a situational player, but in those situations he could provide the hybrid second-tier skill set the NFL is skewing toward as it becomes more and more like college football. That, combined with his physicality, is what allowed him to excel under Lea these last two seasons.

How does the NFL view a Drue Tranquill, a 23-year-old with absolutely no character issues, but two torn ACLs in his past? An athlete who struggled in coverage while at safety but excelled in it at linebacker?

TN: To me, Tranquill is the opposite case of Coney.

Hear me out, Irish fans — Coney was the better college player, better player by far.

My appreciation for Tranquill stems from loving linebackers who can cover. And that’s what he is: A 6-foot-2 former safety with an 88th percentile SPARQ score and a 9.87 (!) RAS. Tranquill is an ace in coverage, and I think he’s only going to get better as he learns his new position.

Thor’s complete LB rankings

As we talked about in the Coney section, coverage ability is so valuable in the modern NFL. If you want to break what’s important in a linebacker evaluation into a simple pie chart with pass defense and run defense, pass defense value swallows the run game piece.

In a nutshell, that’s why I am high on Tranquill and low on Coney. The red flag with Tranquill is his medical history. My love is contingent on my doctors giving the thumbs up. Assuming they do, I think he’s a top-100 prospect based on the value of his best skill and the ceiling it gives him. I rank him LB7, the No. 87 player in the class.

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, 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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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, 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.

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.

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.

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.

“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.”

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.

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.

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

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


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. 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 four-star end Bryce Young (Charlotte Christian; N.C.).

Notre Dame announces 2023 NBC kickoff times, led by Ohio State and USC in prime time

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Notre Dame will host two preseason top-25 teams, possibly both top-10 teams, in back-to-back home games in prime time in 2023, the Irish and NBC announced Wednesday afternoon. Ohio State’s Sept. 23 visit and USC’s Oct. 14 arrival will both kick off at 7:30 ET.

Coming off a College Football Playoff appearance and third in the last four years, the Buckeyes look poised to again contend for the Big Ten title and a possible Playoff bid. Not to be too blunt, but the trip to Notre Dame will be Ohio State’s first genuine challenge of 2023, opening the season at Indiana before welcoming FCS-level Youngstown State and then Western Kentucky.

Notre Dame will have already played four games, including a trip abroad and a trip to North Carolina State.

That season-opening venture to Dublin will feature a later kickoff than may have been anticipated. Announced on Tuesday as a sellout, Notre Dame will kick off at 2:30 ET on NBC against Navy, much later than the 9 a.m. kickoff in 2012, the last time the Irish and the Midshipmen played in Ireland. This year’s trip is somewhat a make-up from having to scrap the planned trip in 2020, hence the unusual occurrence of Notre Dame playing a home game away from South Bend in this annual series.

After the dalliance across the Atlantic, the Irish will face an FCS-level program for the first time in history, Tennessee State and head coach Eddie George visiting on Sept. 2 at 3:30 ET. Logically, as soon as Notre Dame agreed to move its date with Navy to Dublin, meeting an FCS opponent became inevitable, either that or shoehorn in an early off week.

Instead, the Trojans will arrive in South Bend just before the first Irish off week, also kicking off at 7:30 ET on Oct. 14. With Heisman-winner, Heisman-frontrunner and contender to be the No. 1 pick quarterback Caleb Williams leading it, USC will also be a trendy Playoff contender in 2023. Competitively, the Trojans will be coming off a rather pedestrian early-season stretch.

Looking at ESPN’s SP+ rankings to gauge the first half of USC’s schedule sheds light on how likely it is the Trojans will be undefeated in mid-October. None of their first six opponents rank in the top 60 in the country, and three of them are in the bottom 30. Again leaning into the SP+ numbers, USC should be favored by three possessions in every one of those games, with the first three of those looking like edges well north of 30 points and two more being around four touchdowns.

Thus, Notre Dame and NBC should welcome multiple unbeaten top-10 teams in primetime this year.

The 33rd year of Notre Dame on NBC will feature six games aired on both NBC and Peacock, NBC’s streaming service, as well as one game exclusively available on Peacock, the Sept. 16 tilt with Central Michigan at 2:30 ET.

The Irish home slate will conclude with a Senior Day showing from Wake Forest at 3:30 ET on Nov. 18, new Notre Dame quarterback Sam Hartman’s previous team.

Aug. 26: vs. Navy in Dublin at 2:30 ET
Sept. 2: vs. Tennessee State at 3:30 ET
Sept. 16: vs. Central Michigan at 2:30 ET on Peacock
Sept. 23: vs. Ohio State at 7:30 ET
Oct. 14: vs. USC at 7:30 ET
Oct. 28: vs. Pittsburgh at 3:30 ET
Nov. 18: vs. Wake Forest at 3:30 ET