If National Signing Day has lost some of its drama and intrigue for Notre Dame, both the December version beginning Wednesday and the traditional February date, that is a reflection of the Irish program finding stability as a whole, not of the quality of recruits on the way.
This week should underscore that more than any other. Only seven days after news broke Notre Dame had fired offensive coordinator Chip Long, the Irish should still be in position to sign a class highlighted by offensive playmakers, ones the type of quality that would usually induce Signing Day consternation.
In any situation, officially receiving the National Letters of Intent from five-star running back Chris Tyree (Thomas Dale High School; Chester, Va.) and five-star receiver Jordan Johnson (DeSmet H.S.; St. Louis, Miss.), pictured at top, will warrant sighs of relief, but those moments will be expected, not celebrated ones. The calm response should not take away from the fact that they are the calibers of players that could make this a Signing Day to remember.
When figurative fax machines begin whirring at 7 a.m. ET, genuine high-fives — not the forced ones that will populate social media throughout the day — follow unexpected commitments more than signatures from rare talent. A lack of the former should not be mistaken as a dearth of the latter, particularly since Tyree’s and Johnson’s letters may be met by muted reactions from Notre Dame’s coaching staff simply because their commitments have been so strong.
Their solid pledges are joined by similarly stern ones from consensus four-stars quarterback Drew Pyne (New Canaan; Conn.), tight ends Michael Mayer (Covington Catholic; Alexandria, Ky.) and Kevin Bauman (Red Bank Catholic; Red Bank, N.J.), and offensive tackles Tosh Baker (Pinnacle; Phoenix) and Michael Carmody (Mars Area; Mars, Pa.).
It is these kinds of players that give Irish head coach Brian Kelly the comfort of knowing he will not spend much time this offseason scouting the transfer portal.
“I don’t think you can ever not look,” Kelly said Saturday. “You always have to examine it. I want to be careful how I say this, but we’re reaching the luxury tax; we’re at the salary cap. We don’t have the luxury to bring in three or four guys, so we would have to be really blown over the top to dip into that pool.”
Those offensive stars headline a class of 17 committed prospects, though an 18th could certainly join this week. Just like the transfer portal will be generally ignored, the class of 2020 cannot get much bigger than 18, given Notre Dame’s current roster situation.
If including fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford, increasingly expected to pursue and receive a sixth year of eligibility, the Irish roster has 72 names who could conceivably play next season, a figure that does not include linebacker Jonathan Jones or long snapper John Shannon, the former already in the transfer portal and the latter preparing for a career in Illinois law enforcement. It does, however, include Ohio State graduate transfer safety Isaiah Pryor, arriving with two years of eligibility remaining.
Adding 17-18 names to that 72 will put Notre Dame at 89-90, above the NCAA limit of 85, though not by much. The expected jump to the NFL by senior safety Alohi Gilman, the possible one from senior running back Tony Jones and the conceivable departure of senior receiver Javon McKinley would all push the Irish quite close to 85 without much work on the roster.
Some have and others will speculate Kelly’s choice to part with Long stemmed from a version of roster management. Kelly said no return-or-go conversations influenced that decision — “But I think any head coach that does not have the pulse of his football team is not going to be a head coach very long.” — but he has already had all of those discussions.
In addition to the aforementioned three, the biggest two decisions to learn are those from senior quarterback Ian Book and junior tight end Cole Kmet. It is reasonable to expect both back, but neither will come to light this week.
“It’s not my job to come out and say this guy is doing this and that guy is doing that,” Kelly said. “We have our roster set based on who’s coming back and who’s not coming back. I know exactly how our roster is set for next year.”
Until they sign on the dotted line, no 2020 freshmen are a part of that “set” roster, but once they do, Tyree and Johnson will at least fit into contributing roles, if not into the two-deep before Notre Dame’s plane takes off for Dublin. Their Letters of Intent may not come as surprises, but they could make Wednesday a day to remember all the same, since neither hedged his bets due to any offensive coordinator uncertainty.
For thoroughness’ sake, the expected fifth-year players in 2020: Book, Jones, left tackle Liam Eichenberg, right guard Tommy Kraemer, defensive ends Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji, and Crawford.