In one month, No. 2 Notre Dame (8-0, 7-0 ACC) will have a chance to greatly determine its long-term future. No, not by winning the ACC title game against No. 4 Clemson on Dec. 19 to seal a spot in the College Football Playoff, but by putting together a complete recruiting class during the early signing period in exactly four weeks, ending what has been a recruiting cycle clearly unlike any other.
Only a few years old, the 72-hour December window always sneaks up on fans and recruitniks, but that has obviously been amplified this cycle. Its rapid approach, though, has been underscored by the Irish flipping two recruits from Pac-12 programs this week, bringing the current running total of Notre Dame commits to 21, all expected to sign their National Letters of Intent on Dec. 16.
That total includes a five-star offensive lineman (tackle Blake Fisher) and a hyped quarterback (Tyler Buchner highlights at top); two receivers out of Georgia and two sons of former NFL players (13-year offensive tackle John Alt, father of offensive tackle Joe; six-year linebacker Lorenzo Styles, father of four-star receiver Lorenzo); and four defensive backs and at least five players who quietly visited South Bend during the pandemic to at least get a look at campus before committing, even if those visits could not include any interaction with football staff or coaches in any regard.
That is where this recruiting cycle has been most abnormal. With obvious and good reason, the NCAA has implemented a recruiting dead period since the onset of the pandemic, a period that is expected to be extended to April 15 later today. Coaches are not allowed to meet with recruits on or off campus, and no official or unofficial visits are allowed. Simply put, the only remaining incentive to travel is to walk around Notre Dame Stadium in person.
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Thus, the Irish have recruited through Zoom and by getting off to an 8-0 start, though the real effects of this strong season may not be felt until the next class, not a pandemic anomaly but rather the usual gradual effect of the current season influencing high school juniors rather than those about to sign.
That class will be one with calculus needed to handicap its size. When the NCAA granted a mulligan year in regards to eligibility for all players this season and removed the scholarship limit for 2021 but no further, it put a scholarship crunch onto 2022-24.
For example, and this is purely an example to put those vague thoughts into tangible application: Freshman cornerback Clarence Lewis has been a pertinent contributor for the Irish this season, but not one of such note his future NFL draft stock has skyrocketed. Perhaps he will play each of the next three seasons, through 2023, and play well, but still receive only a mid-round draft grade. He could see reason to return in 2024 and boost that. The Notre Dame coaching staff has already mapped out rough scholarship math that far into the future, but now there may be additional years of eligibility to consider for three seasons, if not four.
That will alter 2022 recruiting, and it will be a dynamic baffling outside scrutiny.
“Those numbers have to be balanced out,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said last month. “We’re looking ahead to manage those numbers. A lot of our work is internal. You’re not going to be able to figure out what that looks like from the outside-in, because a lot of that has to do with conversations internally about how we manage this.
“I know that sounds like a lot of jumble talk, but it’s really about conversations that have to be had within these walls about what 2022 looks like with guys that are currently on the roster.”
However those numbers break down, it is safe to presume Notre Dame will continue to pursue highly-touted offensive linemen, one quarterback per cycle and, increasingly, length. Irish recruiting coordinator Brian Polian brought up that want during last year’s early signing period.
“If you can get a really good athlete who has length, that’s better than just a really good athlete that doesn’t,” he said. “… There was a concerted effort this year, if we have two equal grades on a guy, let’s go with the guy that’s got a little bit more length.”
That effort unquestionably extended to the class of 2021, with 6-foot-4 defensive end Will Schweitzer, 6-foot-5 defensive end Jason Onye, 6-foot-7 tight end Mitchell Evans and 6-foot-7 offensive tackle Joe Alt all embodying it.
That much will remain the same for Notre Dame this month and next year, but not much else will. As for that meaning official visits return, that doesn’t sound so bad, if only we can all be so lucky.
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One sentence on each of the nine recruits that committed to the Irish while this space was silent from April to September. A bare-bones sentence, because something has to be held in reserve for Dec. 16 …
Three-star defensive end Jason Onye: The definition of raw is a Rhode Island end who has played only two years of football.
Three-star cornerback Ryan Barnes: When a defensive back holds offers from Clemson, Georgia and USC, among others, his star rating hardly matters.
Three-star offensive tackle Joe Alt: The idea of a 6-foot-7 tackle as the son of a two-time NFL Pro Bowler is an idea with a high ceiling.
Three-star cornerback Chance Tucker: Notre Dame beat out Washington for Tucker, of note given the Huskies’ prolific production of NFL-caliber cornerbacks the last handful of years.
Three-star running back Logan Diggs: He may not be a five-star Clemson target, but given what three-star running backs (Kyren Williams, C’Bo Flemister) are doing for the Irish this season, some faith should be put into running backs coach Lance Taylor.
Three-star tight end Mitchell Evans: He will not be the headline tight end in this class (Cane Berrong), but consider Evans’ size a harbinger of early contributions for Notre Dame, especially as it leans into jumbo packages under offensive coordinator Tommy Rees.
Three-star linebacker Prince Kollie: As the only linebacker in the class sets up Kollie for immediate special teams work and then, in a few years, a clean shot at a contributing role.
Four-star offensive guard Rocco Spindler: File him away as a recruit who genuinely considered only two schools, and he did not choose Michigan.
Three-star defensive end Will Schweitzer: The one-time Nebraska commit will spend his freshman season focusing on adding weight to a 6-foot-4 frame currently carrying only 215 pounds.
Important message regarding the 2021 All-American Bowl pic.twitter.com/kFv93Khboz
— All-American Bowl (@AABonNBC) October 20, 2020