On Signing Day, remember Notre Dame’s surge has hinged on three-stars

Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah
ACC Media
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During tomorrow’s early signing period, as Notre Dame signs 24 current commits and possibly picks up another one or two, the focus will be on consensus four-star quarterback Tyler Buchner, five-star offensive tackle Blake Fisher and a trio of four-star receivers. That is understandable; Buchner is likely a future multi-year starting Irish quarterback, Fisher the next in a long and getting longer line of NFL-caliber offensive linemen, and Notre Dame’s lack of perimeter playmakers has been its Achilles heel for years now.

But focusing solely on the four- and five-stars misses the lessons that should be taught by the current Irish run to the ACC title game and an almost-assured Playoff berth, not to mention the ongoing four-year 43-6 stretch.

The three-stars stir this drink more than the four- and five-stars do, a fact that goes well beyond three-year starting quarterback Ian Book and sophomore running back Kyren Williams, both overlooked three-star recruits seen more as class fillers than future stars in 2016 and 2019, respectively. Though Book has become Notre Dame’s all-time winningest quarterback, the greater example of three-star to outright star is senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.

One of the first moves made by Clark Lea after arriving in South Bend as linebackers coach was to call Owusu-Koramoah. Lea had failed in his initial recruitment of the Virginia native, choosing his homestate flagship over Lea’s Wake Forest. Combined with interest from Michigan State, that was enough to persuade Owusu-Koramoah to de-commit from the Cavaliers.

But he was still a three-star recruit, one seemingly leaning toward the Spartans rather than the Irish.

“We’re looking for guys that certainly have what we believe is an ability to be developed, as well,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Sunday of why his then-new staff sought Owusu-Koramoah. “They’re not necessarily ready-made. In his instance, we feel like he’s a young man that we can develop his talent level.”

Up until 2019, Owusu-Koramoah’s development was slow, at best. If he was not best-known for a broken foot cutting short his 2018, it was because he was known for the end to his recruitment — the Irish staff positioned the three-star afterthought for a publicity stunt on National Signing Day, one ripe with Kelly attempting to answering the phone while it still rang to be sure to shoehorn that in while in front of recording cameras and dozens of media members.

Now Owusu-Koramoah is positioned to be a first-team All-American and first-round draft pick. Clearly, something about his recruiting evaluations missed his potential, less a fault of those evaluations than a simple fact of the trade.

“We want guys that love to play the game,” Kelly said. “I got to see a passion. We loved his, and when we spent some time with him, we loved the fact that there was a real love for the game and a passion for it.

“It’s their job to motivate themselves. … We recruit guys that have that love and that passion and that intrinsic motivation. That’s another thing that he had. Those are some of the intangibles that don’t show up on the recruiting sheet that we look for.”

Owusu-Koramoah may feel like an anomaly, a gem that became the best player on a title contender. Pulling him from Virginia and Book from Washington State highlight the long-term developments that led to Notre Dame’s active 16-game winning streak, but the foundations of two Playoff berths in three years go beyond them.

Recruiting cycles should be viewed collectively, one leads to the next and to the next. At defensive tackle, 2015’s and 2016’s failures led to a trio of 2017 defensive tackles. Heading into their junior seasons, three of four defensive tackles signed in 2015 were already clearly overmatched, be it by injury or by skill, and no tackles were added to the mix in 2016, leaving only Jerry Tillery to carry the load, flanked by Jonathan Bonner. There was no known depth behind them.

Thus, the Irish made the position a priority in the 2017 recruiting cycle, signing four-star Darnell Ewell and a pair of three-stars in Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish.

Tagovailoa-Amosa played in all 13 games as a freshman and Hinish in 12, serving as the primary backups to the starting duo. In this four-year stretch of winning at least 10 games per season, Hinish has played in all but one; Tagovailoa-Amosa has been sidelined by a broken foot in 2018 and a coronavirus-related absence this fall, but otherwise, he has been every bit a stalwart of this surge. From day one, those three-stars were contributors, desperately-needed contributors.

“When you talk about D-linemen that are really emerging, Myron Tag-Amosa,” Kelly said four years ago, not yet knowing the pronunciation of Tagovailoa-Amosa well enough to be comfortable saying it in public. “Myron jumped off the screen with his first-step quickness. For a big guy, we really think he’s got a huge upside. We think he’s starting to scratch the surface in terms of where he can be. … We like the fact that he’s a young player that’s going to get better and develop.”

The projection of “get better and develop” evokes thoughts of “the intangibles that don’t show up on the recruiting sheet,” a la Owusu-Koramoah.

“We really wanted that tough-guy mentality on our defensive line, Kurt brought that to us right away,” Kelly said. “Not only did he make plays, but he had a toughness to him. We wanted to upgrade that toughness across the board.”

“Tough-guy mentality” screams “intangibles,” as well.

Ewell never panned out, a medical hardship ending what had been a career without a position in 2019.

Hinish and Tagovailoa-Amosa were the results of differing recruiting priorities in 2016; Owusu-Koramoah the product of Lea’s past regrets. Staged phone call aside, all three were as overlooked on signing day as Book was in 2016 and Williams was in 2019. All three have been keys to the defensive success that vaulted Lea to an SEC head coaching job.

The more-heralded recruits matter. Book’s top-two receiving targets were each once four-stars; it just took Javon McKinley five times as long to make an impact as it took tight end Michael Mayer. If Notre Dame upsets Clemson (again) on Saturday (4 ET; ABC), either fifth-year end Daelin Hayes or sophomore end Isaiah Foskey Will Likely make a big play while sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton continues his All-America-worthy play.

But when the class of 2021 includes more than a dozen three-stars, do not underestimate their future contributions. The last class neglected linebackers entirely and signed only a pair of offensive linemen. Three-star linebacker Kahuna Kia and offensive linemen Joe Alt and Pat Coogan may fill those needs, and they have been recruited with the coaching staff knowing those holes are more pressing than usual.

They should warrant as much notice as four-star defensive tackle Gabriel Rubio and four-star cornerback Philip Riley.

SIGNING DAY COVERAGE
On Signing Day, remember Notre Dame’s surge has hinged on three-stars
A Signing Day surprise: Four-star safety Khari Gee, flipped from LSU
A Signing Day surprise: Consensus four-star RB Audric Estime, flipped from Michigan State
Consensus four-star QB Tyler Buchner
Trio of four-star WRs in Lorenzo Styles, Deion Colzie and Jayden Thomas
Five-star offensive tackle Blake Fisher and four-star guard Rocco Spindler
Consensus four-star LB Prince Kollie, the day’s greatest worry
Hawaiian LB Kahanu Kia
Cornerbacks Philip Riley and Ryan Barnes
Three-star cornerbacks JoJo Johnson and Chance Tucker
Consensus three-star safety Justin Walters
Tight ends Cane Berrong and Mitchell Evans
Consensus four-star defensive tackle Gabriel Rubio
Pair of California defensive ends, Will Schweitzer and Devin Aupiu
Three more offensive linemen in Caleb Johnson, Pat Coogan & Joe Alt
Inexperienced defensive end Jason Onye
Kicker Joshua Bryan