Notre Dame Recruiting Leftovers & Links: On transfers, development and NIL legislation

Blake Fisher

Coming off the conclusion of the 2021 recruiting cycle, the most halting cycle in college football history, three things can be assumed when discussing Notre Dame’s 27 signees.

— Some of them will transfer, possibly before they ever play a snap.
— At least one will develop beyond current expectations.
— There will be public consternation when a particular recruit or two does not play on Labor Day Sunday at Florida State.

Transfers have long (always?) been part of college football, and that aspect will only increase moving forward. It is universally expected the NCAA will approve a new rule this spring, allowing all undergraduates one transfer without a season sidelined. It is widely believed that rule will apply retroactively to student-athletes who transferred these past few months.

Irish recruiting coordinator Brian Polian anticipates Notre Dame adding a staffer entirely consumed with monitoring and scouting the portal, a duty that would go beyond the database and on-field film to academic viability and past recruitments. That hire may take a moment to become reality given the University’s pandemic-induced hiring freeze, but it will also be more necessary than ever in the next 12-24 months as the long-term effects of the NCAA’s blanket eligibility waiver in 2020 become more realized.

The Irish roster will have 61 players with four full years of eligibility remaining entering the 2021 season. Those 27 that just signed, the 17 rising sophomores and 17 of the 22 signed in the 2019 cycle. For context: Notre Dame’s roster currently holds 90 players.

At some point, a simple roster crunch will propel some of those to transfer. Offensive lineman John Olmstead (class of 2019) already did without ever seeing the field. This is natural, this is college football in 2021, hence it being something to be assumed.

Of those who stick around, the Irish coaching staff’s track record makes it clear some will develop more than a recruiting ranking suggests. Soon-to-be three-year starter defensive tackle Kurt Hinish was a three-star prospect, as was soon-to-be three-year starting defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, not to mention linebacker Drew White, another three-year starter-to-be.

Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Ade Ogundeji were three-stars ranked No. 40 or lower at their respective positions; Ian Book was the No. 15 pro-style quarterback in his class. All should be drafted in April.

“We are and will be a developmental program,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said Wednesday. “Whether it’s a guy that’s got a high rating or a low rating, we’re looking for a young man that has a high ceiling and we want his best days of football to be ahead of him.”

Perhaps defensive end Will Schweitzer or counterpart Devin Aupiu join that grouping, or safety Justin Walters. Maybe Hawaiian linebacker Kahanu Kia will return from his two-year mission after his freshman season as a player physically years ahead of most sophomores. It could be offensive tackle Joe Alt continues to grow into his 6-foot-7 frame.

On the other end of the recruiting spectrum, Notre Dame fans will inevitably start wondering about the highest-rated recruits when they do not take the field in Tallahassee. But rarely do freshman Irish offensive linemen play on Day One (so five-star Blake Fisher may have to wait), while freshman receivers have notoriously idled during head coach Brian Kelly’s tenure (applicable to a trio of four-star receivers, most notably Lorenzo Styles). 

And that’s not even to mention four-star quarterback Tyler Buchner.

But just because players are not yet seeing action does not mean they are languishing in frustration. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees made it clear on National Signing Day when he first offered comments on Wisconsin graduate transfer quarterback Jack Coan, part of the allure of bringing in the veteran passer is the response within the position room to Coan’s addition.

“Contrary to popular belief, we were spoiled here for the last five years with Ian Book,” Rees said. “We had an opportunity to add a veteran, a guy that could come in, help the younger players and provide some guidance, come in and make our team better, add some competition to make the room better.

“The exciting thing for me was when I had the conversation with the other quarterbacks that we are going to be bringing in a grad transfer, to a man, they were all excited about the opportunity to bring in a veteran that can help improve them, that can help make them better, that can help add competition to the room.”

Rees specifically included Buchner and Ron Powlus III in those excitements. The recruiting cycle’s headliner may not see much action as a freshman, but that does not mean he will join the first assumption here. It is just as, if not more, likely he falls into the second grouping.

Polian has turned the Irish recruiting operation into an efficient one since rejoining Notre Dame’s staff after the 2016 debacle. Thus, it was unusual and surprising to hear him lag a bit in his anticipation of changes to name, image and likeness (NIL) legislation.

At some point in the future, the near future, student-athletes will be able to be compensated for the use of their NIL. This is not a point of debate, one no longer needing time spent on outdated biases against teenagers making good money, the tide has shifted against anyone facetiously insisting scholarships are enough compensation while schools pocket tens of millions of dollars in broadcast rights.

Polian knows this. Notre Dame knows this. Anyone with a genuine understanding of the insultingly disparate financial realities of big-time college athletics in the 21st century recognizes the social need for NIL implementation.

Yet Polian still offered a narrow view of its effects.

“Once the parameters are set, then we will build a program and be able to address it in recruiting,” Polian said. “But I also believe we are not going to get into recruiting battles with another school because they can have a guy go to a car dealership and sign autographs for $10 an autograph.

“If you’re picking Notre Dame, something like that is not going to be the difference in picking this education and this atmosphere and this incredible campus. If you want that, a card show is not going to be the difference.”

Thinking the effects of the NIL legislation will primarily feature autograph shows will be the difference in that it will cost the Irish recruits.

Autograph shows will certainly exist. A car dealership could get more than a few families onto its parking lot by enticing them with a chance to meet the entire women’s basketball roster. But if Notre Dame does not ready itself to think, enable and feature bigger opportunities than that, it will backfire. Hubris about the education, atmosphere and campus will prove detrimental compared to fair pay, broadened business relationships and furthered relationships.

Presumably, Polian knows this, as well, and simply was not anticipating an NIL conversation on Signing Day.

“The power of the Notre Dame brand is national, it’s not regional,” Polian said. “I have no doubt as the rules are put in place, that we will be able to capitalize on the power of that brand and our student-athletes will, as well.”

Those national opportunities will be real. They are how Brandon Wimbush enjoyed a notable business internship one summer, how Jerry Tillery spent time abroad, how Corey Robinson quickly rose to a role with a certain broadcast network.

Those opportunities will include a particular video game, literally featuring the players the Irish are now recruiting, a chance for those teenagers to see themselves win national championships before their first season even begins.

“I think it’s awesome,” four-star quarterback prospect Steve Angeli told Irish Sports Daily. “I grew up playing with my brothers on NCAA 14, so to know I have a chance at being in the game is really cool.”

But NIL possibilities can and will go much further than that. As one obvious and applicable possibility, what high school offensive lineman would not be tempted by a standing deal with local pizzeria Barnaby’s that provides each Notre Dame offensive lineman with $1,000 every season and his own pizza on Thursdays, leaning into that position group’s already-standing tradition of getting together and eating an abundance of the delicacy each week.

If that becomes reality, a few free pizzas here can serve nicely as a brokerage fee.

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