When Clark Lea took the head coaching job at Vanderbilt, he left Notre Dame vulnerable to making the same crucial recruiting mistake for the second year in a row. Passing on any linebackers in the class of 2020 was deemed viable, rather than spend a scholarship on a player the coaching staff did not truly relish joining the roster, but not securing any linebacker commitments in two consecutive cycles would have been a self-inflicted roster construction disaster.
Sure, Hawaiian linebacker Kahanu Kia was still committed despite the defensive coordinator’s departure, but as a practicing member of The Church of Latter-Day Saints, Kia intends to take a two-year mission following his freshman season. He will be as much a member of the class of 2023 as he is the class of 2021, if not more so.
That left consensus four-star Prince Kollie, the high school Butkus Award winner as the nation’s best preps linebacker. Lea’s Tennessee heritage had played a role in their connection, as had the fact that Lea was also the Irish linebackers coach. With him leaving Notre Dame only two days before the December early signing period, Kollie’s previously-firm commitment was suddenly at risk.
“I would have preferred that [Lea’s hiring at Vanderbilt] be announced 48 hours later, but that’s the world that we live in,” Irish recruiting coordinator Brian Polian said on that December Wednesday. “Were there some anxious moments? We identified two or three players that we knew had very, very strong personal connections with coach Lea and we were very proactive about, ‘Hey, coach Lea’s done a phenomenal job and he’s going to be a candidate here at some point,’ and especially when Vanderbilt opened, it was kind of easy to picture that.”
That preemptive approach, combined with an even more reactive one from some of the other recruits in the class, kept Kollie with Notre Dame, giving later-named defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman at least one young linebacker to focus on in the coming years. For that matter, a linebacker hand-picked to be the next great Irish linebacker.
“People always talk in terms of playmakers on offense,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s a playmaker on defense. He wrecks your day on offense.
“We saw so many similarities with Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Prince in terms of the way they play. The suddenness, just the natural fit at the rover position for us. … To add a playmaker of his capabilities was so attractive to us and it was a natural fit.”
At some point or another, Kollie should be joined by Kia, one of many players around the country who signed without a senior season, a process that arguably tamped down his recruiting rankings.
“Had he had the chance to play a senior year, (he) would have had more than some of the Pac-12 (with scholarship offers),” Polian said. “… The evaluation off of the junior film was good and we liked him, but Kahanu put out a video out on his own outlets of him doing a workout in his yard by streetlight and we were watching this guy move.
“Then we’re talking to our friends back in Punahou and saying, ‘Measure him for me.’ I want to know exactly how tall he is and exactly what he weighs right now.”
That was a common need in the pandemic recruiting cycle of 2021, and one that worked out in Kia’s favor, it would seem. For that matter, it did for Notre Dame, as well, adding two linebackers a year after skipping the position entirely.
On cornerback JoJo Johnson, formerly a Cincinnati commit recruited there by Freeman:
Freeman: “What a great young man. Extremely talented football player. Did some great things on a football field. … Halfway through the year, he reached out to us (Cincinnati) and said that he’s going to de-commit.
“He’s one of the best players in the country at his position. He’s a great athlete. So the two things I know about JoJo: He’s a competitor and he’s extremely fast. Those are two things we look for.”
Polian: “I love JoJo Johnson. I know he’s not prototypical height, but he’s a feisty, feisty competitor. He’s physical and we know for a fact he can run because he’s put really good times on record here in our camp.”
On early-enrolled safety Justin Walters, already on campus despite missing his senior season:
Polian: “Justin made all these athletic gains between his junior and senior years, and then he lost his senior fall. If you ask these guys, ‘Would you rather stay at home and hope that you play in the winter or would you rather get to school and get started with strength and conditioning and spring practice?’ (the answer is obvious by their actions).”