Coming off a signed recruiting class that included a total of no official visits, Notre Dame’s next class will be even more intriguing. The headlines will focus on the possible (and expected) impact of new Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman in chasing the biggest targets, a reality already seen with one consensus four-star defensive end commit and another with an equally high ceiling, literally speaking.
But the intrigue will tie more to the size of the class, or lack thereof. With the NCAA’s universal eligibility waiver during the coronavirus pandemic, Notre Dame may eventually see a scholarship crunch on its roster. The immediate effects are minimal — only defensive tackle Kurt Hinish and kicker Jonathan Doerer will utilize the extra year of eligibility in 2022 — but 61 other players on the Irish roster will have the theoretical opportunity to stick around campus longer than anticipated.
Fitting five-plus classes into the 85 scholarship limit will be a hard cap, so every recruit signed between 2022 and 2024 will cut into those retained players. As soon as Notre Dame started sending out scholarship offers to current high school juniors, that math was the unspoken motivating factor to the recruit: There will be only so many scholarships available in the next few cycles.
“Those numbers have to be balanced out,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in October. “We’re looking ahead to manage those numbers. A lot of our work is internal.”
Kelly made it clear, the coaching staff already has an operating idea which current players will stay how long, but that picture will remain cloudier than ever from the outside. Thus, the recruiting progress will be the best indicator.
“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,” Kelly said. “… You’re influenced by the 2022 class, so whoever you take into your class in 2022, you’ve got to make it right within your program.”
Currently, 12 players would have been in their final seasons of eligibility in 2021 if not for the blanket waiver. Add in natural attrition — be it transfers, medical hardships, early departures to the NFL or some of the other 10 seniors not returning for a fifth year — and that would typically create the space for a recruiting class of 20-27 players.
For every one of those 12 that sticks around — be it rover Paul Moala looking for one more season to impress the NFL, linebacker Bo Bauer finally getting a chance to start or defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola wanting the same thing — that will presumably impact the 2022 class.
It currently holds just six commitments. Only time will tell how many more join, which will suggest how many are leaving.
Consensus four-star offensive guard Joey Tanona (Zionsville High School; Ind.): The in-state product was the first commit of Notre Dame’s 2022 class, all the way back in late July. The No. 4 offensive guard in the country, per rivals.com, chose the Irish over the biggest names in the Big Ten, LSU and Arizona State. At 6-foot-5 and already 290 pounds, the 2022 All-American has all the size wanted to join the country’s most consistent offensive line program and the wanted fundamentals despite being so young.
Consensus three-star tight end Jack Nickel (Milton H.S.; Ga.): Offer sheets shed more light on young recruits than recruiting rankings — in a normal cycle, “young” may not be applicable anymore, but given there have not been recruiting visits anywhere in nearly a year, no typical summer circuit for juniors and still much uncertainty, the adjective still fits this entire class — and in Nickel’s case that includes LSU, Oregon and Penn State. Recruiting the Peach State has become a successful emphasis for Notre Dame, and Nickel’s hands suggest that trend should continue.
Consensus three-star linebacker Nolan Ziegler (Catholic Central; Grand Rapids, Mich.): An Irish legacy and Catholic-school product, Ziegler was presumably always headed to Notre Dame despite Michigan’s, Iowa’s and Nebraska’s best efforts. A high school safety, he spends much of his time charging forward seeking ball carriers, a tactic that will fit nicely at linebacker in Freeman’s defense.
Consensus four-star offensive tackle Ty Chan (Lawrence Academy; Groton, Mass.): The Northeast is not a typical football hotbed, which makes a four-star tackle out of a Boston suburb not only stand out but also a question mark due to inadequate competition. The 2022 All-American has the measurables, as well as bursts of excellence on film. Growth and consistency will need to come with time.
Consensus four-star defensive end Tyson Ford (John Burroughs School; St. Louis): The first commitment of Freeman’s tenure, Ford was heading to Oklahoma until a late push from the Irish coaching staff leading into his announcement date. The No. 5 defensive end in the class, Ford’s 6-foot-6 size should make him a prototypical Power Five end.
Consensus three-star defensive end Aiden Gobaira (Chantilly; Va.): Assuming a pattern off two commitments in Freeman’s first month would be rash, but it is assuredly not a coincidence that his first two pledges came from defensive ends listed at 6-foot-6.