It would not be hyperbolic to say it has been years since Notre Dame pulled in a haul at a singular position group as deep and talented as it did at linebacker in this past cycle.
An argument could be made for the receiver trio in the class of 2021, but only two of them (Lorenzo Styles, Deion Colzie) were ranked in the top 250 nationally. Perhaps last year’s five freshman offensive linemen will warrant that notice in due time, particularly with two starting tackles as freshmen and guard Rocco Spindler a possible starter in 2022.
The best comparison point, though, would be the five defensive ends signed in 2016, and they did not earn as much notice as these linebackers in the recruiting process.
All five of Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara, Ade Ogundeji and Jamir Jones ended up not only as Irish starters, but as NFL players. Most notably, Kareem will play in a particular game this weekend with the Cincinnati Bengals. But their impact is largely recognized only in retrospect. Of those five, just Hayes and Kareem were ranked within the rivals.com top-250 recruits. Ogundeji and Jones were three-star prospects. Notre Dame was committing as much to a shotgun approach as anything else with that defensive end grouping.
The present early-enrolled linebackers, by comparison, were all consensus four-star recruits, all within the top 25 of their position, and three of them were ranked within the rivals.com top 250. Jaylen Sneed (pictured at top), Niuafe Tuihalamaka, Joshua Burnham and Nolan Ziegler are well aware of not only the talent among them but also the possible impact they could have.
“The connection (between us) is very strong, as everyone would think,” Tuihalamaka said last week. “The future is bright for us, especially with having those versatile players. … Being able to play with those guys, understand how versatile — their abilities are different than mine. Be able to learn from them, and they are learning from me.”
For obvious reasons — age, meeting times, early enrollment — the four spend an abundance of time together, something else in common with those defensive linemen of six years ago. Hayes, Kareem and Ogundeji all hailed from Michigan, spending as much time in interview sessions early in their careers talking about crossing paths in high school as they did discussing Notre Dame’s coming opponents.
“We’re all in the same thing together,” Ziegler said. “We got to the dining halls after workouts, we’ll go get something to eat, we have a lot of classes together.
“We’ll bond over a lot of the time spent outside the weight room, and we bond inside the weight room, just when misery makes company. So when you’re putting all the work in together that’s hard, you bond together.”
Those bonds may pay off most down the line — again, turning to that defensive line group, only Hayes burned a year of eligibility as a freshman, though he recorded no stats — but the Irish will need some linebacker help right away in 2022.
Four linebackers with experience return, with rising senior rover Jack Kiser and classmate JD Bertrand both likely to start, joined by either fifth-year Bo Bauer or rising senior Marist Liufau as he recovers from a dislocated ankle suffered last August. But beyond them, Notre Dame returns only rising senior Osita Ekwonu — also coming off an injury — and rising sophomore Prince Kollie.
To have a genuine two-deep at linebacker, some freshmen will have to help. Knowing their help will be needed at linebacker, specifically, will help them. Three of the four played multiple positions in high school. Now, they can focus on learning one role.
“It’s great for me because I never really got to play just linebacker,” Sneed said. “I want to know how good I can get at just playing linebacker, practicing one position and just going hard at one position. It’ll be good for me knowing that I haven’t reached my full potential yet.”
And if Sneed hasn’t reached his full potential yet, then this group of linebackers could rival those defensive ends in retrospect, too.
— Notre Dame gets the letters: Consensus four-star linebackers Jaylen Sneed and Joshua Burnham
— Notre Dame gets the letter: Consensus four-star linebacker Niuafe Tuihalamaka, former USC commit
— Notre Dame gets the letter: Consensus four-star safety Nolan Ziegler