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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

May 23, 2024

There are four Notre Dame commits in the 2025 ISD Fab 50. If they are still there for the final version, it will be the most I’ve had in my top-50 since I started compiling these rankings for ISD in 2018.

There’s no downside to any of that, but unlike most other top tier programs, they aren’t in contention to add many more to Will Black‍, Ivan Taylor‍, Deuce Knight‍, and Dallas Golden‍. They only offered 20 total recruits in the Fab 50 and there are only 44 in my top-100. (It’s even less when looking at 247Sports recent rankings update. It’s 31 out of 100.)

The Notre Dame coaching staff offered 20 of the top-29 prospects in the final 2024 Fab 50 and 30 out of the 50.

Why the big difference from the last cycle? Maybe it’s as simple as Notre Dame not wasting their time with those who show minimal interest. Maybe it’s Marcus Freeman, Chad Bowden, and company having a much different view of certain prospects than others. There could be a lot of reasons for it.

There’s a lot of evidence pointing to Notre Dame putting a greater emphasis on their own in-person evaluations. There are currently 21 players committed to them in the 2025 class, nine of them competed for the coaches at camp last summer.

That means they not only had a chance to coach these players, but they had verified measurements and athletic testing for all of them as well. Receiver Derek Meadows‍, who will be on campus for an official visit in June, also worked out at camp last summer.

There are five others in the class who are the sons of former NFL players (two of them are Notre Dame alums): Jerome Bettis Jr.‍, James Flanigan‍, Elijah Burress‍, Anthony Sacca‍, and Gordy Sulfsted‍. Ivan Taylor (camp last summer) and targets JaDon Blair‍ and Talyn Taylor‍ also have fathers who played in the league.

Other commits have strong connections that help with the scouting process. Ko'o Kia‍’s brother Kahanu is currently on the team and Notre Dame has plenty of ties to his high school, Punahou. Cree Thomas‍ played at the same high school program as Benjamin Morrison. Not that Notre Dame needed much more than seeing the film with Dallas Golden‍, but he’s from the same Berkeley Prep program in Tampa that the staff became very family with during Keon Keeley’s recruitment as well as preferred walk-on Tre Reader. Nathaniel Owusu-Boateng‍, another top target who is taking an official in June, is also the brother of former Notre Dame linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.

They aren’t lacking intel with any of these players.

It’s fair for Notre Dame fans to be critical when it comes to recruiting. Not seeing them in the mix for more top-50 prospects compared to the programs they are competing with for national championships is going to bring a negative reaction from many. Not even getting into the game with an offer for more of who the recruiting industry considers top recruits won’t make people feel warm and fuzzy either.

However, no one can argue with the win rate. When a program offers 20 of the top players in the country and lands commitments from four of them, they are clearly doing a lot right. No one can argue with the coaches and personnel staff having conviction with their own evaluations as well.

Where some previous staff might have been labeled lazy or willing to settle for certain recruits, this staff clearly has a vision with their scouting and evaluation process. We’ll see in three or four years how right or wrong they were compared to others who might be getting caught up with star chasing.

2. Owusu-Boateng is the only uncommitted recruit in the Fab 50 who Notre Dame is in the mix for. Unless there is a surprise with someone else in the next month, then it’s just him out of that list who could join the other four commits.

There are others who could end up rising into the Fab 50 later on, though.

CB Mark Zackery IV‍ is about to announce his commitment on Saturday with Notre Dame in a spot to land him. He’s a top-100 prospect in my eyes and could make a move after his senior season. LB Madden Faraimo‍ and WR Talyn Taylor‍ (both in my top-100) and WR Derek Meadows‍ (just outside of it for me) are others who have the potential to make big moves in the rankings as well.

As for current commitments who I could see moving all the way up to the Fab 50, my top-three candidates would be Joseph Reiff‍, Matty Augustine‍, and Chris Burgess‍.

For some, the jump wouldn’t be as big for Burgess. Rivals already has him in their top-50 (38) and he’s 104th with his composite ranking as well after 247 gave him a bump in their most recent update. I still want to see more of his tools translate to the field this fall before I put him in that tier.

ISD’s Christian McCollum just saw Augustine in person at a showcase that also featured Notre Dame commit Will Black. There was as great of a buzz from coaches in attendance about Augustine as there was for Black.

Augustine is still a 3-star for everyone else, but he’s a 4-star for me. His ranking is hurt by playing in Connecticut and most of these sites won’t see him in person because of that, but his talent is undeniable. I expect his overall ranking to rise.

Reiff is going to be interesting to watch this fall. He was fantastic last season and should be bigger and better as a senior. If he’s not at camps or competing in track and field, then none of these sites will give his ranking a second look this summer.

I’m going to be really interested to see how big he is in the fall and how he carries that weight.

He’s already one of my favorites in the class and if he made a big jump with his physical development, the film won’t lie with his play as a senior.

3. Reiff might eventually grow into a defensive tackle and Notre Dame expects Sulfsted to do that despite weighing around 250 at this time.

That might be surprising for some who want the Irish to add more 290+ “War Daddy” types who look like they are 27 rather than 17. Everyone wants those guys, but there are very few of them in each recruiting cycle. (More on this later)

One thing that I greatly appreciate about ISD subscribers is that there are many who realize this. They understand that the majority of players who are rising seniors in high school and going to experience massive physical development after a few years in college. Projecting physical development is part of the evaluation process.

Rylie Mills and Howard Cross are Notre Dame’s starting defensive tackles and two of the top returning interior defensive linemen in the country. They are perfect examples of players who needed to add significant weight and strength when they arrived at Notre Dame and have done that.

The same goes for Jason Onye. He was listed as a 245 pound weak side end by some sites when he committed to Notre Dame. He’s added close to 50 pounds since then. True freshman Cole Mullins is the next player who’s at the beginning of that process.

Five of the top-seven defensive tackles in the 2024 NFL Draft had similar journeys to Cross and Mills. Clemson’s Ruke Orhorhoro was around 240-250 as a high school junior. He was a 294 pound freak of nature when he worked out at the NFL Combine. Illinois DT Jer’Zhan Newton was listed at 255 as a recruit. He weighed 304 at the combine. Texas’ T’Vondre Sweat was listed at 249 as a recruit and played at over 360 (!) at Texas.

Florida State’s Braden Fiske was 240 when he originally signed with Western Michigan. He got up to 292. Kris Jenkins was 239 when he started out at Michigan. The son of a former NFL defensive tackle was 299 at the combine and was the top defensive lineman on Bruce Feldman’s annual Freaks list heading into last season.

Sulsted’s father is a former NFL offensive lineman. A big reason he doesn’t weigh more right now has to do with playing basketball. I don’t suspect there will be a lot of issues for him to add the right weight.

As I mentioned in my FDL of Sulfsted, I like his motor and his reactive athleticism. That’s a good base to start with for someone with his frame.

4. The last defensive tackle who arrived at Notre Dame who closest fit the description of a “War Daddy” was Jerry Tillery. It took him some time to become a dominant player, but his last two seasons were as good as any Notre Dame has had at the position in the last 20 years.

Of course, everyone who follows recruiting knows that Tillery was supposed to be the next Ronnie Stanley and not a defensive tackle. Him ending up on the other side of the ball and becoming the player he became was more of a lucky break than Notre Dame finally landing a stud at a position that has proven extremely difficult to recruit (for just about every program).

There were five future NFL Draft picks in the 2018 defensive line rotation. Tillery was joined by Daelin Hayes, Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem, and Ade Ogundeji. Okwara followed in his brother’s footsteps to Notre Dame, but Hayes, Kareem, and Ogundeji were from Detroit. If Keith Gilmore wasn’t the defensive line coach recruiting them, it’s doubtful that any of them end up in South Bend.

A native of Detroit, he helped flip Hayes and Kareem to Notre Dame and was the one who saw Ogundeji at a camp before offering him.

Mike Elston was the defensive line coach at Notre Dame for 10 years. He didn’t recruit this group of players, he was the linebackers coach during that time, but did a very good job coaching them when he moved back to the defensive line. It’s hard to argue with the results, but it doesn’t happen without a bit of luck to end up the way that it did.

5. Without Nick McCloud at corner and Ben Skowronek at receiver, Notre Dame doesn’t make the College Football Playoff in 2020. Without Javontae Jean-Baptiste at defensive end and Thomas Harper at nickel last season, Notre Dame doesn’t have a top-10 defense.

The Irish weren’t loading up with the transfers like a lot of teams, but they added some key players who made them a better team in both of those seasons.

I think of those moves for Notre Dame and how important they were. Then I think of Dabo Swinney and Clemson adding no one in the portal this offseason.

That decision is probably going to be what keeps them as a top-20 team (they are 14th in Bill Connelly’s SP+ projections) rather than one who can compete for a national championship this season.

I actually respect his approach in some ways. I do believe part of the motivation for him is about not disrupting his roster. Sometimes adding more for now will hurt you later. That was part of the problem at USC. They kept adding receivers who all wanted to be the guy and ended up with a lot of unhappy players.

Don’t get it twisted, Dabo isn’t above buying players. This isn’t about them trying to avoid a bidding war for transfers, no matter how some people might be presenting it. But he’s right when he says that most of his players are better than the ones in the portal. They had the fifth most talented roster in college football last season and they have numerous game wreckers.

That’s all the more reason that his strategy is the wrong one. He doesn’t have to go full portal, but no portal is not the answer. Adding a few players could have put them into a position to be a true contender this fall.

Specifically at quarterback, Cade Klubnik showed zero signs of being the next Watson or Lawrence. He finished 69th in ESPN’s QBR and only one Power 5 quarterback (minimum 300 drop backs) had a lower percentage of Big Time Throws.

PFF defines Big Time Throws as “a pass with excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window”. For added context, Penn State’s Drew Allar finished with a higher percentage than Klubnik. Welp, that’s not great.

Dabo stuck with Garrett Riley at coordinator, which makes sense given his previous track record. Imagine if Riley had a quarterback who he knew could thrive in his system? Cam Ward (Miami) or Dillon Gabriel (Oregon) would have presented the type of upgrade that could have flipped their offense from 56th in OF+ (combined FEI and SP+) to one closer to what Riley had produced at SMU and TCU.

There is no debate that Notre Dame is a better team with Jordan Clark, Rod Heard II, RJ Oben, two potential starters at receiver, Mitch Jeter, Jayden Harrison, and Riley Leonard. Now, imagine the team without those players. 

Clemson has recruited better than Notre Dame. Dabo didn’t need to add as much as Marcus Freeman did to his roster this offseason. Clemson needed to add something, though. For once, one of those angry callers on those dumb call-in shows might have had a point.

6. Connelly’s post-spring SP+ projections are out and Notre Dame is 10th. They’re top-10 on offense and defense. It’s not a surprise that the four opponents most people have been talking about this offseason are the four ranked the highest.

There’s a pretty big gap between them and everyone else, although I think A&M and USC could be slightly worse than where they’re projected and teams like Georgia Tech, Virginia, and Stanford are the teams who could end up a lot friskier than where they’re projected.

The top-four projected overall are the expected favorites this season: Georgia, Ohio State, Oregon, and Texas. The interesting thing about all of them, like Notre Dame, is that they are going to rely on some transfers.

Ohio State would have a pretty loaded roster already, but they brought in Will Howard (Kansas State) at quarterback, Caleb Downs at safety (Alabama), and Quinshon Judkins (Ole Miss). Downs and Judkins especially have the potential to elevate their team.

There wasn’t a more proven commodity at quarterback in the transfer portal than Dillon Gabriel (Oklahoma via UCF) and wide receiver Evan Stewart (Texas A&M) could be a WR1 for them. They also added two potential starters at defensive tackle and as important as that is for them, they ended up taking those players away from other contenders who were looking for help at that position too.

They also revamped their secondary after losing two starters to the NFL Draft.

Texas added nickel/safety Andrew Mukuba, who could have left Clemson for day two of the NFL Draft. Instead he left for the Longhorns. They lost two playmakers at receiver after last season, but are plugging in Isaiah Bond (led Alabama in receptions) and Silas Bolden (led Oregon State in receiving yards) to help soften that blow.

Even Georgia and their 80% blue-chip ratio has likely added four or five starters to their team through the portal. They’re still loaded where they are always loaded. They are just filling in some gaps.

It’s a new world with an expanded playoff format and it’s a new world where even Georgia, who added a total of five transfers during the last two offseasons, has added double digit transfers to their roster. The Irish are mostly homegrown and these teams are too, but everyone who is competing for a national title is open to additions to help them be better. (Well, everyone but Clemson)

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