Photo by Rick Kimball/ISD

Irish Check Boxes With Defensive Haul

December 19, 2018
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It seems like every year, Notre Dame is looking for defensive line recruits.

Well, this year, the Irish found them along with a host of other top defensive prospects to fill out the 2019 class.

Notre Dame is set to land a total of 12 defensive prospects on Wednesday, the first day high school student-athletes sign National Letters of Intent as a part of the second annual early signing period. 10 of the 12 are rated as four-star prospects.

No prospect who will sign on Wednesday jumped on board before Kentucky defensive tackle Jacob Lacey‍ (pictured above with LB pledge Osi Ekwonu), who went public with his commitment on July 29th, 2017. Lacey was identified as a national recruit quickly and he took advantage of the early offers and attention by making several unofficial visits as underclassman. Notre Dame was one school he kept coming back to and even with Clemson, Michigan, Michigan State, Tennessee and Louisville listed as finalists shortly before his announcement, the Irish seemed to be the likely favorites. He referred to Notre Dame as “the whole package” given its academic and athletic prowess.

Lacey was a good building block for the class as a whole, but especially for the defensive line, where it can be difficult for Notre Dame to find players of his ability. Lacey – and his family for that matter – made an effort to recruit other players, especially defensive linemen. Texas’ Hunter Spears‍ was the next to commit, doing so on Feb. 20th, 2018. Like Lacey, Spears had taken multiple trips to South Bend and the Irish appear to be the clear favorites before he selected them over several other schools.

Together, Lacey and Spears turned their attention to other defensive linemen and another Texan in particular. NaNa Osafo-Mensah‍ blew up as a national prospect during the offseason after his sophomore season at Nolan Catholic High School. Notre Dame offered him in May of 2017 and despite wanting to get to South Bend as soon as he could, he had to wait until the following January to do so. It was worth the wait. The defensive end loved everything about Notre Dame, including the people like Lacey and Spears he met. The Irish secured a great spot on his list and he returned to South Bend for an official in April. Things were going back and forth between the Irish and Texas down the stretch, but that last trip to Notre Dame essentially locked things up and he announced his commitment publicly a month later on May 19th.

In the time between Osafo-Mensah’s first visit and his announcement, the Irish offered and locked down another defensive end in Howard Cross III‍. The New Jersey native was offered by Notre Dame on April 3, he was in South Bend for the spring game on April 21st and by the time he departed the next day, he was committed to the Irish. Cross chose Notre Dame over offers from Rutgers, Boston College, Duke, Northwestern, Michigan, Tennessee, Virginia Tech and Maryland among others.

The Irish remain in pursuit of California defensive end Isaiah Foskey‍, who is not expected to sign during the early period. Notre Dame is considered the top contender for the De La Salle standout, who is also looking at Cal, Washington, Ohio State and Michigan.

KJ Wallace, Kyle Hamilton & JD Bertrand (left to right)

Atlanta’s KJ Wallace‍ got defensive back recruiting rolling for the Irish on Jan. 28th, just days after a visit to Notre Dame. Todd Lyght made a major impact on Wallace’s decision to choose Notre Dame over offers from schools like Auburn, Nebraska, Penn State, South Carolina, Stanford, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Virginia and Wisconsin. Academics was also a major factor in his choice.

The Irish saw their secondary haul go from one to three in a matter of days in April as safeties Litchfield Ajavon‍ and Kyle Hamilton‍ committed on April 21st and April 24th, respectively.

Notre Dame emerged as a contender for Ajavon as soon as it offered a little more than a year before he committed and won out over offers from schools like Clemson, Georgia, Oklahoma, Michigan, Michigan State, Tennessee and Virginia Tech among others.

Hamilton visited South Bend for a game as a junior and was “ecstatic” to land an offer from the Irish a few months later. After he returned to Notre Dame in March, it was clear the Irish were serious contenders to land him. About a month before his announcement, the Georgia native released a list of finalists that included the Irish along with Clemson, Georgia, Michigan, Ohio State, Northwestern and Duke.

Notre Dame made up ground – and made it up in a hurry – to secure its final defensive back of the cycle. California cornerback Isaiah Rutherford‍ had nothing but positive things to say about the Irish, but after making his top seven, they were noticeably absent from the top four he released early in the summer. But Lyght and Brian Polian jumped into action, quickly getting back in the race by securing an official visit for the opener against Michigan. After that trip, it was obvious Notre Dame was going to be in the mix until the end. On Oct. 13th, he announced his commitment to the Irish over Oklahoma, Oregon, LSU, Alabama and Cal, his father’s alma mater.

Jack Kiser

Linebacker was one of the few spots that didn’t include a pledge toward the end of spring, but that changed quickly with a pair of commitments within days of each other in mid-June.

Jack Kiser‍ went first. The in-state linebacker visited South Bend twice early in the fall of his junior year and while there was clearly serious mutual interest from that point forward, Notre Dame didn’t end up offering until the following May. Once that happened, the Irish zoomed to the top of his list and he announced his pledge over offers from schools like Iowa, Indiana and Purdue on June 12th.

Ositadinma Ekwonu‍ was next, committing two days later. The North Carolina prospect’s path to Notre Dame took a deliberate approach. He made it to South Bend for Irish Invasion the summer of his sophomore year and returned for a game in the fall. He received an offer from Notre Dame in the winter. He took an official visit to Notre Dame this past April and was in the commit column two months later. Academics was obviously huge for Ekwonu, who also took an official visit to Northwestern.

For months, there wasn’t a ton of action at the position until another mini-flurry in November.

First, it became clear how serious the Irish were about Hawaii linebacker Marist Liufau‍, when they brought him in for an official visit for the final regular season game against Florida State. It quickly became clear how serious he was about Notre Dame on the heels of that trip and less than a week later, he was part of the class as he announced his commitment over offers from Oregon, USC, Washington State, Arizona and Hawaii among others on Nov. 14th.

Kiser and Liufau are the only three-stars in the group, but both bring great potential.

Another recruitment turned a serious corner during that period as well. J.D. Bertrand‍ made two visits to South Bend in the weeks after his decommitment from Georgia. He also took trips to Florida and Wisconsin while several other programs showed immediate interest, but Bertrand seemed set on heading to Notre Dame. After both sides figured out how to make the numbers game work, Bertrand announced his commitment on Nov. 19th.  

And like defensive line, the Irish may not be finished. They continue to pursue California linebacker Asa Turner‍. At different points in the process, Notre Dame seemed like the leader for Turner, who took official visits to Notre Dame and Washington in June. USC was also included among his final three, but he committed to the Huskies in July. The Irish – sometimes quietly and sometimes not so quietly – have continued to pursue him strongly and heading into Signing Day, it looks like he could go either way.

Throughout the cycle, it was obvious Notre Dame was also looking for a specialist. Special teams coordinator Brian Polian evaluated several punters and quickly moved on Jay Bramblett‍ once he was finished. The Irish hosted the Alabama native for a visit the final weekend of May and then extended an offer a couple days later, an offer that Bramblett immediately accepted, announcing his commitment on May 30th.

The Irish’s defensive haul for 2019 features frontline players at all three levels of the unit and will undoubtedly provide depth as well.

 
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