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Irish pick up recruits on offense, defense, special teams in ever-growing 2021 class

| Friday, December 4, 2020

In last week’s edition of our recruiting feature, Irish Breakdown publisher Bryan Driskell spoke with The Observer about one of Notre Dame’s most recent commitments, three-star recruit Jojo Johnson of Merrillville, Indiana, as well as the decommitment of Texas defensive end David Abiara.

While those were the most recent tidbits of recruiting information, they outshone what was already a busy recruiting week. There were three other new commitments to the Irish and a recommitment of cornerback Philip Riley, who had flipped from the Irish to archrival USC but is now back in the fold of Notre Dame’s class of 2021. However, one member of their 23-man class, Hawai’i linebacker Kahanu Kia, may be a de facto member of the 2022 class.

“Kahanu is an interesting player because, number one is, from what I’m told, the plan is still for him to take a Mormon mission first before he enrolls at Notre Dame,” Driskell said. “Unless he changes his plan, he is not going to actually count towards the scholarship number in this class.”

The Irish appear to be set at linebacker for the next couple of years without Kia, but when he eventually does arrive in South Bend, Driskell foresees him finding his way onto the field.

“You’ll watch him line up at middle linebacker, you’ll watch him line up off the edge and pass rush, he can drop into coverage, he can play the run, he can rush off the edge,” Driskell said. “He’s a very versatile, balanced player. … To me, I look at him as, at worst, at Notre Dame, a Bo Bauer, special teams kind of guy. Just a guy that for two or three years is just going to be a great special teams player. At best, he’s a guy that I think could project and start as a middle linebacker for them.”

With Kia, Riley and Jojo Johnson representing Notre Dame’s defensive pickups in the last couple of weeks, they not only flipped Riley back from USC, but they managed to add another Johnson in the form of Caleb Johnson, a three-star offensive lineman who Notre Dame flipped from Auburn.

“Caleb Johnson was a big pick up,” Driskell said. “Number one, you get that fifth offensive lineman in the class, which, a year after only signing two, I thought was important. You got a guy that made really big strides as a player as a senior. … Getting a kid from Florida is always good, beating an SEC school is always good, you know, from a perception standpoint.”

Driskell also said it was important for the Irish to add a player like Johnson who projects as an offensive tackle, citing other personnel along the line in the class.

“[Four-star] Blake Fisher’s a tackle, but I think Blake Fisher could be an even better guard,” Driskell said. “[Four-star] Rocco Spindler is a guard, [three-star] Pat Coogan’s an interior player and [three-star] Joe Alt is a tackle, but Joe Alt’s a guy that is a 250-pound tight end right now. He’s going to need time to develop, so I really felt like they needed another tackle in this class, and Caleb Johnson gives them that.”

Rounding out the recruiting was a special teams pick up, and yet another flip, in the form of California kicker Josh Bryan. Notre Dame snagged Bryan, the seventh-ranked kicker in the 2021 class per 247Sports.com, from Colorado.

Bryan will have the benefit of sitting a year behind entrenched placekicker Jonathan Doerer — although perhaps taking over on Doerer’s kickoff duties for a year — as the Irish senior has expressed his intent to take advantage of the NCAA’s blanket waiver for the 2020 season and return as a graduate student next season.

“The thing I like about him is he reminds me a lot of Jay Bramblett in that he’s not just a kicker. He’s a football player,” Driskell said of Bryan.

Bramblett, a high school quarterback, showed his athleticism in the very first game of the 2020 season against Duke by tucking the ball and taking off for a first down on a fake punt. Driskell said Bryan, who also plays linebacker on his high school team, doesn’t project at that position at a high-level program, but he believes that versatility is an intangible factor in a recruit.

“[Bryan is] very athletic, has a very loose leg, very powerful leg, gets good height on the ball,” Driskell said. “Like all young kickers he’s going to have to get in the weight room and fill out and all that, but he’s got a really nice leg.”

Robert Willets | The Raleigh News and Observer
Irish senior kicker Jonathan Doerer, left, attempts a 32-yard field goal that misses wide right during Notre Dame’s 31-17 win over North Carolina on Nov. 27. Although Doerer would have exhausted his four years of eligibility this season, he has announced his intent to take advantage of the NCAA’s waiver for fall sport athletes this year, giving the Irish the option to redshirt 2021 kicker commit Josh Bryan or have him take over Doerer’s kickoff duties.

Discounting Kia, Notre Dame still has 22 players set to arrive in South Bend next year. That could lead to some attrition on the Irish roster in the form of transfers, and the issue is confounded by players like Doerer who intend to return for a year they otherwise wouldn’t have. However, Driskell says that, despite some lack of clarity, it appears returnees like Doerer won’t contribute to the scholarship total.

“Well, there’s still a lot of guidance that these schools need. But … my understanding is graduate-level players will not count towards the scholarship limit,” he said. “I think that helps. That helps — and I think I’m going to have to continue digging into this because the NCAA hasn’t been super clear on what that means — but that gives them a lot of leeway to have a bigger class next year.”

Even so, transfers are a part of collegiate football, and Driskell anticipates the Irish won’t be immune to that trend.

“I think when you recruit well — and although Notre Dame hasn’t recruited at an elite level, they’ve recruited well in recent years, and their veteran players have been beaten out by younger players,” he said. “You’re going to see some transfers in those situations.”

According to Driskell, Notre Dame’s upcoming Senior Day matchup with Syracuse doesn’t hold much sway in the recruiting arena. However, with the news that the Irish’s final regular-season game at Wake Forest has been canceled, the staff loses out on an opportunity to expand recruiting into the Tar Heel state.

“That [was] the kind of game that could be big for Notre Dame — not necessarily because of Wake Forest, but more so just another opportunity to play in the state of North Carolina, which is a state the staff definitely wants to start getting more and more prospects from,” Driskell said.

It will be interesting to see if the staff can counterbalance that loss with a Dec. 19 appearance in Charlotte, North Carolina, now that the cancellation against the Demon Deacons has guaranteed the Irish a berth in the ACC title game in their first — and possibly only — year as a football conference member.

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About Hayden Adams

Hayden is the former sports editor of The Observer. When he's not working toward his four majors (physics and film, television & theatre) and three minors (journalism, ethics & democracy), you can probably find him hopelessly trying to save his beloved Zahm House from being wiped out. He plans to attend law school at a TBD location after graduation.

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