Staff Predictions and Projections: 2021 Class
Observer Sports Staff | Friday, February 5, 2021
With Notre Dame bringing in 27 new football recruits, for their final Irish Insider, this season’s version of Observer football beat — sports editor Hayden Adams, senior sports writers Charlotte Edmonds and Ellen Geyer, associate sports editor Jimmy Ward and sports writer Aidan Thomas — shared their prognostications for how the Irish’s 2021 crop of players will pan out next season and beyond. Enjoy.
Best Position Group Haul
Hayden — Offensive Line
It’s easy to say the offensive line group here, and that’s why I’m doing it. You have the top-end talent of Blake Fisher and Rocco Spindler, plus guys like Joe Alt and Caleb Johnson who could grow into really good players.
With Fisher in the fold early, Notre Dame had hoped to sign five-star lineman Nolan Rucci, but with that falling through Spindler became a must-get. Credit to offensive line coach Jeff Quinn for sealing that deal, because Spindler has a chance to start at one of the guard spots as a freshman next season and both he and Fisher are potential All-Americans down the line.
Jimmy — Offensive Line
I will also opt in for the easy answer here. Notre Dame is continuing their steel wall to protect whatever veteran quarterback Brian Kelly wants to throw behind them. Fisher and Spindler were both huge in contributing to building this year’s recruiting class and that very well could be indicative of their careers that they will have with the Irish. I’m thrilled to see what O-line coach Jeff Quinn can make of these two potential stars. If they are able to push each other and learn and grow together, the things that they could go on to do for the program are really massive.
Charlotte — Wide Receiver
At the risk of sounding redundant to my fellow beat writers, this year’s recruiting class belongs to the receiving corps, but it’s far deeper than the three four-star wide receivers. Additionally, the Irish secured commitments from two big tight ends who could be the next to inherit the responsibilities of Tight End U. Under offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, fans have every reason to believe the Irish will only continue to invest in the pass game, regardless of who is behind the snap. While they certainly have big shoes to fill, these commits look set to be a good fit for the Irish offense.
Ellen — Wide Receiver
Notre Dame has managed to bring in three consensus four-star wideouts in the class of 2024. Because Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree remain while Ben Skrownek and Javon McKinley depart, bringing in operational air threats during the off season was critical. Having such raw talent in the incoming wide receiver class will certainly be helpful to that end.
Though Lorenzo Styles, Deion Colzie and Jayden Thomas may not see the field right away in their debut seasons, having their talent in the position room will help Tommy Rees greatly in his reconstruction of the Notre Dame pass offense come 2021. The Irish needed guys who could help air the ball out — their success in recruiting receivers this cycle will work greatly to their benefit in the coming season.
Aidan — Wide Receiver
While O-Line is certainly an easy pick here, given that’s where Notre Dame landed their top two recruits, I’m going with the receivers that the Irish nabbed with their recruiting efforts. I believe this was a pivotal room to address for the Irish and they were successful in adding several quality pass-catchers to a Notre Dame corps losing its top two receivers.
Deion Colzie and Lorenzo Styles highlight this group, both as four-star recruits that grade as Notre Dame’s fourth and fifth-best recruits of this 2021 class per 247Sports Composite. Throw in another four-star in Jayden Thomas and the Irish have three fantastic players coming into their wide receiver room.
Notre Dame desperately needed a good WR haul given their struggles at the position in 2020, their lost production and the fact that they hardly played their supposedly star freshmen Jordan Johnson and Xavier Watts last season, which could lead to a negative recruiting impact at the position within a year or two.
Biggest Position Group Miss
Hayden — Running Back
Notre Dame made the best of a bad situation after Will Shipley — 2021’s No. 1 all-purpose back — committed to Clemson, but they had already made the mistake of putting all their eggs in that basket. That left them out to dry with top-100 Michigan back Donovan Edwards, who will now be joining the local Wolverines. Flipping Audric Estime from Michigan State was huge, and Logan Diggs is a good player, but the Irish could and probably should have done better at this position.
Charlotte — Defensive Line
Brand new Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman will have his job cut out for him with a thin defensive lineup. With two starting graduate student defensive ends and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah leaving for the NFL Draft and a number of key players entering the transfer portal, the defense is going to need a major rebranding and the defensive line class of 2024 did nothing to help with that.
Thus far, Notre Dame only has one defensive tackle commit — four-star tackle Gabriel Rubio from Saint Peters, Missouri — with three three-stars — Will Schweitzer, jason Onye and Devin Aupiu — who project as defensive ends. While the high number of transfers likely couldn’t have been predicted, this could be a big problem for the Irish down the road.
Ellen — Safety
Notre Dame signed just one pure safety in the class of 2024, three-star Jusin Walters. Having picked up four cornerbacks, they’ll likely have to shuffle some of their new guys around to make this class effective in the secondary. Since the Irish pass defense got absolutely torched in the postseason, it would have been nice to bring in more raw talent with this class. Add in the departure of Shaun Crawford and it’s clear that Notre Dame came up short with this class in a position where they could not afford to.
Aidan — Secondary
It’s no secret that the secondary was the weak spot for an otherwise stingy Notre Dame defense, and this class just doesn’t seem to do much to address it. Philip Riley is a solid four-star cornerback, but he’s the only four or five-star player the Irish landed in the secondary.
When it was all said and done, Notre Dame landed three corners and two safeties, with Riley being the highest ranked player of them all as the 25th-best corner in the country per 247Sports Composite, and three-star safety Khari Gee leading that position as the 28th-ranked player. No disrespect to those players, but given Notre Dame’s struggles in at defensive back, it would have been nice to see the Irish get aggressive and go after an elite playmaker for this position group.
Instant Impact Freshman — Offense/Special Teams
Hayden — WR Lorenzo Styles Jr.
I don’t think many true freshmen will see significant minutes at any offensive skill position in 2021. But much as Chris Tyree was the No. 1 kickoff returner from the opener, I anticipate Styles filling the punt return role once occupied by Chris “Fair Catch” Finke.
Along with the fact that Styles posted three punt return touchdowns and a kickoff return score as a senior, his competition is preferred walk-on Matt Salerno and Lawrence Keys III who, even after three years in the program, is just 173 pounds. Styles could inject some desperately needed life into an area that has given Notre Dame diddly squat in production the last several years.
Jimmy — OT Blake Fisher
Fisher checks all the boxes necessary for a first year starter on an already esteemed offensive line. He is big at 6-foot-6 and 330 pounds, and he has all the talent and skill sets necessary to compete for a spot on Notre Dame’s line. I think he will thrive under Jeff Quinn and will definitely see some significant time on the field this upcoming season. Being able to work alongside classmates like Rocco Spindler will make the tackle even that much scarier as he continues to grow and progress.
Charlotte — WR Deion Colzie
Continuing the Georgia recruiting pipeline, Colzie is a four-star taken straight out of the Bulldog’s backyard. In his final two seasons at Athens Academy, Colzie combined for 1,438 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns. He also demonstrated his athletic versatility, intercepting four passes and returning two of them for scores. While the receiving corps has some pieces returning, outside of Michael Mayer, no one has distinguished themselves as a primary pass-catching target. Add in a new quarterback and Colzie could have himself a nice debut season.
Ellen — OG Rocco Spindler
The four-star offensive guard is ranked third at his position and 59th nationally per 247Sports Compiosite, one of the most physically impressive recruits brought in as a part of this class. Since Tommy Kraemer and Aaron Banks will not be returning, Notre Dame will have fresh faces at both the right and left guard positions. Fifth-year Dillan Gibbons will likely be on one side, but the other will be up for grabs, and Spindler could fit the bill. Though the Irish return other skilled guards, Spindler’s skill and size could help him make a legitimate case for himself in spring ball, and he could work his way into the starting lineup as a true freshman.
Aidan — K Joshua Bryan
With the Kyren Williams/Chris Tyree tandem returning in the backfield, grad transfer Jack Coan likely to be the starter out of the gate at quarterback, and Brian Kelly’s seeming disinterest in playing freshman wide receivers, it was hard to pick a player for this. Bryan seems like an intriguing choice, as the former Colorado commit flipped to Notre Dame late in the fall, and he’s gotten rave reviews from coaches and evaluators.
Ranked as the 6th-best kicker in the class, Bryan has 60+ yard range in addition to D1-ready kickoffs that travel far with great hang time. Jonathan Doerer plans to return to the Irish, but he was also just 4-9 on field goal attempts after the first Clemson game this season. While perfect on PATs, Doerer missed a 24-yarder in the ACC Championship and came up well short on an attempted 51-yarder in the Rose Bowl against Alabama.
While Doerer may retain many of the kicking duties, it’s entirely possible that Bryan’s big leg could be used for longer kicks, and potentially more than that if Doerer’s inconsistencies persist.
Instant Impact Freshman — Defense
Hayden — DT Gabriel Rubio
With talks that Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa might shift to defensive end and with new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman coming in and possibly changing the scheme a bit, I think an already-developed guy like Rubio (6-foot-5, over 300 pounds) could contribute immediately. That’s especially considering he’ll be playing under position coach Mike Elston, who has shown a propensity for having a deep rotation and getting reps for freshmen every year.
Charlotte — DT Gabriel Rubio
As mentioned previously, this is a position that the Irish are in desperate need of filling. Enter Gabriel Rubio. The 6-foot-5 product out of Missouri chose the Irish over most of the SEC and Big 12 and has all the makings to be a difference maker from the start. An early enrollee, Rubio likely will be charged with learning the defensive scheme quickly and could have a big opportunity early in his career.
Ellen — CB Philip Riley
Notre Dame desperately needs skill at the cornerback position, something Brian Kelly seemed to be aware of, seeing as he added four guys to that position room with this class. Riley is the most skilled of the bunch, and it’s likely he’ll make a decent amount of noise during his freshman campaign. Clarence Lewis was fairly solid in the secondary as a true freshman last season after he replaced a struggling TaRiq Bracy, but both of those Irish returneers could fall by the wayside with the addition of Riley to the roster. The pure skill this true freshman brings will likely earn him a respectable amount of playing time during his Irish debut.
Aidan — CB Phillip Riley
Riley is easily the top recruit at this position for Notre Dame, and he enters with a decent chance at getting significant playing time as a freshman. Graduate transfer Nick McCloud somewhat surprisingly entered the draft even though he could return with the NCAA’s blanket waiver, leaving true freshman Clarence Lewis and junior TaRiq Bracy as the top options. Bracy looked inconsistent at times and horrific at others this season, eventually getting replaced in the starting lineup by Lewis. Riley is an athletic and rangy corner, and he may have a chance to gain a starting spot, or at least a significant role off the bench in his freshman year.
Hayden — TE Mitchell Evans
What better position to pick a sleeper at Tight End U than tight end? Evans isn’t the highest rated prospect as a three-star, but at 6-foot-7 and 240 pounds in high school, I love what he presents physically. I could even see him playing a role like rising senior George Tackas did last season where the staff throws Evans out in 14 personnel on the goal line. Give him time to develop and I think he’ll be a situational matchup nightmare.
Plus, if you’ve watched his “Gold Rush” recruitment video from the football media department, you’ll see he has two pet cats and a love of Raising Cane’s, which earns him brownie points from me.
Charlotte — S Khari Gee
Gee — an Atlanta, Ga., product of Woodward Academy, which currently boasts four active NFL players — may not be the flashiest secondary commitment, but he has the potential to be a real difference maker for the Irish. Never one to overwhelm you with his stats, he’s disciplined and has the size for a smooth transition into the collegiate level. His senior season he recorded 37 tackles and two interceptions en route to a second-round playoff appearance.
Ellen — WR Deion Colzie
Skilled offensive position players don’t tend to see the field much during their debut seasons at Notre Dame, as evidenced by the fact that Jordan Johnson didn’t play a single meaningful snap during his freshman campaign. That being said, Colzie is a dynamic boundary receiver who can win jump balls, a style of wideout that Brian Kelly has tended to favor in the last few years — think Myles Boykin and Chase Claypool. Given that there’s depth at wide receiver, Colzie will likely develop quietly for a few seasons before emerging as a real threat on the outside for the Irish.
Aidan — RB Audric Estime
Estime is a four-star, so to call him a ‘sleeper’ may be exaggerating. But I do feel like there’s not enough buzz around the recruit that the Irish flipped from Michigan State. He’s a fantastic replacement for Will Shipley, who chose Clemson over Notre Dame, and Estime gave the Irish a somewhat unexpected boost at the position after they were all in on Shipley’s recruitment. Landing a four-star, given their prospects in early summer, should be seen as an absolute win, and Estime, while he may not be an instant impact player, could see big playing time as soon as his sophomore year should Kyren Williams depart early for the NFL.
Boom or Bust…
Hayden — QB Tyler Buchner
I hate to say it with a borderline five-star player at such an important position, but there’s a lot to worry about here. Buchner unveiled a new (worse) throwing motion at the Elite 11 camp this Fall, and we’ve seen how changing a throwing motion can foreshadow trouble for Irish quarterbacks (Phil Jurkovec being one). Plus, Buchner only played one full season of high school football before enrolling early this spring.
Combine that with a staff known for quarterbacks who regress and/or never meet their full potential, and I worry that Buchner won’t live up to the hype when Notre Dame’s championship hopes largely depend on him doing so.
Charlotte — QB Tyler Buchner
This feels unfair to Buchner but it’s a fact. The La Jolla product has come in with the amount of hype that hasn’t been seen since the days of Jimmy Clausen. He also enters the program at a time when there’s seemingly a gap at the quarterback position — with neither current underclassmen having built a compelling case — and he’s seemingly expected to fill it.
Buchner’s got all the makings of a more athletic Ian Book but without the advantage of anonymity that propelled Book throughout his career. For Buchner, this could come down to resiliency. His unreal stats are only offset by the lackluster level of competition he’s played against through his high school experience. Is he willing to endure the inevitable disappointment and adversity that comes with seemingly unattainable expectations?
Ellen — QB Tyler Buchner
The Notre Dame quarterback room is confusing. Bringing in grad transfer Jack Coan makes sense given how much Brian Kelly values experience, but it leaves a lot of skilled young players on the cutting room floor, Buchner among them. We know that Kelly loves a good quarterback controversy, so he’ll likely pick a guy or two to give Coan some pressure to perform — the only question is who that will be.
It could be Brendon Clark, but his struggles with injury raise a lot of questions about his viability in the future. It could be Drew Pyne, who received no small amount of praise for his football IQ as a freshman, playing a style similar to that of Ian Book. Or, it could be Buchner, lauded by many as Notre Dame’s best recruit in the class of 2024.
Buchner’s viability depends on his patience. Will he be willing to compete in a room so deep and experienced? Or will he transfer after a year or two on the bench, frustrated by Kelly’s approach? This spring and fall will prove very informative in determining Notre Dame’s strategy in replacing Book.
Aidan — DE Jason Onye
This was a recruit I’ve been quietly excited about, as I believe that Onye flashes a far greater ceiling than his three-star ranking would indicate. The No. 1 player from Rhode Island, Onye is 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, and he could turn into a dynamic rusher off the edge. He’s a monster physically and reminds me a bit of Isaiah Foskey.
I feel that Onye could turn into an absolute weapon for the Irish defensive line. That being said, he is a three-star prospect from Rhode Island, which isn’t exactly a hotbed of collegiate football talent. Onye received little in the way of attention from programs like Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State, as the Irish beat out schools like Michigan, Penn State and West Virginia for his services.
He could turn into a depth chart player, filling up a roster spot but rarely seeing meaningful minutes. However, Onye has me more excited than most three-star defensive ends would.